A Short History of the Origin of Coffee

A short history about coffee, how it spread across the World and drinking coffee and its culture

Back to Coffee – How did it start ?

OK ! you may have heard about the story of a shepherd called KALDI, who one day was out with his goats in Ethiopia and noticed that they got a bit excited eating red berries. He thought hey ! this must be good stuff, tasted them and also felt a bit excited too. He actually went to a local sufi (Ioosely translated as Islamic Spiritual Master) and told him about the excited goats. The sufi was a bit curious, threw the berries into a fire and was delighted by the aromatic smell that came from it – the birth of roasted coffee.

The sufi took the roasted berries, mixed it with water and tried it as a nice hot drink. He quickly realized their energizing qualities, which helped him to pray longer at night and recommended them to his fellow sufis, who drank the roasted berry drink to help them with their pre-dawn prayers. A berry blessed by God !

Soon their popularity grew and grew and the Arab traders visiting Ethiopia around the years between 600 and 800 AD were so excited that they soon started cultivating them in their land, more specifically at the port of al-Muka (the name for the coffee, Mocca) in Yemen, leading to the name of the berries, Arabica.

Soon their popularity spread to Syria and then to Turkey, where they were first roasted in open fire and crushed and drank in a way similar to what we drink today. In fact it was the Turks who really popularized the concept of coffee shops, traditionally visited by men, who sat for hours and talked. But of course, it didn’t stop there – coffee became so popular in Turkey that every bride was entitled to her own coffee maker (a barista). More wealthy households had a designated barista just for preparing coffee for visitors. However, whether rich or poor, coffee was drunk at least twice a day in Turkey.

As the Turkish Empire spread and people visited their lands, so did the fame and mystery of coffee. Coffee was offered at each and every occasion and to as many people as people in a land where if someone visited your house, not offering coffee, was offensive. Even when traveling, the Turks always took their coffee beans and baristas with them.

By the early 1600s, you won’t be surprised to know that the first European country that began to import coffee was of course Italy. Back then in Italy, the Venetians were the traders of Europe and often went to Turkey, where they took to the beans. The Turks and Arabs were proud of the bean which back then was only cultivated back then in Yemen.

In Italy, the street sellers of citrus fruits were the first to take to selling coffees. However, at the beginning, the clerics tried to get coffee banned as a drink from the devil, but as soon as the Pope had a sip, it was all over – he blessed it. Soon their popularity spread across to Italy with many coffee houses sprouting up before the end of the 1600’s.

In France, coffee was introduced to the aristocracy by the Turkish Ambassador, keen to impress the dignitaries with “coffee” parties. However, the first cafe was opened by an Italian around 1686 in Paris and because of the slow uptake by the Parisians, the owner marketed it first as a classy soft drink stop and as soon as coffee began to outsell the other drinks, the word “CAFE” was born – et voila !

In Austria, the local Turkish Ambassador “again” was known for his hospitality in always serving the lovely black drink to guests, who took to the bean very quickly and started importing it. However, when the Turks decided to invade Europe, things didn’t go quite to plan and in the rush they left their coffee beans behind, where it was adopted by a keen Polish immigrant, who eventually opened Vienna’s first coffee house before 1700.

In the UK, again the Turks were responsible, with a refugee introducing the beautiful black drink to the Oxford dons and before you knew it, a cafe was opened up in London before 1670. However, it is widely believed that coffee was the first official beverage of choice in the UK, leading to the birth of the modern cafe culture because coffee was only really drunk at cafes and never in the home. However, once tea was discovered in Asia, it quickly replaced coffee – the reason – tea was much easier to brew at home and the English couldn’t be bothered to go through the hassle of making coffee at home.

In North America, the Dutch probably introduced coffee around 1670 and as a protest against British rule and taxes, coffee was adopted as the national drink at the famous Boston Tea Party a hundred years later.

The Origins of Coffee Culture

So what is coffee culture and how did it start ?

HINT – it wasn’t started by Starbucks

Well it’s a long story but it’s nothing new and has been in existence for over 300 years. True ! It’s seen a revival, and lets give credit to where it is due – Starbucks ! Whilst it is true to say that in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s Italian Americans principally began to crave the espresso of back home, this coincided with the birth of Starbucks in the mid-1980’s following the pioneer of Starbucks’ caffe culture, Howard Schultz. On his first visit to Milan, he returned to Seattle “re-born” and enthusiastic about trying to promote Italian dark roasted coffee in a shop environment to Americans.

However, caffe culture has been in existence since people gathered in a place to drink coffee. In Turkey, it began with a men’s only arena, where people met to relax, drink coffee and talk about society.

In London, cafes were typified by professions, with lawyers frequent visitors to cafe’s near the Inns and Courts, doctors near hospitals, etc. In fact it was in a coffee shop frequented by merchants and ship owners that led to the creation of the most famous insurance company, Lloyds of London. People spent so much time in London Cafes that they used to have their letters delivered to the cafe, even using the cafe as their official post box. They were also known as “penny universities”, why ? because a cup of coffee used to cost a penny and for drinking coffee for a penny, you could easily gather a huge amount of information about any particular subject, provided you were in the right “subject area” coffee house so to speak. Coffee was the first official social drink of London with over 500 established by the year 1700.

(in fact, it’s only when cafes started charging over a penny for coffee did people move to coach houses, where alcohol was served and that is what began the “pub revolution, but now caffe culture is coming back with a vengeance in London – see my posts on 2011 London Coffee )

In any case, due to their popularity back then, it was no surprise that Government’s disliked caffe culture and often sent spies to cafes to find out about trouble makers. This was confirmed by the French Revolution, which actually began in a famous Parisian café, where the instigator climbed on to a coffee table and urged his fellow coffee drinkers to express their dissatisfaction with the monarchy by taking up arms – things got out of hand literally and vive la difference ! The Bastille fell in 2 days after that.

As their popularity grew, cafes began to be visited by more and more people than those that visited the traditional wine and beer taverns.

Cafes however were not idle in trying to entice people to not only come to their cafes but to stay there for as long as possible and thought about very innovative ways to keep their customers by offering theatrical plays, lectures, business journals, books, daily newspapers, live poetry and in the end even alcohol – something that remains to this day in most European Cafes, although less common in the UK and America.

So caffe culture was and is still about the experience of drinking coffee outside your home in a nice setting – it is about being in a different reality, drinking coffee, tea, juices, smoothies and eating cakes, muffins and sandwiches – in a cosy and peaceful environment unlike bars and pubs. What made it popular before is what makes it popular now, caffe culture is transcending across time – it is vibrant, exciting, stimulating – it is culture – an atmosphere that makes you think – when was the last time you saw someone sleeping in a cafe!

In summary, what we have now in the 21st Century is a repeat of what existed before but, of course on a grander scale with the expansion of “modern” coffee shops across the major cities of the World in America, Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Southern Africa, with Starbucks close to having more coffee shops than McDonalds outlets (can you imagine, more people drink coffee than eat burgers). In fact Starbucks have more or less copied what existed before by creating that other place from home, which is what coffee houses were over 300 years ago.

Cafes are also promoted as a healthier environment to socialize despite the abundance of cakes and muffins but, generally they are less smoky and rowdy than alcoholic drinking establishments. For news and information sharing, we still go to the cafes but we use the internet on our laptops, however, we seem to be losing out on one major thing from the past – a place for great conversation, learning and socializing, as sometimes we visit cafes to surf the web and gather our thoughts – a place for the escapist, but let’s escape with friends and enjoy the journey of the caffe culture together.


3 Replies to “A Short History of the Origin of Coffee”

  1. Hello 🙂

    I enjoyed reading this and I would like to say thank you for sharing your experience. My dad had a coffee farm and I grew up learning about coffee. He was a doctor, an entrepreneur, a counselor and my role model. He lived most of his life traveling around because of his work behavior but he had always hoped to retire and live in the middle of his farm. He went back home nearly two years ago and he started working on his coffee farm to fulfill his wish but unfortunately he died about a month ago.
    It still feels like a dream and I still can’t believe that he is gone but at this time all I want to do his make him proud and work really hard on the coffee business. I was trying to read about coffee and find people I can collaborate with to establish a coffee business in the UAE when I came across one of your articles.

    I have to say I found it interesting to read. But the thing that shook me was the fact that ETHIOPIA is not mentioned at all. This surprised me a lot as the birthplace of coffee is Ethiopia. The name itself is derived from Kaffa, which is by the way the region in Ethiopia where coffee is found.

    Coffee is widely consumed in Ethiopia and I’m not exaggerating when I say we Ethiopians drink coffee at least four times a day and I speak for most households. Coffee preparation is a unique experience in my country. It is a tradition to gather around and discuss and enjoy the company of family and friends over coffee. Whenever a visitor comes to one’s house, it is a must to serve coffee.
    Honestly I can write a lot about it but I guess this is enough information for now.

    Coffee is appreciated and celebrated in the land of it’s origins like no where else honestly and as a coffee enthusiast I hope you will write something beautiful about the mother of coffee someday!

    1. Thanks for reaching out. I’m so sorry to hear about your dad. I’m sure that with your passion you’ll make him proud. I was really touched by your story as I always advocate for chasing your dreams as soon as possible. It’s a complete oversight from me for not mentioning Ethiopia but as you know, the story of Kaldi is from Ethiopia so I’ll amend ASAP. I now live in Dubai. Where are you based?

      1. Dear Lameen,

        I can not thank you enough for acknowledging my comment and for your kind words. That was very kind of you.
        I am based in Dubai and I have been following you on IG since that day and I enjoy your specialty coffee shop visits as well as your educational reviews and all that.
        Thank you once again and blessings!

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