A Legacy That Remains Today
History Lesson about Coffee Anyone?
Did you know Coffee is the second-most traded commodity in the world, behind only petroleum, and has become a mainstay of the modern diet.
No one knows exactly how or when coffee was discovered, though there are many legends about its origin – let’s take a closer look.
An Ethiopian Legend
Coffee grown worldwide can trace its heritage back centuries to the ancient coffee forests on the Ethiopian plateau. There, legend says, a lonely goat herder in the ninth-century called Kaldi first discovered the potential of these beloved beans. He noticed the energising and invigorating effects of coffee when he saw his goats getting excited after eating some berries from a tree, they were so energetic that they did not want to sleep at night.
Kaldi reported his discovery and findings to the abbot of the local monastery. The abbot came up with the idea of drying and boiling the berries to make a beverage. He threw the berries into the fire, whence the unmistakable aroma of what we now know as coffee drifted through the night air. The now roasted beans were raked from the embers, ground up and dissolved in hot water: so was made the world’s first cup of coffee. He found the new concoction kept him alert through the long hours of evening prayer. As you can imagine, word spread, and so did the hot drink, even as far afield as the Arabian Peninsula.
The Arabian Peninsula
Coffee cultivation and trade began on the Arabian Peninsula. By the 15th century, coffee was being grown in the Yemeni district of Arabia and by the 16th century it was known in Persia, Egypt, Syria, and Turkey. Coffee was not only enjoyed in homes, but also in the many public coffeehouses – called quhveh khaneh – which began to appear in cities across the Near East. The popularity of the coffeehouses was unequalled and people frequented them for all kinds of social activity. It was referred to as the ‘wine of Araby’ and consumed by thousands of pilgrims visiting the holy city of Mecca each year from all over the Muslim world.
Coffee comes to Europe
From the Middle East the popularity of coffee soon spread through the Balkans, Italy and to the rest of Europe, east to Indonesia and then west to the Americas, largely through the Dutch. European travellers to the Near East brought back stories of an unusual dark black beverage. Some people reacted to this new beverage with suspicion or fear, calling it the ‘bitter invention of Satan.’ The local clergy condemned coffee when it came to Venice in 1615.
Plantations around the world
As demand for the coffee continued to spread, there was fierce competition to cultivate coffee outside of Arabia. The Dutch finally got seedlings in the latter half of the 17th century. Their first attempts to plant them in India failed, but they were successful with their efforts in Batavia, on the island of Java in what is now Indonesia.
The plants thrived and soon the Dutch had a productive and growing trade in coffee. They then expanded the cultivation of coffee trees to the islands of Sumatra and Celebes.
It was believed that coffee is ‘sinful’, known as ‘the devil’s cup’
The controversy was so great that Pope Clement VIII was asked to intervene. He decided to taste the beverage for himself before making a decision, and found the drink satisfying that he gave it papal approval. On tasting it he wittily declared “This devil’s drink is so delicious….we should cheat the devil by baptising it!” From then on, coffee has been dubbed the devil’s drink, or the devil’s cup.
Coming to Americas
In 1714, the Mayor of Amsterdam presented a gift of a young coffee plant to King Louis XIV of France. The King ordered it to be planted in the Royal Botanical Garden in Paris. In 1723, a young naval officer, Gabriel de Clieu obtained a seedling from the King's plant. Despite a challenging voyage — complete with horrendous weather, a saboteur who tried to destroy the seedling, and a pirate attack — he managed to transport it safely to Martinique.
Once planted, the seedling not only thrived, but it’s credited with the spread of over 18 million coffee trees on the island of Martinique in the next 50 years. Even more incredible is that this seedling was the parent of all coffee trees throughout the Caribbean, South and Central America.
Coffee and Colombia
Coffee was first introduced to Colombia around the same time Jesuit priests first began arriving from Europe in the mid-16th century. The leaders of Colombia tried to encourage people to grow coffee, but they were met with resistance. Worried that a coffee tree takes five years to provide its first crop, they wondered how they were going to survive during this period.
A priest in a small village named Francisco Romero had an idea, instead of the usual penance at confession, he told them to plant 3 or 4 coffee trees. The Archbishop of Colombia ordered everyone to use this penance thinking it was an excellent idea and it became the general practice. This started Colombia as the world’s second largest coffee producing country built on the penance of its forefathers.
Colombia began exporting coffee and in 1835 exported around 2500 bags to the U.S. By 1875 Colombia was now exporting 170,000 bags to U.S. and Europe. In 1992 exports of coffee topped at 17,000,000 bags, and are currently around 11,000,000 bags per year.
Colombian coffee is grown at high altitudes and tended to with care intercropped in the shade of banana and rubber trees. Colombian coffee is known to be among the best in the world, with a rich, full-bodied, and perfectly balanced taste. The rich volcanic soil in the arid mountains of Colombia produces ideal conditions for growing high quality coffee.
Colombian coffees are grown in two main regions; the region of Medellin, Armenia and Manizales (MAM), in central Colombian are more heavy bodied, rich in flavour with fine, balanced acidity. The area near Bogotá and Bucaramanga which is more mountainous in the east produce an even richer, heavier and less acidic coffee and are the finest of the two regions.
Coffee came to England in the mid-17th century
According to Samuel Pepys, England’s first coffeehouse was established in Oxford in 1650 at The Angel in the parish of St Peter in the east, by a Jewish gentleman named Jacob, in the building now known as The Grand Cafe. London’s first coffeehouse opened in 1652 in St Michael’s Alley, near St Michael at Cornhill’s churchyard. It was run by Pasqua Rosée, a Greek man who in 1672 also set up a coffee stall in Paris. Pepys visited the London coffeehouse on 10 December 1660: “He [Col. Slingsby] and I in the evening to the Coffeehouse in Cornhill, the first time that ever I was there, and I found much pleasure in it, through the diversity of company and discourse.”
English Coffeehouses Were Different from Taverns
Part of the reason coffeehouses became so popular were because they promoted sobriety. Many people (wisely) primarily drank little beers or weak ale at taverns at the time, because water was rarely potable. Boiling water for coffee (and tea), however, killed bacteria and didn’t result in a mildly intoxicated public. Coffeehouses were much more conducive to conducting business, and quickly became known as centres of commerce. Taverns became known as rowdy places for drinking and gambling, but coffeehouses were respectable establishments where men conducted their daily affairs. For a single penny, a man could gain admittance to a coffee shop and stay as long as he like — there wasn’t an obligation to purchase anything. Soon, coffee shops were known as “penny universities.”
Notably, women weren’t permitted in coffee shops, unless they owned or worked in them. Even a respectable lady might stop at a tavern if she needed to, for they were required by law to serve food and provide lodging. Coffeehouses, which did not have these legal requirements, were not a place for even an unrespectable woman, though. Some women took exception to this custom and published a petition, “The Women’s Petition Against Coffee,” which was mostly tongue-in-cheek but does provide this lively description: “….the Excessive use of that New-fangled, Abominable, Heathenish Liquor called COFFEE.”
By 1675 there were more than 3,000 coffeehouses in England alone. Some even had bed and breakfast for overnight guests.
A Legacy That Remains Today
Today, coffeehouses serve the same purposes they always have: people go to their local cafe to get news, work, read and talk with friends.
England’s coffeehouses, however, have left another legacy. As they became centres of commerce, some coffeehouses became very prominent and specialised. Theologians and scholars would gather at one, stock brokers at another and sea-faring merchants at another. Some notable coffeehouses from the 1600s include:
• Edward Lloyd’s coffeehouse on Tower Street in London, which was a gathering place for mariners and insurers and became Lloyd’s of London, an insurance company that’s still in business today
• Jonathan’s coffeehouse in London, which was the first site of the London Stock Exchange
• The Tontine Coffeehouse in New York, which was the first site of the New York Stock Exchange
By 1739, there were over 550 coffeehouses in London. However the coffeehouse fell out of favour towards the end of the 18th century as the new fashion for tea replaced coffee. They gave way to, and largely influenced, the exclusive gentleman’s club of the late 18th century.
Revived in the Victorian era and run by the Temperance Movement, coffeehouses were set up as alternatives to public houses where the working classes could meet and socialise.
However it was not until the late 20th century that coffeehouses were ‘re-invented’ by companies such as Starbucks, Coffee Republic and Costa Coffee – although who knows what 18th century gentlemen would have made of skinny lattes, flat whites, cappuccinos and espressos !