Coffee is one of the most popular beverages in the world, enjoyed by millions of people every day. From cosy cafes to busy offices, coffee has become a staple of modern life. But where did this beloved drink come from, and how did it become so ubiquitous? In this article, we’ll explore the rich and fascinating history of coffee, from its early origins in Ethiopia to its modern-day status as a global commodity.
Early History of Coffee
The story of coffee begins in Ethiopia, where the plant first grew wild in the highlands of the region. According to legend, a goat herder named Kaldi noticed that his goats became very energetic and restless after eating the berries of a certain plant. Curious, he tasted the berries himself and discovered that they had a stimulating effect on him as well. The plant was later identified as Coffea arabica, the species of coffee plant still widely used today.
From Ethiopia, the consumption of coffee spread across the Arabian Peninsula, where it was first cultivated in Yemen. The popularity of coffee soon grew among the Islamic world, with coffeehouses becoming important social and intellectual centers. In fact, the first coffeehouses were established in Mecca and quickly became popular gathering places for scholars and poets. From there, coffee spread throughout the Middle East, eventually reaching Europe in the early 17th century.
Coffee in Europe
The introduction of coffee to Europe had a profound impact on the continent. Initially, coffee was a luxury item only available to the wealthy and elite. However, as the beverage grew in popularity, coffeehouses began to spring up in major European cities, becoming important centers of social and political activity. In fact, coffeehouses were often referred to as “penny universities” because for the price of a cup of coffee, anyone could engage in intellectual discussions and debates.
Coffee also played a significant role in the Age of Enlightenment, with coffeehouses serving as meeting places for intellectuals and artists. The famous coffeehouses of Vienna, for example, were frequented by the likes of Mozart, Beethoven, and Freud. In England, coffeehouses became associated with the rise of the newspaper industry, with many journalists and writers gathering to discuss the news of the day over a cup of coffee.
The establishment of coffeehouses in Europe also coincided with the rise of colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade. Coffee plantations were established in colonies such as Brazil and Haiti, and the production of coffee relied heavily on enslaved labor. The global coffee trade played a significant role in the economic development of Europe and the Americas, but it came at a great cost to the people who were exploited and oppressed in the process.
Coffee in the Americas
Coffee arrived in the Americas in the late 17th century, first in the Dutch colony of Suriname and later in the French colony of Martinique. By the early 18th century, coffee plantations were established in several colonies in Central and South America, including Brazil, Colombia, and Guatemala. The coffee industry played a significant role in the economic development of these countries, with coffee becoming their main export crop.
The growth of coffee plantations in the Americas also had significant social and political implications. In many countries, the coffee industry was controlled by a small elite, leading to vast wealth inequalities and social unrest. The coffee industry also played a role in shaping the political history of Latin America, with coffee barons often wielding significant political power.
Coffee in the Modern World
In the modern era, coffee production and consumption have undergone significant changes. The industrialization of coffee production has led to mass consumption of low-quality coffee, but it has also made coffee more affordable and accessible to people around the world. However, in recent years, there has been a
growing interest in specialty coffee, which focuses on high-quality, sustainable, and ethically sourced coffee.
Today, coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world, after oil. The global coffee industry is worth billions of dollars, and coffee is a vital part of the economy in many countries. However, the industry still faces significant challenges, including climate change, price fluctuations, and labor issues.
The history of coffee is a complex and fascinating story, spanning centuries and continents. From its early origins in Ethiopia to its modern-day status as a global commodity, coffee has played a significant role in the social, economic, and political development of many countries. While the coffee industry faces many challenges, the love of coffee continues to bring people together around the world, making it a truly universal beverage.
Did you realise?
- It’s thanks to Islam that we have coffee: Muslims in mediaeval times were allowed coffee as a substitute for alcohol
- Coffee originated in Yemen, Ethiopia and the Arabian peninsula
- The first coffee shop? Some say Constantinople in 1475; others say Damascus around 1520
- England’s first coffee house? 1650 in Oxford; 1652 in London
- Coffee shops were, according to www.realcoffee.co.uk , “crowded, smelly, noisy, feisty, smoky”, and frequented mostly by men
- A satirical ‘petition’ in 1674 calls for coffee only to be served to the over 60s and complains that coffee houses take men away from their domestic duties: “We can Attribute to nothing more than the Excessive use of that Newfangled, Abominable, Heathenish Liquor called COFFEE, which… has so Eunucht our Husbands, and Cripple our more kind Gallants…” (This is supposedly a “Women’s petition”, but there is no evidence of who really wrote it…)
- In 1732, Johann Sebastian Bach wrote a cantata dedicated to coffee. Two soprano arias show the importance of coffee in 18th century Europe
- 1822: The first espresso machine was made in France
- 1933: Illy made the first automatic espresso machine
- 1946: Gaggia developed the high-pressure steam espresso system
- 1949: Bar Italia opened in Soho, central London – and is still there today, still using the Gaggia machine
- It takes 42 coffee beans to make an espresso
- The word ‘cappuccino’ describes the foam on top of the coffee which is supposed to resemble a capuchin monk’s habit
- It’s OK to ask for a ‘latte’ in English-speaking countries, but beware in Italy, where your ‘latte’ order will bring you a glass of milk! Best order a ‘latte machiato’ if that’s what you want…
- A third of the world drinks coffee today.