A Brief History of Coffee

Today is International Coffee Day, an annual observance first launched in Milan, Italy last year by the International Coffee Organization to promote coffee. (There’s an organization and/or celebration for everything these days!) Aside from some of the most obvious commercial motivations — the ICO is a trade bloc purposed with facilitating coffee productions and distribution — the occasion is also used to bring awareness to the plight of coffee workers, to advance the idea of fair trade coffee, and, of course, to enjoy a wide variety of deals on coffee.

For my part, I am going to use the short time I have available to give a brief overview of the history of this amazing beverage, which perhaps more than any other commodity, represents the long arc of globalization and cultural exchange that has stretched across the history of our species.

The coffee plant is native to central and southern Africa, with the most commonly utilized species, Arabica, originating in Ethiopia (it makes up 80 percent of coffee consumed worldwide). No one really knows how coffee was discovered, although the most popular legend is that in the 15th century, some shepherds noticed their goats becoming energetic after grazing on coffee beans.

Another account claims that an exiled Muslim mystic from Yemen named Sheikh Omar began desperately chewing on some berries he discovered while starving. Finding them to be too bitter, he tried roasting them for more flavor, but when they subsequently became too hard, he went on to boil them, producing a temptingly aromatic brown liquid. After feeling revitalized from drinking the coffee, word got around about this new potent new miracle remedy, and Omar was welcomed back to the town from which he was banished – Mocha – to produce more of this amazing beverage. (Evidently, it was a big enough hit among the locals that he was made a saint.)

While both of these stories are likely apocryphal, what is known for certain is that coffee drinking is first documented in 15th century Yemen, after merchants trading with nearby Egypt and Ethiopia brought back coffee plants and seeds. The Arabs called it kahveh or qahwah, likely after the Kaffa region of Ethiopia from where it came. Coffee was initially utilized by Sufi Muslims as part of their religious rituals, and it was roasted and brewed in a manner similar to today. It then spread throughout the rest of the Islamic world, from North Africa to Iran, and became a ubiquitous part of the region’s culture, especially in what is today Turkey.

Coffee was introduced to Europe in the 17th century via trade between Venice and the Ottoman Empire. Initially, it was regarded as a “Muslim drink” and often treated as taboo, until Pope Clement VIII approved it as a “Christian” beverage in 1600. The first known coffee house in the Western world was opened in Rome a few decades after. Armenians from the Ottoman Empire, who played a major role as merchants and entrepreneurs, were responsible for introducing coffeehouses in places like Paris and Vienna.


NPR / Pinterest

The Dutch East India Company, history’s first multinational mega corporation, was the first to import and commercialize coffee on a large scale, and introduced it as a cash crop in what is today Indonesia. Similarly, the British, French, Portuguese, and Spanish also propagated coffee in all their tropical colonies, which is a big reason why coffee is now grown in seventy countries across the world. Brazil is by far the biggest producer, and has been for over a century, producing twice as much as the runner up Vietnam, followed by Indonesia, Colombia, and India.


European Coffee Federation

Coffee is now a global phenomenon, and has begun making inroads into the few regions left where it is not a staple; for example, South Korea, which only recently took to coffee, has seen literally 900 percent growth in the number of coffee shops in just a five year period, with its capital, Seoul, boasting 10,000 cafes and coffeehouses – the highest concentration of coffee shops in the world. While the U.S. has been the largest consumer overall, the highest per capita rate of coffee consumption is in the Netherlands, Belgium and Scandinavia.



Below are more nicely visualized fast facts about coffee, courtesy of Visually:


I myself am a relatively new convert to the world of coffee, having historically prefered tea (particularly green). Now I share a love of both, despite the fact that there is something of a rivalry between their respective aficionados.


Anyway, whatever your beverage of choice may be, I hope you come away with a greater appreciation of the series of inventive, commercial, and cultural elements and exchanges that played a role — and continue to play a role — in making coffee the lifeblood of daily activities for billions of people around the world.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s