I’m super excited to bring you Season 2 of The Boise Coffee Podcast, and we’re kicking it off right with a two-part season premiere. I haven’t written or talked much about the history of coffee, and I thought I’d take this opportunity to give a little context to the drink we know and love.
In this episode I start with the discovery of coffee in the 9th century, then talk about the overall movement of coffee from the Ethiopian plateau to Yemen, then eventually to large cities like Mecca and Cairo. Finally, we’ll trace coffee’s European origins and how it became both a source of curiosity and fear.
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The Coffee Guy
This is a two part episode. Check out The History of Coffee Part 2: The Favorite Drink of the Civilized world.
9th century – 17th century
As with any historical narrative, the stories range from completely apocryphal to mostly true. Regardless, we know that the outward spread of coffee happened, and that it was as much due to the slow globalization of culture as it was to luck and a few key historical figures.
The initial discovery of coffee is steeped in legend, but we know that the coffee plant has its origins in the Ethiopian plateau. To this day, the coffee trees in Ethiopia are the most ancient in the world and arguably produce some of the most delicious beans you can find. The higher altitude (compared to the rest of Africa) produces coffee that, when lightly roasted, is fruity and very bright.
Legend says that coffee was first discovered by an Ethiopian goat herder named Kaldi. He noticed that when his goats ate the fruit off of specific plants they got jittery and excitable, so he tried some out for himself. He became so energetic that he couldn’t sleep, and his excitement prompted him to report his findings to the abbot of his town’s monastery.
The monk, as it turns out, was having his own trouble’s with sleep; he couldn’t seem to stay awake for the long evening prayers. The red fruit gave him enough energy to stay vigilant, so he decided to share his new found miracle-fruit with the other monks. Slowly, knowledge about these energy-inducing cherries spread east, eventually reaching the Arabian peninsula.
Coffee history picks back up in the 15th century in Yemen, the country that was a primary importer of beans from Ethiopia. Yemeni traders began growing their own crops, and were the first to actively cultivate the plant mainly for use in their Sufi monasteries. The Sufi monks experienced a kind of “intoxication” during their Godly chants and used a beverage made with coffee beans as a way to stay concentrated both day and night.
Coffee continued to spread throughout the Arabian peninsula, becoming popular in remote villages and big cities alike. The Yemeni port in Mocha was the primary export location for coffee, and by the early 1500s cities like Mecca, Medina, Cairo, and Baghdad became importers as the demand for coffee grew. This “wine of Araby” was brewed in coffeehouses that attracted people from all walks of life to participate in conversation about local politics and culture, prompting them to be called “Schools of the Wise”
Coffee’s journey to Europe started as legend. Travelers to the near east brought back tales of this unusual dark beverage. By the 17th century, coffee was extremely popular in Europe, but not everyone trusted these bitter beans.
Around the year 1600 Venice experienced immense conflict surrounding coffee. The local clergymen treated the drink with suspicion and fear, going as far as to call it the “bitter invention of Satan.”
One of the basis for the Venetian conflict around coffee was its popularity with Muslims at the time. It was seen as a sort of antithesis to wine, a staple in the Catholic Eucharist.
The controversy grew, prompting appeals to ban the drink. Finally the pope was asked to intervene and decide once-and-for-all if coffee was allowed, or if it was an evil to be avoided.
Legend says that upon tasting it, Pope Clement VIII exclaimed “This devil’s drink is so delicious…we should cheat the devil by baptizing it!” The controversy dissolved, and the spread of coffee through Europe continued at break-neck pace.
Until 1616 coffee was essentially a monopoly run by the country of Yemen. Merchants in Mocha were forbidden to export live coffee trees or coffee beans viable for planting. Because of this, demand for coffee across the world could not meet the bottle-necked Yemeni supply. That all changed when a Dutch merchant named Pieter van der Broecke stole some closely guarded coffee beans from Mocha and smuggled them back to Holland. He planted them in the greenhouses of the Amsterdam botanical gardens, where they were closely monitored and bore the first European-produced coffee fruit.
This one event received little press or publicity, but ended up having a major impact on the spread of coffee to the world. These few coffee trees adjusted well to their new home and ended up producing many healthy Coffea Arabica plants. In 1658, nearly forty years after van der Broecke’s coffee heist, the Dutch transported coffee plants from Amsterdam to begin cultivation in their settlements in Ceylon – present day Sri Lanka – and later in souther India.
Within only a few years these Dutch colonies, including Java in Asia, became the main suppliers of coffee to Europe. The Yemeni monopoly was broken.
The idea of coffee houses was not unique to the near east – European consumers quickly found them as a way to share ideas, and they drew people from all different backgrounds. Cities in England, Holland, Germany, Austria, and France were epicenters for coffee houses. In England you could go into a coffeehouse and pay only a penny for a drink and stimulating conversation prompting the nickname “Penny Universities.”
In the mid-1600s coffee received its next big push forward, thanks to the Dutch once again. Dutch colonists were the first to bring coffee to their little colony called New Amsterdam – which would later have its name changed to New York by the British.