If you’ve been to any town of any size or village you’ll probably find Starbucks, possibly Tim Hortons (if you’re in Canada, you most assuredly will) and at least one or two local coffee shops and/or smaller chains.
It can easily seem like coffee has always been part of the story of humanity! However, coffee is a relatively recent addition to our lives; less than twelve hundred years, depending on when one dates the legends and far more recent for roasting, brewing, and spreading it around.
So, what is the story behind coffee and how long has it been around?
In short, we’ve had coffee for around a thousand years, depending on when you feel like the ‘legend’ around it dates. As a drink, credible sources place the earliest form of coffee as being found in Yemen in the 15th century, though wine had been made from the coffee fruit for about two hundred years before that. Legends aside, therefore, coffee has been part of the routines of humans for about six hundred years.
The Legend of the Coffee Bean
While credible research can date the use of coffee back to the fifteenth century, it’s a lot more fun to look at the legends going even further back. The most loved origin story is that of a goat herder in Ethiopia who saw some of his goats acting extra energetic after eating small red berries. He ate one too and felt an immediate burst of energy.
He then took the berries to some local monks who at first weren’t too happy about them, (the monk threw them in the fire at first, but the smell of the roasting berries was so good, that the cooked bits were dug out again!)
They ended up making a drink from the roasted remains of the berries and found that the drink kept them awake and energized throughout evening prayers. The stories of the miraculous beans then began to spread east to the Arabian Peninsula.
The other possible origin story is that of a sheik named Omar who was in exile from Mocha. Omar chewed some berries that he found, but he thought they ere bitter.
He roasted them, which just made them hard, and finally boiled them, which resulted in a brown liquid that gave him the energy to stay awake for a long time. His discovery was so amazing that he was allowed to return to Mocha and elevated to sainthood.
When we think of coffee, we tend to think about the coffee beans; however, the coffee fruit has been well used too. For example, the fruit could be mixed with animal fat to create a rudimentary protein bar. Wine was also made from the pulp of the fruit.
And there was another drink made around 1000 AD made from the whole coffee fruit (hull and beans too). Coffee beans themselves weren’t roasted purposefully until around the 13th century.
Coffee and Culture
Coffee houses and shops today are usually a great place to people watch, visit others, and do work and really, that’s a tradition that dates back centuries!
By the 15th century, coffee was grown in the Yemeni district of Arabia. The Turkish people were the first to make a drink out of coffee beans in 1453. In 1475, they opened the world’s first coffee shop (Kiva Han).
Turkish law also came into effect that made it legal to divorce a man if he didn’t provide enough coffee to his wife for the day or to divorce the wife if she couldn’t make a good pot of coffee by Turkish methods. (And I thought my husband was joking about divorcing me if we ever run out of coffee… ha!)
Coffee was so sacred that when the governor of Mecca tried to ban it, due to worries that it would encourage opposition to his government, the Sultan of Arabia had him killed!
By the 16th century, coffee had spread to Persia, Egypt, Syria and Turkey. Coffee was of course drunk at home, but it also spurred the creation of public coffee houses, also called qahveh khaneh where people met for all kinds of socializing, such as playing chess, watching performances, swapping news, and of course, conversing.
These houses eventually became known as the “Schools of the Wise” (in the east) or “Penny Universities” (in England, since for the price of a penny, you could get a coffee and a stimulating conversation).
The methods to grow coffee was kept a closely guarded secret, but beans were smuggled out and farmed elsewhere, proving that you can’t keep a good thing down. By the 17th century, coffee had come to Europe.
While coffee was pretty well loved in the middle east, in Europe, it was called the “Bitter invention of Satan” and in Venice, the clergy actually condemned it! However, pretty well everyone else adored it, leading to a plea for Pope Clement VIII to intervene.
He tried coffee, loved it and gave it his approval, shutting the clergy down completely. In fact, it’s said that he claimed: “This devil’s drink is so delicious… we should cheat the devil by baptising it!”
Coffee houses quickly popped up all over major cities in Europe and coffee began to replace beer and wine as the traditional breakfast drink. By mid-17th century, there were over 300 coffee houses in London alone, which gathered flocks of patrons of all stripes, from business owners to artists, and allowed for the growth of other businesses such as Lloyd’s of London.
Remember how coffee was once only grown in Arabia? Well, such a monopoly was doomed to failure. Coffee beans were smuggled out of Mecca in the 1600s and quickly took root.
The Dutch founded the first coffee estate in Sri Lanka, Cylon, and the island of Java (which is where the alternate name for coffee – java – comes from because the coffee beans were wildly successful there). The French grew it in the Caribbean on the backs of slave labor, the Spanish in Central America and the Portuguese in Brazil.
Coffee Comes to the New World
Coffee came to North America in the early 18th century, but it didn’t take off until after the Boston Tea Party. This was because drinking coffee instead of tea was seen as being patriotic and casting off the British influence.
The popularity of coffee was also aided by all the conflicts that happened in the U.S., goading soldiers to drink more of it for the energy boost. By the late nineteenth century, not only were there coffee shops all over the US, but there were also roasting shops and coffee mills everywhere, at least until roast coffee began being packed in vacuum tins, which meant that only the very largest roasting companies could survive.
By this point, coffee was widely drunk in the US and when prohibition happened in the 1920s, coffee sales exploded! By the 1940s, the United States was importing 70% of the world’s coffee on its own. Instant coffee was simply a part of ration kits for soldiers and there was hoarding across the country during World War II.
And in Italy at the time, the espresso machine was invented and Cappuccino was named for the color of the robes that the monks of Capuchin order wore.
Today, coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world behind oil. Even people who don’t drink it are influenced by it: coffee shops sell other drinks and foodstuff, coffee is found in many recipes, both deserts and main courses, and of course, there are many coffee mugs, ornaments, wall hangings, and other décor.
Some people just like the smell of coffee even if they don’t drink it while others may like coffee flavored candy or chocolate. Nowadays there is also a push for more artisanal coffee with beans being picked in an ethical fashion (farmers are being fairly paid for their work), brewing by hand, roasting coffee beans lighter, medium, and dark, and finding new ways to grow and cultivate the bean to be sturdier and longer lasting.
There’s also more variety in how they are roasted, ground, brewed, and what the drinks are mixed with: milk, syrups, soy milk, almond milk, how they are poured, latte art, etc.
There are many different kinds of beans and roasting techniques which all give different flavors. And for many people, coffee is elevated to an artform with the best brewing, roasting and cultivating practices all kept in mind before buying.
In short, for such a humble little red berry that was likely eaten by accident centuries ago, coffee now certainly is one of the most important things to humans!
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