The History of Coffee: A Simple Guide

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Coffee has been a part of everyday life for many cultures and countries for hundreds of years. Many people associate certain aspects of their culture and history with this popular drink.

Originating in Ethiopia, coffee has come a long way since its discovery. In fact, it’s the second most popular beverage in the world, beaten only by tea.

The drink is consumed daily by an estimated 80 million people around the globe.

The extraction of caffeine and other substances from coffee beans led to its popularity as a stimulant across the globe.

However, the exact history of how this came to remains mysterious. The story of coffee is an interesting one and features some great tales.

Ready to learn more about all of our favourite brew?

The Discovery of Coffee

According to legend, coffee was discovered by an Ethiopian goat herder named Kaldi.

In the story, Kaldi discovered the energizing effects of coffee after he noticed that his goats became particularly active, and would not sleep, after eating the berries of a certain tree.

Kaldi, after discovering the energizing properties of coffee, went to his local monastery and shared his discovery with the abbot.

The abbot made a drink with the coffee berries, and he also experienced the feeling of alertness. He then shared it with other monks, and the story began to spread.

Coffee Exported to Yemen

The official history of coffee goes back more than 400 years, to the late 15th century, when coffee beans were first exported by Somali merchants from Ethiopia, most likely probably from the Kaffa province, to Yemen.

Very soon after that, coffee was being grown in the Yemeni district of Arabia.

The port of Mocha, or al-Mukha, was the hub of Yemen’s coffee trade during this time.

It was from here that coffee imported to Yemen was shipped to other countries and sold as “Mocha” coffee. This is where the name “Mocha” comes from for the coffee and chocolate drink and why the word is common amongst coffee drinks and products.

Coffee Popularity Grows in Arabia

After making it to Yemen, coffee then spread to Persia, Egypt, Syria, and Turkey.

It wasn’t just enjoyed as a drink but started to form an important part of the culture. Coffee houses were established and became a frequented venue for conversation and music.

The beverage then spread to the rest of the Middle East, South India, and northern Africa.

Interestingly, coffee was declared as haram, or forbidden, under Islam sometime in the early 1500s. It was frequently linked with the consumption of alcohol due to its stimulation effects.

Even though an attempt was made to ban coffee, the drink remained popular and the prohibition failed because it had little effect on people compared with the effects of alcohol.

Coffee Spreads to Europe

Coffee was introduced in European countries throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. It was often banned for various religious, political, and medical reasons.

As consumption in Europe grew, it continued to be supplied almost entirely from Yemen.

Similar to how coffee culture grew in Arabia, coffee houses became popular venues in which to hold lively discussions.

Coffeehouses known as penny universities sprang up in London, where a cup of coffee cost a penny and stimulating conversation and debate was the order of the day.

In the 17th century, coffee developed a reputation as a healthier alternative to beer and wine in the morning, and it became common for people to drink coffee instead of alcohol. They noticed that they felt more alert after drinking coffee, and, as a result, their work quality improved.

In the Enlightenment era, religious and political discussions among the populace became common at coffee houses. So much so, that Charles II tried to shut them down in 1675 but failed.

Coffee and Asia

Legend has it that not a single coffee plant existed outside of Arabia or Africa before the 1600s.

However, an Indian pilgrim named Baba Budan is thought to have smuggled some fertile coffee seeds or coffee plants out of Mecca and back to India after a pilgrimage.

In 1616, the Dutch started growing coffee in Sri Lanka and in 1696, they founded a coffee growing estate in Java, Indonesia.

Modest coffee production continues in India to this day, centred around the hilly areas in the south.

Central and South America

In 1720, French naval officer Gabriel de Clieu brought coffee seedlings to Martinique in the Caribbean.

Coffee thrived in the perfect growing conditions of the Caribbean and only fifty years later, there were many thousands of coffee trees on the island.

From here, coffee cultivation spread to Mexico and elsewhere in the Caribbean.

Brazil’s rise to Dominanace

Coffee is thought to have been brought to Brazil in 1727, when a sergeant named Francisco de Melo Palheta planted the first coffee tree in Paraná after securing some coffee seeds from the governor’s wife in French Guiana.

It soon developed an export trade to Europe, although it wasn’t until the 1800s that production in Brazil really started to grow.

Thanks to good climate conditions, Brazilian coffee farming began to grow rapidly in the early nineteenth century and by 1830 Brazil was producing approximately 30% of the world’s total coffee.

Brazil was the world’s largest producer of coffee, but its plantations were manned mostly by slaves. After slavery was abolished in 1888, the industry suffered a major setback.

After the entrance into the International Coffee Agreement (ICA) in 1962, quotas and prices were established for the world’s dominant coffee producers which adversely affected Brazil.

After the International Coffee Agreement’s quotas were dropped, Brazil once again become one of the biggest producers in the world.

The Western Hemisphere—particularly Brazil—became the main global producer of coffee by the 20th century.

Brazil now has 14 coffee growing regions and an estimated 300,000 coffee farms.

The Global Rise of Coffee

As it spread throughout the new world, to every corner of the earth, coffee changed along with the rest of the world.

At the end of the 19th century, machines were invented to roast and grind coffee beans, and vacuum-sealed containers were developed to preserve ground coffee for long periods of time.

Today, industrial operations dominate every step of the production process, from harvesting green coffee beans, to roasting, packaging, and brewing.

Over the past decade or so things have began to shift again, with the rise of third wave, or specialty coffee.

Third wave coffee is a movement dedicated to the highest quality of coffee-drinking experience. The beans are sourced from individual farms, and they are roasted more lightly to bring out their distinct aromas and flavours.

Arabica has been the coffee bean variety of choice for this recent wave, thanks to its bright, fruity flavours.

The specialty coffee trend has come with the rise in popularity of single-origin coffees. As opposed to a blend of coffee beans from a variety of sources, single origin beans come from one location, and often one single farmer.

Similarly, traceability is also becoming more important in the coffee world, with roasters and consumers placing more importance on being able to see the supply chain of their coffee and ensuring everyone is treated fairly and is not exploited.

Genetics of Coffee

Studies of genetic diversity have been performed on varieties of coffee, which was found to be of low diversity with a likely source in Africa; however, no direct evidence has ever been found indicating where in Africa coffee grew.

What’s in a name?

The word “coffee” has roots in several languages, having been first coined in ancient Yemen as qahwah and meaning “wine”. This was later turned into kahveh in Turkey, then koffie in Dutch and finally coffee in English.