Coffee’s flavorful history

Coffee is one of the most famous drinks in the whole world. This wonderful drink, whether you like it or not, has become so widespread that virtually every human being on the planet has either tasted it, smelled it or at least knows what it is. The question is, where does coffee come from? How did it become what it is today? How did it manage to be all over the world? Well, let’s go through each one of these questions.

Legend has it that in c850, an Ethiopian goat herder by the name of Kaldi was once looking for his missing goats. They had failed to return to the barn for the night, so he got really worried. He went on a search in the mountains and when he finally found them, he saw an out of the ordinary scene: all of his goats were in a small meadow performing some sort of dance. They were butting each other joyfully. Kaldi was extremely surprised by the scene.

That is when he saw some of the goats nibbling on what seemed to be small bright cherries from a tree. Curious enough, he decided to taste one of those cherries himself. To his surprise, he noticed an odd feeling going through his body and suddenly felt full of energy. He then couldn’t help joining his goats in their dance.

While Kaldi was dancing, a monk passing by watched the scene and approached the happy shepherd who mentioned to him what had occurred. That monk was to find the recipe for preparing the beans inside the cherries by boiling them and then serve the resulting drink to his fellow monks so that they would be able to stay awake and with energy during the long night vigils of prayers.

Of course, that is just the legend. Some people may believe it and some may not. Either way, what some say the true story really is state that evidence indicates that the origin of coffee is Ethiopia, where wild coffee plants keep growing until this day. This means that Ethiopia is the oldest coffee exporter in the world. However, somehow by the 15th century, coffee was being cultivated on the Arabian Peninsula and it was there where it begun its career to fame.

Allegedly, the first coffee house was opened in 1471 in Istanbul, Turkey, and it was called Kiva. For many centuries, Arabia was the world’s primary source of coffee with a very high demand, especially from Europe. The Arabs were so very protective of their plants that if a European was seen in Arabia with a coffee plant, that constituted a crime punishable by death.

Even though the seeds and plants were so highly guarded and no fertile plants were allowed to leave the country, Muslim pilgrims from around the world managed to smuggle coffee plants back to their homelands when they went for their pilgrimages to Mecca. A shrewd pilgrim from India, called Baba Budan, smuggled some coffee beans back to his country and this is how coffee ended up growing in India as well.

The Dutch were quick to acquire either trees or live seeds in 1616 when they allied with the natives of Kerala, India, against the Portuguese. When the Dutch associated with the Indians they gained access to coffee beans. Since the cold weather in Europe was not proper for growing coffee plants, after having acquired the seeds the Dutch established plantations in their colonies in Southeast Asia in Ceylon, (now Sri Lanka), Java, (now part of Indonesia), Sumatra, Timor and Bali.

Moreover, in 1706, they took the chance and transported a young tree from Java to Amsterdam and after taking excellent care of it, it flourished and they immediately took its descendants to the Dutch colonies in the Americas in Suriname and the Caribbean, where the weather was more appropriate.

The French, eager to enter the coffee trade which had already started to pick up tremendously, purchased seeds and trees. They became more interested in this trade after the mayor of Amsterdam gave King Louis XIV of France a little coffee plant which was planted in a greenhouse and guarded like an expensive jewel.

Eventually they started their own plantation in the Americas in 1720, after a man by the name of Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu, a French naval officer, made it his mission to take a coffee tree to his estate in Martinique (Haiti). He, however, obtained the precious plant (actually seedlings) without permission.

The story about how hard it was for him to bring this plant to the Americas by ship is famous and astonishing: he placed the plant in a box that was made partly of glass so that the tree could absorb sunlight and remain warm on cloudy days; a passenger tried to obtain the plant for himself but he was not successful; the ship underwent an encounter with Tunisian pirates and a violent storm; and the worst part for Mr. de Clieu was when the ship was becalmed in the Doldrums, which ensued in a shortage of fresh water.

Given the situation, de Clieu found himself in the necessity of having to share his scanty ration of water with the plant for more than a month. His efforts and thoughtfulness on the coffee plant paid off: once the plant arrived at this tropical environment it multiplied so much so that Martinique was the one place which supplied seeds, either directly or indirectly, to all the countries of the Americas, except Brazil, French Guiana and Suriname. The latter country had already obtained coffee seeds when the Dutch brought them.

But how did French Guiana and Brazil obtain them? In 1722, French Guiana obtain seeds from a criminal who had escaped into Suriname and stole some seeds. The authorities in French Guiana made a deal with him: he would get his freedom back in exchange for the coffee seeds.

How about Brazil, the actual leader in the world’s coffee trade? Well, at a certain point Suriname and French Guiana were having a dispute over their border and asked Brazil to provide an arbitrator to solve the problem. They sent an army officer, Francisco de Melo Palheta, who was instructed to settle the dispute. But that was not all, he was also instructed to come back home with some coffee plants or seeds as well.

Then and there, in 1727, Brazil’s billion-dollar coffee industry begun. Mr. Melo Palheta captivated the wife of the French Governor and in return she sent him a bouquet of flowers as a sign of appreciation; this bouquet contained enough seeds and shoots hidden in it which allowed Brazil to start its coffee industry.

We can conclude, then, that the single plant that the Dutch brought from Java to Amsterdam in 1706, as well as the descendants from that plant that the French acquired, supplied for all the coffee plants that exist in Central and South America.

Something that helped Brazil obtain the honor of becoming the world’s biggest coffee producer, was an incident that occurred in the coffee fields of Southeast Asia in the mid 19th century: a rare plant disease spread through the fields causing severe harm to the crops. Moreover, since Brazil, like most other countries, cultivates coffee for commercial reasons, it relied highly on slave labor from Africa for the plantations to be viable, until slavery was abolished in 1888.

However, other countries entered the race for coffee trade when a policy of maintaining high prices in the 20th century took Brazil out of its practically monopolist place for so many years. Countries like Colombia, Guatemala, Indonesia and Vietnam are now second only to Brazil.

However, coffee as a drink arrived in Europe before it did to the Americas. Apparently, the first to create a drink from the coffee seeds were the Arabs in the 11th century. According to a book written in 1587 by the most important of the early writers on coffee, Abd al-Qadir al-Jaziri, one Sheikh, Jamal-al-Din al-Dhabhani, mufti (Islamic scholar) of Aden, Yemen, was the first person ever to adopt the use of coffee in the 15th century. Allegedly, coffee became very popular among Sufis because of its usefulness in driving away sleep.

Before that time, the beans were usually ground and mixed with animal fat by African tribes to create a sort of energy pill for warriors when they were going to battle; however, they were also consumed by travelers. When the drink first arrived to the Old Continent in the 17th century, some Catholic priests did not like it at all.

They saw it as a potential substitute for wine, and as they saw it, wine had been sanctified by Christ, so coffee was really out of place for them. Moreover, they saw it as a Muslim drink and as such it needed to be banned. Notwithstanding, once Pope Clement VIII allegedly tasted it he liked it so much that he solved the problem: he symbolically batpized the drink and after that it could be, and was, accepted by Catholics.

Coffee really entered Europe through the port of Venice. The Italians were trading a large variety of goods from the Muslims, and they were the ones to bring coffee to them. The merchants in Venice first introduced the drink to the rich people in the city to whom they charged heavily for it.

As a result, the first European coffee house was opened in the city of Venice in 1645. With time, the beverage became extremely popular when street vendors began selling coffee together with other cold beverages like lemonade. This way, coffee was not any longer restricted to the wealthy people. In 1750, the famous Caf Greco opens in Rome, and it is still working.

However, it was in Austria where the custom of adding sugar and milk to coffee started. A man by the name of Jerzy Franciszek Kulczycki had been an officer in the Battle of Vienna. This battle represented a loss to the Turks, and the Austrians obtained the supplies for coffee from the spoils obtained in that battle.

Jerzy used the supplies to open a coffee house in Vienna in 1683, the first in the country, and he was the one to come up with the idea of adding sugar and milk to the coffee, a custom that many of us have learned to love.

Even tough coffee was by that time well received, and still is, it was not the case at first. In 1511, it was forbidden in Mecca by conservative imams for its stimulating effects. But when the drink became so popular the ban disappeared in 1524. Something similar occurred in Egypt as well. The ban existing in the country around the same years even led to sackings of coffeehouses and warehouses that contained coffee beans.

Even in Ethiopia, where coffee plants originated, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church banned it because it was seen as a Muslim and pagan practice. Some years later the ban there also vanished since the consumption of coffee had spread so rapidly that even the emperor was also drinking it. Moreover, the councilor to the emperor did his fare share in trying to dismiss the belief of the clergy that is was a Muslim drink.

In England, for example, coffee was largely accepted. The first coffee house there opened in 1652 in St. Michael’s Alley in Cornhill, and by 1675 there were more than 3,000 coffee houses in the whole country. Notwithstanding, women were not as well received as coffee in coffee houses: they were actually banned from them (which was not the case in Germany, for example, were, during the same time period, women frequented them).

Many people there, during that time in history, believed also that coffee had many medicinal properties such as cleaning the stomach of phlegm. A fan fact related to coffee houses in England is the origin of the word “TIPS.” In these places there was a sign by a cup reading: “To Insure Prompt Service” (TIPS). The sign was there so that those who wanted a prompt service and better seating would throw a coin into a tin to obtain just that.

In Paris, France, a place where coffee houses are so numerous, popular and beautiful, the major spread of the popularity of coffee drinking occurred in 1669, when the Ambassador from Sultan Mehmed IV of the Ottoman Empire, a man called Soleiman Agha, arrived in the romantic city with his helpers and brought with him a large quantity of coffee beans. He provided all of his guests with coffee to drink.

This unknown custom to Parisians became very popular, and between July 1669 and May 1670, the Ambassador was able to firmly establish the custom of drinking coffee among people in Paris, and in 1672 the first Parisian coffee house opened its doors to the public.

Time passed, and coffee and its consumption grew largely. Thousands of coffee houses were created and people were drinking more and more of it, both at the coffee houses and at home. Therefore, people in the coffee business realized that they needed a way to make coffee faster in order to make more money.

That is why in 1905, Italy manufactures the first commercial espresso machine, and in 1908 the world’s first drip coffeemaker appears as well as the filter that the machine needs that a woman, Melitta Bentz, created by using blotting paper.

But this was not the end of the coffee industry. In 1939, Nescafe is invented in an effort to help Brazil to solve the problem they had with surplus coffee, a problem that, ironically, still exists. This new type of coffee-making consisted in adding hot water to the powdered coffee and you’d get your coffee instantly. To this day, instant coffee is widely accepted, especially in a world that is so fast paced and time such a precious commodity.

Before finishing our journey through the history of coffee, it is worth stating for the record that the modern words for coffee that exist today in many languages are derived from the Turkish word “kahveh,” and so we have “coffee” in English, “caf” in Spanish, “kaffee” in German, koffie in Dutch, etc. However, the word “kahveh” came to exist after the Arabic word “qahwa,” which came from an Arabic phrase meaning wine of the bean.

Since alcoholic beverages are prohibited in Islam, they accepted coffee as a suitable alternative. And if we go even further down the road of the origin of the word, we arrive at the same place were coffee plants are also from: Ethiopia. It is possible that the name comes from Kingdom of Kaffa in the African country, which was the place where the coffee plants originated.

Coffee has traveled a long way throughout history and around the globe. It started as a sort of medicine or energy booster, then as a drink for the wealthy until it became a drink for the masses. Nowadays we can assert that coffee is the world’s most popular beverage.

More than 400 billion cups are consumed each year, either in its plain dark form or in its many different varieties that keep multiplying day after day since the options are endless. And that’s not all: coffee has become the second highest traded commodity in the world. Only second to petroleum in terms of dollars traded globally! Now, that is a lot of power for a bean that started its long and successful journey just by making a herd of goats so ecstatic that they felt like dancing.

So, next time you prepare yourself a hot, tasty and delightful cup of coffee, whether you add milk and sugar or not, try and think about the fascinating, intriguing, dangerous trip that coffee has taken throughout so many years and through so many places until it finally ended up pouring down into your cup, to enamor your senses once you finally take a sip and enjoy.