These days we take it for granted, but there was a time when most of the world did not drink coffee. So where exactly did it come from?
Some argue that it’s bad for you; others disagree and will happily list a long list of its supposed health benefits. One thing’s for sure – coffee is much loved throughout the modern world. But where exactly was it first discovered and when?
The answer to this remains vague. Although there’s evidence to suggest that the coffee bean was first grown in the Middle East in the 16th century, according to popular myth, it’s been around for many years before that. In fact it’s said to have been discovered between 600 and 700CE in Ethiopa or Yemen.
Legend has it that a young African goat herder by the name of Kaldi came across bushes which had cherries growing on them, and let his flock graze on them. After eating the berries, the animals became full of energy and began to prance and jump about excitedly. Kaldi is said to have tried the cherries himself and he too immediately experienced a fresh burst of energy. But his wife, upon hearing the story was suspicious. She ordered him to pay a visit to the local monastery where the Abbot, angered by the fruit’s miraculous properties, hurled them into the fire, proclaiming them ‘the work of the devil’. The berries, which were in fact coffee beans, began to roast, causing the monastery to be filled with the aroma of roasting coffee.
However the benefits of the beans would still have gone unnoticed were it not for one of the monks, who on smelling the aroma, rescued the beans from the fire and threw them into a jug of hot water to extinguish the embers. Then he decided to taste the hot liquid, sipping it slowly and declaring it delicious. From that day on, the monks drank the brew every day, and credited it with keeping them awake during their nocturnal devotions. However the earliest proof of the existence of the coffee bean dates back to the year 1,000AD when it was called ‘qahwa’, which in Arabic means to ‘prevent sleep’. It’s thought that around this time, Arabic traders first brought coffee plants back to their homeland from Africa and it was then they began to cultivate it on plantations. The first coffee houses appeared in Mecca, Saudi Arabia between 1450 and 1500. Known as the ‘Kaveh Kanes’ they were meeting places where Muslims would socialise. Coffee was reputed to have medicinal properties and in 1454 it was approved by the Grand Mufti of Aden who claimed it promoted health.
Soon it was being widely consumed across the Middle East, with devout Muslims using it to stay awake whilst they recited prayers. However the jury was still out on whether it had a positive or a negative effect on both the mind and the body. Much debate centred around this topic and many wanted it banned. Nevertheless it continued to increase in popularity. As Islam spread, it did too.
By the 15th century, it had become part of daily life for most of the Islamic world and people drank it not only in Arabia and Africa, but in Turkey. In fact Turkish law made it legal for a woman to divorce her husband if he failed to provide her with her daily quota of coffee. And with the expansion of the Ottoman Empire which began in the 16th century, it was brought for the first time to the coast of the Mediterranean. In Europe the first nation to discover the joys of coffee were the Italians, who to this day, pride themselves on their coffee-making skills. But it proved controversial at first with a group of Christians claiming it lead to wreckless behaviour. The argument was taken to Rome and Pope Clement, who before passing judgment on the drink insisted on tasting it himself. Far from finding it evil however, he decreed that coffee should be blessed in order to make it safe for Christians.
Coffee is believed to have reached the shores of North America in 1607 when Captain John Smith founded the colony of Virginia at Jamestown. It spread to other parts of Europe too around this time.
In the UK, Nathaniel Conopios, a student, who was later expelled from Oxford, became the first recorded person to brew coffee in 1637. The first coffee house in the UK was opened in Oxford in 1650 by a Jewish man called Jacob and it became popular first and foremost with students. In 1655, a scientist by the name of Arthur Tillyard opened another coffee shop which was known as the ‘Oxford Coffee Club’ and soon evolved into the leading scientific society, the ‘Royal Society’, which still exists to this day.
London followed suit and in 1652, Cornhill Pasqua Rose, an Armenian, and Daniel Edwards, an English gentleman, opened the first coffee house in the city in St Michaels Alley, Cornhill. The idea snowballed and by 1715 there were 2,000 coffee houses around the City of London.
It’s understable why it caught on so quickly – coffee was significantly cheaper than beer and public drunkeness had become a huge problem. Much to the chagrin of tavern owners, coffee houses rapidly began to replace the traditional taverns. They claimed the drink was not suitable for consumption by Christians, unlike beer which had been brewed by monks for centuries.
At this time, women were banned from coffee houses, with the result that in 1674 they published the ‘Women’s Petition Against Coffee’ claiming it was responsible for a reduced sperm count in their men which would result in a decline in the population. The men retaliated by issuing a document claiming coffee had aphrodisial properties and that they were therefore simply protecting their women.
Aside from the ongoing debate about whether coffee consumption was a good thing or not, there were many who recognised the huge commercial possibilities it offered. In 1700, two men by the names of Jidda and Mocha, whose company was later to become the world’s biggest exporter of coffee, had disproved a theory that coffee beans could not be grown outside Africa and the Middle East, when they successfully cultivated coffee plants in Mysore in India.
In Europe, the coffee industry was gaining ground too. The first coffee house had opened in Paris in 1672. Amsterdam imported its first plants from Java in 1714 and in 1721 coffee was imported for the first time to Berlin. By now it had spread to Central and South America, where in the hot climates it was found to thrive. It was successfully cultivated in Martinique in the Caribbean in 1723 and harvested in 1725.
In 1727, a cutting from a coffee plant was also brought to Brazil. With the introduction of prohibition across America in the 1920s, coffee really took off and by the 1940s the US was importing 70 per cent of the world’s coffee. Meanwhile in Europe, the Nestle company was asked by the government of Brazil to find a solution to their coffee surplus and invented freeze-dried coffee as a result. Shortly afterwards, the company developed Nescafe and introduced it to Switzerland.
Just how popular coffee had become by the 1940s is evident from the fact that during World War II, instant Maxwell House coffee was included in the ration kits given to American soldiers. In Italy in 1946, the espresso machine was invented by a man called Achilles Gaggia. At the same time, the cappuccino was officially named because of its resemblance in colour to the robes of the monks of the Capuchin order.
The branding of the traditional coffee shop created a whole new coffee-drinking trend in the same manner that fast-food outlets boosted the popularity of burgers. This began in 1971, when the first Starbucks opened in Seattle, Washington.
Throughout history, coffee has been seen as both corruptive and controversial; and yet as a substance to be prized, but it has survived in spectacular fashion. Approximately seven million tons of coffee beans are produced throughout the world each year and it is now grown in 53 countries. In the Middle East it remains as popular as ever.