Beyond the Cup – Part 1: The History of Coffee

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From its wild origins in Ethiopia to its widespread cultivation across the globe, coffee has become a beloved beverage that unites people from all walks of life. So grab a cup of your favorite brew, and join us as we delve into the fascinating tale of coffee’s humble beginnings.

The History of Coffee

Coffee’s Discovery & Journey to Arabia

The coffee plant first grew in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa, where it still grows freely today. However, in a country called Yemen (which used to be called Arabia), coffee started to spread and was grown intentionally. Yemen was a bustling place back then, and its main port, the Port of Mocha (also spelled Mokha or Moka), was the center of activity for coffee.

The Yemeni Port Of Moka, 500 Ad
The Yemeni port of Mokha, 500 AD

Sufi saints in 15th-century Yemen introduced coffee as a hot beverage to the world. They called it “qahwa” and drank it to stay awake during their nighttime meditation and recitation rituals (Ralph Hattox, 1985). This practice spread thanks to Sufi saints and merchants to different empires like the Islamic Turkish Ottoman, Iranian Safavid, and South Asia Mughal empires1.

By the year 1414, people in the cities of Mecca and Medina knew about coffee. In the early 1500s, it started to become popular in the Mameluke Sultanate of Egypt and North Africa, thanks to shipments from a port in Yemen called Mokha2. Even though the Yemeni traders tried to keep coffee a secret, it was too good to stay hidden.

How Coffee Got to India

Coffee’s journey from Arabia appears to mirror the path it likely took to reach there. Stories suggest that as early as 1505, Arabs introduced coffee to Sri Lanka. However, credit for spreading coffee to the East is often attributed to Baba Budan3, a man who reportedly smuggled seven coffee beans from Yemen and planted them in the hills of Chikmagalur, India. This act kickstarted coffee cultivation in that region.

Coffee’s Journey to Europe

Coffee first arrived in Europe when the Turks brought it to Hungary in 1526 during the Battle of Mohรกcs. From there, it quickly spread to Vienna, Austria. Later in the 16th century, coffee was cultivated on the island of Malta by Turkish slaves & prisoners.

First European Mention Of Coffee
Charles de l’Ecluse’s Aromatum et simplicium aliquot medica-mentorum apud Indos nascientum historia

The first European text (see the actual text here) to mention coffee was written by Charles de l’Ecluse4 in 1575 after he learned about it from Alphoncius Pansius in Padua, Italy. Meanwhile, traders from Venice, a city known for its extensive trade with North Africa, Egypt, and the East, started selling coffee to the local One-Percenters. This is how coffee became popular in mainland Europe.

In the 1600s, European traders started to bring coffee to their colonies. The Dutch, known for their skill at sea, were the first to set up coffee plantations in Ceylon, which is now Sri Lanka, by 1658. This success inspired other European countries like Germany, France, and Italy to start their own coffee production.

European Coffee Plantation Starts

In the year 1696, Nicolaas Witson (also spelled Nicolaes Witsen or Nicolaas Witsen), the Burgermaster of Amsterdam5, proposed an ambitious plan. He suggested taking coffee from Malabar, a Dutch colony, to Java, another Dutch colony. This bold initiative led to establishment of the first European coffee plantation, which was a swift success. The profitability of this venture sparked a wave of interest in coffee cultivation among European nations.

Coffee in France: A Royal Gift

Coffee’s journey to France is reported in the book The Coffee Companion: The Connoisseur’s Guide To The World’s Best Brews by author Jon Thorn, wherein author Jon Thorn describes what happened in vivid detail.

“In 1714, a 5-foot-tall coffee tree was gifted by the Mayor of Amsterdam to King Louis XIV of France, igniting a passion for coffee in the royal court6. Among the many tales surrounding coffee, the story of Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu, a French naval officer, stands out. De Clieu acquired some coffee plants during a visit to Paris and resolved to transport them to Martinique, a French colony in the Caribbean. This daring act marked the beginning of coffee cultivation in the Americas.”

Unknown Artist History Of The Cafe Captain Gabriel De Clieu
Unknown Artist | Captain Gabriel de Clieu keeps a coffee plant alive | Source

Coffee’s Global Expansion

Coffee’s journey continued its expansion across the globe. It arrived in South America’s coffee hub, Surinam, in 1718. By 1727 it was cultivated in Para, Brazil. The British settlers played a significant role in introducing coffee to Jamaica in 1730, giving rise to the famed Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee ($45 Amazon).

As the 18th century drew to a close, coffee made its way to Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Mexico. In 1825, it reached the Hawaiian Islands, which remain the only region in the United States where coffee is grown today.

Coffee Returns to Africa

The late 19th and early 20th centuries witnessed coffee’s return to Africa, the land of its origin. British East Africa, known today as Kenya, became a hub for coffee cultivation.
Vietnam also emerged as a significant coffee producer during this period. Additionally, coffee reached Queensland, Australia, marking yet another milestone in its global conquest. This extensive journey brought coffee full circle back to the land where it all began.

Vietnamese Coffee
Vietnamese Coffee by Course Coffee Roasters in St. Louis

Coffee’s Global Popularity

Coffee, once a secret held closely by the Arabs, has now become a globally dominant beverage. Starting from its humble origins in Ethiopia, coffee has transformed into a cherished crop cultivated worldwide. Its path has intertwined with human civilization, leaving a lasting impact on cultures and societies everywhere. Even today, coffee is an essential part of our lives, connecting us through its insanely good aroma and flavor.


FAQs

When and where did coffee originate?

Coffee originated in the wilds of Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa.

How did coffee spread from Arabia to India?

Arabs brought coffee to Sri Lanka as early as 1505, but the credit for spreading coffee to the East is often given to Baba Budan, who planted coffee beans in the hills of Chikmagalur, India.

Who introduced coffee to Europe?

European traders, particularly the Dutch, were the first to introduce coffee to Europe and establish coffee plantations in their colonies.

What is the significance of the Dutch in coffee cultivation?

The Dutch played a pivotal role in coffee cultivation, successfully establishing plantations in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Java, which led to other European nations’ rapid expansion of coffee cultivation.

How did coffee find its way to the Americas?

Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu brought coffee to the Americas, a French naval officer who transported coffee plants from Paris to Martinique, a French colony in the Caribbean.

Where is coffee grown today?

Coffee is grown globally in various regions, with notable cultivation in Brazil, Colombia, Ethiopia, Vietnam, and Kenya.

Conclusion

The amazing journey of coffee, from its simple beginnings in Ethiopia to its worldwide popularity, shows why people love this drink so much. Throughout the centuries, coffee has traveled all over the globe, leaving behind a fascinating history.

It started in the wilds of Ethiopia, then became popular in Arabia, and eventually spread to Europe, the Americas, and beyond. This journey shaped the coffee industry we have today. Coffee’s story involves exploration, trade, and the sharing of cultures, bringing people together with its delightful smell and energizing flavor.

So, the next time you enjoy a cup of coffee (with or without whiskey, 70s Dads), take a moment to think about its incredible journey and how it connects people from all around the world.

Coffee Bean Recommendations

If you’re looking for coffee bean recommendations, here are 3 of my favorite coffee roasters. My personal favorite is Volcanica.

References

  1. https://www.folger.edu/blogs/shakespeare-and-beyond/islamic-history-of-coffee/
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_coffee
  3. Baba Budan. (2023, May 12). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baba_Budan
  4. Wikipedia contributors. (2023, May 20). History of coffee. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 19:43, June 15, 2023, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=History_of_coffee&oldid=1156047617
  5. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Nicolaes_Witsen&oldid=1144591457
  6. https://www.ncausa.org/About-Coffee/History-of-Coffee#:~:text=In%201714%2C%20the%20Mayor%20of,seedling%20from%20the%20King’s%20plant.
Avatar Of Kelsey Todd
Kelsey brings over 20 years of hands-on experience in the coffee industry, having honed his craft as a professional barista in both Seattle and Santa Barbara. He is an accredited member of The Coffee Association of America and holds an active membership in The Baristas Guild. Beyond his practical experience, Kelsey is deeply committed to the academic study of coffee history and its cultural impact. Outside of his professional pursuits, he enjoys quality time with his family and shares his extensive knowledge of coffee through insightful articles on this blog.

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