In this follow up to The History of Coffee Part 1 I discuss how coffee made its way from Europe to the United States, South America, Central America, the Caribbean, and beyond. Focusing in on the 17th-19th centuries, I tell the stories of key individuals who pushed coffee forward and made it the multi billion dollar industry it is.
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The Coffee Guy
The History of Coffee Part 2: The Favorite Drink of the Civilized World
By the mid 1700s there were over 300 coffee shops in London alone, which attracted artists, businesspeople, merchants, and other like-minded people of various intellects and backgrounds. As we discussed at the end of the last episode, Dutch colonists were the first to transport coffee to their villages in the New World, but it was by-far not the most popular caffeine-laced beverage.
The British love their tea, and prior to 1773 so did their American counterparts. A little incident called the Boston Tea Party changed this sentiment forever, causing a major shift in the political implications of drinking coffee.
Choosing to drink tea in colonial America was as much a political statement about your association with Great Britain as waving a British flag outside your window. Some historians see the Tea Act (and similar taxation-without-representation acts) and the events that followed as a “straw that broke the camel’s back” leading to the Revolutionary War.
Tea was out, and coffee was patriotic.
But back to the Dutch. In 1714, King Louis XIV of France was presented a gift by the Mayor of Amsterdam – a young coffee plant. The king ordered that it be planted in the France Botanical Gardens in Paris, and in 1723 a young French naval officer by the name of Gabriel de Clieu arranged to transport a seedling from this plant.
Through rugged storms, tumultuous winds, and a would-be saboteur who intended to destroy the seedling, Gabriel carried the seedling to the Caribbean island of Martinique where he planted it. According to the National Coffee Association, the seedling not only thrived, but is credited with the spread of over 18 million coffee trees on the island over the next 50 years. Not only that, but this seedling receives credit for being the parent of all coffee trees throughout the Caribbean, South, and Central Americas.
In Brazil, the history of coffee is no less interesting. In 1727 a man named Francisco de Mello Palheta was sent by the emperor of Brazil to French Guiana in hopes of obtaining coffee seeds or plants. The Portuguese were looking for a way to undercut the coffee market, but had been unsuccessful with obtaining any viable plants due to the governor of French Guiana being unwilling to export seeds.
Francisco made his way across the border with hopes of diplomatically solving this problem, but was unsuccessful in convincing the governor. While there, however, Francisco did befriend the governor’s wife. Depending on the story, he either seduced her, or she was taken by his good looks – but either way, the result was the same. While diplomacy did not rule the day, Francisco nonetheless returned home with enough coffee seeds to successfully start the Brazilian coffee business. Today, Brazil is home to a billion-dollar industry around coffee.
In 1824 Founding Father and the third president of the United States Thomas Jefferson deemed coffee “the favorite drink of the civilized world.” According to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, he enjoyed the coffee houses of Williamsburg and Paris, and served coffee at the President’s House, Poplar Forest, and Monticello. He preferred beans imported from the East and West Indies and abhorred the “green” or unripe beans that were popular in America at the Time.
It’s estimated that a pound of coffee a day was consumed at Monticello during his retirement. To store his coffee, Jefferson kept unfrosted beans in barrels in his cellar. These barrels weighed as much as 60 pounds. Small portions of coffee were roasted and ground in Jefferson’s kitchen, then served at breakfast and after dinner. Jefferson designed and commissioned the smithing of a silver coffee urn which he would use to share the beverage with visitors to Monticello.
As you’ve heard over the last two episodes, the history of coffee is far from boring. Monopolies have been built on coffee, and smugglers have brought them down. Entire modern industries are based on coffee because one person did their job and brought home viable seeds. While some might argue that the spread of coffee was inevitable due to its characteristic caffeine buzz and the fact that its popularity almost always preceded its availability, I argue instead that it succeeded only because specific individuals pushed it forward.
Coffee didn’t succeed merely because of traders, kings, emperors, or political agendas. It succeeded because of specific individuals – people. People who believed that coffee could make them and their country better. People who believed that coffee was worth the time and effort it took to grow, process, grind, make, and brew.
In first world countries today, coffee is treated equally as a commodity and a specialty beverage. In places like LA you can find a $1 brewed cup of coffee at a diner, or you can travel to your nearest third-wave shop and drink a brew crafted to perfection for closer to $4 or $5. This wide availability and craftsmanship did not come all at once, or because of one group of people. The history of coffee spans centuries, nations, and the lives of specific people who thought coffee was worth it.