History of Coffee

An estimated 70 countries around the world today grow and produce Coffee. But hundreds of years ago, the plant was only found in Africa. It has since spread, the beans of the plant now enjoyed in one of the most popular beverages in existence. Yet, before it became a global phenomenon, Coffee had a humble, somewhat amusing beginning, one not involving an Ancient Chinese Emperor like the discovery of Tea, but that of an Ethiopian goat.

Coffee at the Beginning

Coffee at the Beginning

According to legend, an Abyssinian goat herder named Kaldi, who lived in present-day Ethiopia around 850 CE, witnessed his goats grazing on an unknown plant one day, their energy levels clearly boasted as they pranced excitedly around their pasture. Intrigued, Kaldi decided to try the berries on the plant for himself, and soon felt the same sense of elation.

Stuffing his pockets with the berries, Kaldi returned home to inform his wife of his discovery, who in turn advised him to seek council with the monks in the monastery near Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile River. There, Kaldi presented the chief monk with the berries as he recounted the story of how he stumbled upon them. Yet the monk was less than enthusiastic, exclaiming it to be the work of the Devil.

The monk discarded the berries in a fire to ward off the evil spirits, but within minutes, the room was filled with the aroma of roasting coffee beans. He called in the other monks to examine his findings, eventually retrieving the beans from the fire and crushing them to extinguish the embers. That night, the grains were placed in an ewer and covered with hot water. The brew was consumed by all of the monks, who vowed to drink it daily to keep them awake during their nightly devotions.   

Whether there is any truth to the tale is a topic of inconsiderable debate among historians to this day. Some argue that Ethiopians monks had long chewed the Coffee berries as a stimulant, perhaps even centuries before Kaldi’s discovery, Alas, we will never know for sure, although no one can deny it makes a great story. And one way or another, the discovery of Coffee gave rise to a rich history od coffee, one still unravelling in the 21st Century.

Coffee at the Beginning

Coffee Travels to the Middle-East

By the 15th Century, Coffee was enjoyed throughout Ethiopia (then Abyssinia), no longer held exclusively within monastery walls but available to everyone. Ethiopian and even Sudanese traders who travelled to Yemen often consumed Coffee to keep them energised during the long and arduous journeys. Residents of Kaffa, the same province of Ethiopia where Kaldi allegedly lived, were also drinking Coffee during this time, mixing the ground beans with butter for sustenance.

In 1454, the Mufti of Aden, a man named Sheikh Gemaleddin Abou Muhammad Bensaid, visited Abyssinia to find the people there enjoying a beverage he had never before seen. He decided to try the infusion for himself, which cured him of some affliction, leading him to believe that Coffee was capable of miracles. Sheikh Gemaleddin Abou Muhammad Bensaid brought Coffee back with him to Yemen, where it was later used in religious ceremonies and quickly popularised. It was subsequently introduced to Mecca.

Coffeehouses were first established in Mecca during the late 15th Century and early 16th Century. These establishments were known as Kaveh Kanes, which were initially religious meeting places. But discussions of Coffee promptly became a contentious issue, especially amongst those who believed the Quran forbade the consumption of beverages deemed “intoxicating”. Others, meanwhile, argued that rather than intoxicating, Coffee was a “stimulant”, which was not against the teachings of Islam. 

The dispute peaked in 1511 when the governor of Mecca, Khair Beg, proclaimed that drinking Coffee was a sin, similar to wine, and that all Kaveh Kanes would be closed as such. The governor had the support of two influential Persian doctors, the Hakimani brothers, who wanted Coffee banned because their patient numbers were dwindling following the popularisation of Coffee and its alleged health benefits. Nevertheless, the ban was short-lived following the intervention of the Sultan of Cairo, who reprimanded Khair Beg for instigating the new law. The Sultan later accused Khair Beg of embezzlement in 1512, eventually putting him to death. And so, the lesson was learned: don’t come between a Coffee-lover and his or her Coffee!

Coffee Travels to Europe

Coffee Travels to Europe

While Coffee ventured further East, to present-day Sri Lanka and India, it was also heading westwards, to Europe. By 1517, Coffee had reached Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), where its popularity flourished quickly. The first Coffee Houses opened in Constantinople in 1554 despite being wrought with the same religious divisiveness witnessed in Mecca just years prior. However, a love for Coffee in the city prevailed, eventually spreading throughout the country and beyond.

Coffee arrived in Europe, officially, through Venetian traders in 1615. Its introduction almost coincided with Tea, a beverage Europeans had come to love just 5 years before. But Tea had competition in Coffee, even after the controversies that arose once more, this time in Italy, whereby Christian clerics proclaimed it the “Devil’s Drink”. Again, however, these beliefs were short-lived after Pope Clement VIII (1592-1605) declared that “Coffee should be baptised to make it a true Christian drink”.

The Pope’s endorsement of Coffee eventually brought about the first Venetian Coffeehouse, which opened in 1683, followed by the famous Café Florian in 1720, located in the Piazza San Marco, an establishment still open today and known as the oldest Coffeehouse in Europe. Before Café Florian, however, Coffee had reached England, and in 1650, the country’s first Coffee House opened in Oxford, followed by another opened in London in 1652. It was clear then that Coffee was fast becoming a fashionable beverage in Europe, and so coinciding with the opening of Coffee Houses across the continent, from Paris to Amsterdam; Hannover to St Petersburg, European Powers realised its potential overseas.

Coffee Travels to the European Colonies

Coffee Travels to the European Colonies

Colonisation, though controversial, saw the Coffee market explode. In 1616, the Dutch brought a single Coffee plant from Mocha in Yemen to the Netherlands, later implementing large-scale cultivation in Sri Lanka, then a Dutch colony, in 1658. The Dutch also saw Coffee plant cuttings successfully transplanted to Java (then known as Batavia) in present-day Indonesia, and in turn saw Java Coffee plants brought back to Amsterdam in 1706, where they were cultivated in botanical gardens and distributed across Europe. 


Suriname, another Dutch colony, located in South America, became the first New World territory to host Coffee. Soon after, the plants were widely established throughout the continent, particularly in the then Spanish colony that today constitutes as Brazil, a country now home to some of the best-known and most-loved Coffees in the world.

South American Coffee was especially popular in the United States of America, most notably during the early days of its establishment. In 1773, colonial citizens of the British crown dumped 342 chests of Green Tea in the Boston Harbour in protest of extortionate taxes. It would lead to the American War of Independence (1775-1783), which in turn brought about a Tea shortage in America. As a result, soon-to-be American citizens substituted their Tea needs with easily-available Coffee. Today, Coffee remains a vastly more popular drink in the United States over Tea. Over 146 billion cups of Coffee are consumed in America every year, which amounts to 400 million cups daily.  

Coffee Returns to Africa

Coffee Returns to Africa

The story of Coffee came full circle in 1878, when the British Empire laid the foundations of Kenya’s (then British East Africa) Coffee Industry, a country that, ironically, bordered Ethiopia, where Coffee had first been discovered around 1,000 years before. But since its humble beginnings, Coffee had grown to become a staple in society, an accolade it retains today. 

Ethiopia, as well as Kenya, remain vital pillars in the worldwide Coffee Industry. In fact, as of the 21st Century, the African continent continues to produce Coffees of the finest quality, with Ethiopia being the 8th largest Coffee producer and exporter in the world.

The largest producer and exporter in the world, according to 2018 statistics, is Brazil, followed by Vietnam, Colombia, India, Peru, Honduras and Uganda respectively. However, the Coffee Industry, as is the case with almost any commodity, is continuously in flux.

Regardless, the world of Coffee, whether it comes from Hawaii or New Guinea; Rwanda or Guatemala; Turkey or Nicaragua, has a bright future ahead.

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