The History of Coffee
The world’s second-most traded commodity has origins as fascinating and varied as the means of preparing them… from the Turkish invasion of the Holy Roman Empire to the French Revolution, the history of coffee has emulated world history at many key junctures.
According to legend, an Ethiopian shepherd called Kaldi was the first to observe the influence of the caffeine in coffee beans when the goats appeared to ‘dance’ and to have an increased level of energy after consuming wild coffee berries. Another tale relates that it was a hungry, exiled sheik who chewed the berries, found them too bitter, cooked them over a fire and found them too hard and so boiled them in water, to discover a fragrant, refreshing brew… coffee does indeed have origins almost as fascinating and varied as the means of preparing them…
While the origins of human consumption of coffee is so lost in a mixture of fable & history that we will probably never really know for sure, what is documented is the degree to which it has featured in many historical narratives…
- Coffee cultivation began in the 15th century. For many years, Arabia’s Yemen province was the world’s only source. The demand was very high, and beans leaving the Yemeni port of Mocha were highly guarded. No fertile plants were allowed to leave the country.
- The first true coffee house is reputed to be Kiva Han which opened in Constantinople [now Istanbul] in the 1470s and one of the first western treatises on coffee is that of Leonhard Rauwolf, who describes the preparation and drinking of coffee in his 1581 logbook: Travels in the Orient.
- In 1511 Kahir Beg, a corrupt Governor of Mecca caused a stir by banning coffee, but was apparently executed for his troubles – the Sultan of the day disagreed and he was put to death!
- Venetian traders brought coffee samples back to Europe where it was described as the ‘Muslim Drink’. In 1600 Pope Clement VIII declared that it would be a ‘shameful waste to leave its enjoyment to the heathens’, effectively labelling coffee as a ‘Christian drink’.
Europe’s first Coffee House opened in Italy in 1645, in Venice.
The Arabs, aware that a monopoly over the sale of coffee beans would be to their advantage, tried to ensure that any beans leaving their shores were boiled or roasted, and therefore not able to be propagated.
- However in 1616, a Dutchman [reputed to be Peter van den Broeck] smuggled a few coffee beans out of Yemen and in the following year, coffee plantations were founded in the Dutch colonies in Sri Lanka, and Java in Indonesia.
- The first coffeehouse in England was not in London, but was set up in Oxford in 1652 by a Jewish man named ‘Jacob’ [called the Angel]; London’s first café was opened by Pasqua Rosée, an Armenian, around the same time.
- Coffee made its first large scale debut in continental Europe, when the invading Ottoman Turks besieged the Holy Roman Empire capital of Vienna in 1685. When the Turks fled after their siege was broken, they left behind their stores, amongst which were thousands of bags of coffee.
Café Procope, France’s first café was opened in Paris in 1689 by Procopio Cuto, a Florentine expatriot. This coffeehouse still exists today and was a major meeting place for the protagonists of the French Enlightenment; Voltaire, Rousseau and Denis Diderot frequented it, and it is arguably the birthplace of the Encyclopédie, the first modern encyclopedia.
- Like many cafes, Procope in Paris became a centre for political discussion [& plotting!]. Robespierre, Marat and Danton convened there to debate the issues of the day, and were reputed to have charted the course of the 1789 revolution from there.
- In Italy, Venice’s famous Café Florian appeared [in the Piazza San Marco] in 1720 – one of the oldest surviving cafes in the world, while Café Greco is Rome’s earliest café.
And so, coffee has featured in, and even fuelled, many events throughout history, such that we might wonder at how the course of history might have been different if not for its influence.