A Brief History of Coffee
Coffee is a drink that millions of people all over the world enjoy at the start of the day all over the world. It’s one of the beauties of coffee, that so many people from different countries, cultures, and backgrounds share a love for the same drink. But, as I was sipping my cup of joe this morning I wondered… Where did it all start? Why do so many people now enjoy coffee so much and who were the first people to start drinking it?
If you have ever wondered the same thing then strap yourself in, we are going to learn about the history of coffee together!
Unsurprisingly, the absolute first cup of coffee ever consumed is pretty difficult to pin down. But, the research suggests that the first community to consume coffee was in fact the
The First Origins of Coffee
Coffee actually has a very rich history, dating all the way back to the 15th century. At this time, Africa was a plush climate that made it perfect for coffee cultivation. Ethiopia, in particular, the Ethiopian plateau has a temperate enough climate to grow coffee plants.
The exact person to discover coffee beans has been disputed, but the most well-known and accepted origin story is that a goat herder named Kaldi observed some very abnormal behavior from his livestock. He noticed that once his goats had chomped on the berries from the coffee arabica plant, they soon became a lot more energized and did not need to sleep in the evening.
Surprised at his discovery, Kaldi reported back to his nearest monastery, which proceeded to harvest some of the coffee ‘berries’ and formulate a drink using them. This, would you believe, was the first cup of coffee ever brewed as we know it!
The monks noted that after consuming their newly discovered beverage, they had more energy and did not feel as exhausted during their evening prayers.
Soon, word began to spread throughout Ethiopia and the earliest stages of the coffee trade began to take shape. Soon, word of this energizing drink started to spread east to the Arabian peninsula (the largest in the world) and on to countries like Yemen, Egypt, Turkey, and Syria. The first country known to have imported coffee was Yemen, and monasteries in the country soon utilized the energizing power of their newfound love!
It took around 100 years for coffee to spread throughout the entire middle east, but from there, it really did go global.
Where Coffee was Originally Grown
As we have discussed, coffee was first grown in the temperate climate of the Ethiopian peninsula. There is evidence to suggest that the first domesticated coffee plants were grown in the city of Harar in Ethiopia. So, we can deduce that the cafea plant first grew in the rural setting of the Ethiopian peninsula and was then cultivated more widely in the late 1400s.
How Coffee Has Been Traded and Commercialised
Africa and the Middle East
From its humble beginnings in rural Ethiopia, coffee has now become one of the most widely consumed drinks worldwide. The industry is now worth over $100 billion and drinking coffee has become a morning ritual for billions of people all over the planet.
We know that coffee was first discovered over 500 years ago in Ethiopia and first exported to Yemen, but how did coffee go from an invigorating drink consumed by a small number of monasteries to a global phenomenon?
Well, Ethiopian coffee was first imported to Yemen via the port city of Aden, where it was consumed by the Sufis to aid their concentration during nighttime prayer.
Word then spread to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, the holiest city in the Islamic faith, and on to Cairo in Egypt. As you can see, in the early days of coffee consumption it was heavily associated with religious groups and gained popularity in various religious institutions across Northern Africa and the Middle East. By the early 1500s, coffee was being drunk in Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt, Sudan, and Turkey.
We have Egypt to thank for the modern-day coffee houses we enjoy on the end of each high street, as the first of these was discovered in Cairo in the early 1500s, surrounding the religious University of Azhar. So, it is not just modern-day millennial university students that need coffee to help them study!
Over the next 50 to 100 years coffee consumption would spread throughout the middle east and would eventually make its way to Europe when the Turks invaded Hungary in 1526. Naturally from there coffee would spread through southern Europe, however, it was through invasion and slavery which most certainly puts a blight on the history of the coffee trade.
Coffee entered Austria through the siege of Vienna in 1529 and then traveled to Malta via the Great Siege of Malta in 1565, instructed by the knights of St. John. Here, coffee was brewed by imprisoned slaves and used as a means for them to earn money during their imprisonment. The drink became so popular that it made its way to the Maltese upper class who proceeded to open vast numbers of purpose-built coffee shops.
European travelers visiting Austria and Malta then spread the word throughout the continent and European interest had been spiked. However, it was the trading ports of Venice that really brought coffee into Europe as a mainstay, as their buzzing trade links with Northern Africa and the Middle East meant coffee could be imported en masse. It was in the late 1500s that the first coffee houses were rolled out in earnest in Venice, as port traders would sell the drink to the upper classes at heavily inflated prices. This gave coffee a premium and upmarket reputation, making it the new craze across southern European countries.
Throughout the 1600s, the coffee trade took over Austria, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Poland, by virtue of the various sea-bound trading companies operating throughout the world.
However, coffee was not warmly received by all countries at first. The cognitive impacts of coffee were seen by some highly religious communities as unnatural, and thereby frowned upon. However, this early resistance was of minimal consequence as coffee consumption spread throughout Europe like wildfire.
One of the most poignant moments in the early history of coffee was its introduction to Italy. Today, we see Italy as the home of great espresso, but in the early 1600s some members of the Catholic church opposed the use of coffee due to its psychoactive effects. However, after trying the drink and enjoying its unique aromas, Pope Clement VIII gave it his blessing, adding to the already growing popularity of the coffee we enjoy today.
The coffee trade took itself to Asia through the Sufis in the mid-1600s. Coffee was first grown in India in 1670 and helped the economy of Chikmagalur thrive. Chikmagular remains one of the hotbeds of the Asian coffee trade today, as it is said to be home to the finest shade-grown coffee money can buy.
Coffee was then imported to Japan via the Dutch in the late 1600s but was viewed with skepticism until the early 1900s. Japan’s coffee market was heavily impacted by import restrictions imposed by wartime in the 1930s, but once these were lifted coffee took the country by storm!
The coffee trade spread through much of East Asia during the 1800s and is now a thriving industry throughout the continent.
Coffee first entered the Americas via the French exploration of the Caribbean island of Martinique in the early 1700s. Naval officers planted coffee seedlings on the island and the trade bloomed over the proceeding half-decade.
From there the coffee industry spread to other Caribbean islands such as Haiti, and then on to Mexico. Amazingly, by the late 1700s, the French colony that controlled what we know as the Dominican Republic and Haiti today, supplied half of the world’s coffee beans!
At this point coffee had taken the world by storm, but as they say in the music industry, you’ve never really made it until you crack America!
Coffee plantations started to spring up in Mexico and Brazil which then created huge demand for the drink throughout Latin America.
It didn’t take long for coffee to make its way to North America. Following the Boston Tea Party of 1773, coffee was a preferred beverage to tea as it showed a revolutionary stance against British rule.
The Coffee Industry in the Modern Day
Whilst coffee has come from humble beginnings, it has grown into a huge industry with a rich history of production, cultivation, trade and commercialisation. Over the past few decades, high end coffee has been made available to the masses through globalisation, which has brought down the cost of trading coffee throughout its lifecycle.
When you stop and think about it, the processes involved from initially planting a coffee plant to being served an espresso in your local coffee shop boggle the mind!
As we know, coffee was first grown in the Ethiopian Peninsula, however it is now cultivated the world over. Like with all fresh produce, there are certain climates that favour coffee cultivation, however you may be surprised to know just how many hotbeds there are for coffee growing across the globe.
It may not be surprising to find out that the majority of coffee is grown between the tropics of cancer and capricorn. These hot, wet tropical zone climates make for perfect coffee cultivation territory.
The two main types of bean grown are arabica and robusta, although there are actually four mainstream species of coffee in existence today. Generally speaking arabica beans are considered of higher quality than robusta and carry with them a more flavour and tend to be associated with floral, chocolaty or nutty undertones.
Robusta beans on the other hand are generally considered of lower standard than their arabica counterparts, owing to their more bitter taste which also carries with it a fuller bodied flavour. Robusta beans only account for around a quarter of the world’s coffee cultivation, however it is used commercially as a cheaper alternative to traditional arabica beans and is also included in some traditional Italian coffee blends. Robusta beans also contain more caffeine than arabica, so they really do deliver a great bang for your buck!
Coffee from different countries of course carry with them different flavour profiles, depth and body. This is down to the climate in which they are grown in, soil quality and of course the harvesting and roasting methods applied.
Arabica beans are grown most widely but are sometimes grown alongside robusta beans. Arabica beans tend to be exclusively grown on the west coast of Latin America and the East Coast of Africa in countries like Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Paraguay, Bolivia, The Caribbean, Ethiopia, Kenya, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
Robusta beans tend to be grown exclusively on the west coast of Africa and Southeast Asia in countries such as Angola, Madagascar, Nigeria, Guinea, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Thailand.
There are some countries that produce the beans for both robusta and arabica coffee and these include Brazil, Ecuador, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, Mozambique, India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and the Philippines.
In the modern world, coffee is produced in 51 countries across 3 continents. The largest cultivator and producer of coffee is Brazil, who produces nearly 6 million pounds of coffee each year. Whilst you may expect Latin America to dominate the global production of the coffee trade, second on the list is actually Vietnam, producing 3.5 million pounds of coffee each year. Columbia and Indonesia both produce around 1.5 million pounds of coffee per annum and the homeland of coffee Ethiopia still produces almost 1 million pounds of coffee each year.
You may have heard of some of the production processes involved in bringing coffee to your table, like roasting and brewing. But, there are quite a few more steps involved than you might imagine!
Fermenting and Drying
First off, coffee needs to be harvested after it has been cultivated successfully. The coffee beans we see in our supermarkets and coffee houses actually start out life as berries one the coffea plant.
The first process involves farmers, who laboriously hand pick only the ripest of berries. Naturally, this only allows the highest quality berries to be included in the production process. However, this is a traditional technique that is not particularly conducive to mass producing coffee, and in reality there are many more coffee plantations that simply ‘strip picked’, in which coffee beans are picked regardless of their ripeness. Whilst this naturally reduces the overall quality of the coffee, it means we can actually access coffee at an affordable price.
Once the caffea berries have been picked, there is a choice of two methods used to ferment the berries and produce the coffee beans we grind up for our cup of joe.
First, there is the dry method which involves removing any residue from the berries and letting them dry out in the sun or in a mechanical dryer. The idea here is to remove the majority of the water content of the berries so the seeds can be harvested effectively. The vast majority of both arabica and robusta coffee beans are processed using the dry method, as it yields the most efficient results as it is far less labour intensive than the wet method. It is thought that the dry method also produces a more mild coffee flavour from the beans.
The wet method of removing coffee berry flesh is not as widely used nowadays as it requires copious amounts of water and is much more labour intensive than the dry method. The wet method involves fermenting and washing the coffee berries, then removing the skins and flesh by hand. This is usually quite inefficient as a lot of the pulp inside the berries is difficult to remove from the beans or seeds themselves. The process is also ecologically damaging, as a lot of wastewater is produced which is also a pollutant to the surrounding environment.
The drying process is extremely important as it is the main factor that determines the overall quality and taste of the coffee. Too dry and the coffee beans become too brittle and will crack (cracked or broken beans are considered defective). Too wet and the coffee will be susceptible to bacteria and parasites, which again makes them not fit for use.
Once the coffee seeds have been dried and fermented, they are then roasted. The length of time the coffee beans are roasted of course determines the flavour of the end product. In general there are 3 degrees of roasting; light, medium and dark. A lighter roast coffee will have more acidity and you will be better able to pick up the original flavours of the coffee. A medium roast retains some of the original flavour profiles but has more depth and body to it, so you get a good combination of delicate flavour and earthy, roasted body to the coffee. Dark roasted coffee makes the roasted flavour the star of the show, with little to no original flavour of the coffee remaining. Dark roasts also develop a shiny oil on the outside of the bean, which gives them their characteristic sheen.
Once the beans have been roasted to their desired colour, they are graded as part of quality control. Believe it or not, coffee beans are categorised as light, medium or dark roasted by the human eye! There are elaborate methods of infrared spectomology that can determine the degree of roast that a coffee bean should reflect, however expert coffee ‘cuppers’ are generally used to grade and taste coffee before it is sold to the general public.
The final step to consider in the coffee production process is of course decaffeination. This is actually done whilst the coffee beans are still green and before they have been dried. Whilst there are a number of ways to remove caffeine from coffee, practically all of them involve steaming the berries to remove the caffeine rich oils that they contain. The production process is then followed in the same way as normal.
Coffee is now a very widely traded commodity and has become an extremely lucrative industry. Coffee can actually be traded on the stock market, however there are a lot of fluctuations in the prices of raw materials and therefore the price of coffee is subject to large levels of volatility.
The largest consumers of coffee worldwide hail from Nordic countries, such as Finland, Norway, Iceland and Denmark.
Fair trade coffee farmer pay started in the 1980s and has become an industry norm. The concept allows coffee farmers to negotiate a pre harvest price for their crop, which gives them a more favourable and consistent income despite the naturally seasonality of coffee cultivation.
Coffee, like many commodities has become commercialised through the far reaching effects of globalisation and brand value.
Coffee houses date back as far as the early 1500s, but the concept has grown into the mainstream culture in the 21st century such that some of the biggest and most valuable brands in the world are coffee companies.
Coffee companies are much further reaching than just your local coffee shop these days. You can now buy coffee direct from roasteries, try sample coffee varieties that get delivered straight to your door and even partake in coffee roastery experiences for a behind the scenes tour of the process first hand.
Coffee houses have become big business, with Starbucks of course being the biggest and most valuable of all the coffee related brands. In the US alone there are around 37,000 coffee houses, so having access to fresh brewed coffee on the go is a huge market that is being tapped into.
The popularity of home brewed coffee has also risen over the past few decades. Brands like Nespresso, Krups, Breville, De’Longhi, Lavazza, Sage, and Illy sell coffee machines of various types to households wanting that fresh brewed coffee experience from the comfort of their own home.
We have discussed the introduction of coffee throughout the last few hundred years, where it originated and how it was traded throughout the world. But, the coffee we know and love today is largely different to the coffee that the Ethiopians in the 1400s were drinking.
As coffee has been a commercial commodity over the past 100 years or so, it has taken many different forms, broadening its popularity across the world.
As we have discussed, coffee was first drunk by religious priests and aristocrats, who would have enjoyed the unique taste of coffee and its invigorating properties. However, nowadays people drink coffee for many more reasons. Today, we have many different types of coffee based drinks, many of which contain milk in various different guises.
Coffee can be served as an espresso shot, or a long black which takes a shot of espresso and adds hot water to it. Coffee with steamed milk comes in various different forms, including cappuccino, latte, flat white, cortado, macchiato and mocha.
What we Can Learn About the History of Coffee
The coffee trade came from humble beginnings and soon grew in popularity thanks to the way North African traders marketed and sold the drink, as well as the invigorating effects of coffee itself. This goes to show that people’s perception of coffee as a desirable commodity stems back hundreds of years, and that we should appreciate coffee for what it brings us rather than how brands, coffee houses and traders would have us believe.
Coffee has been a highly politicised drink, perhaps one of the most controversial non-alcoholic beverages in history. Coffee has been traded, grown and enjoyed all over the world, making it one of the most universal food or drink products in the world.
The fact that no matter which religion, country or culture you come from you will most likely enjoy a cup of coffee and be able to appreciate its taste and ability to perk you up in the morning makes you realise how important coffee is to so many lives.
Learning about the history of coffee has made me appreciate the enormous amount of work that goes into a single cup. The fact that so much labour intensive and carefully considered effort is involved in the cultivation, processing and preparing of coffee makes me realise that there is much more to a cup of coffee than the buzz it gives you in the morning.
There is a depth to coffee taste and flavour that some people may not fully understand. But, next time you go to your local coffee shop and order your cup of joe, remember how much history, industry, trade and effort has gone into it and it may just taste a little bit sweeter!