Coffee’s impact on mankind cannot be overstated. It remains one of the most popular beverages on the planet next to drinking water and tea, and despite its rather humble beginnings in the cool countryside of Ethiopia, coffee is at least partially responsible for centuries of Arab and Western progress, and can even be said to play a role in the rapid expansion of the world’s largest and most tyrannical imperial force (and its downfall).
Coffee is interwoven into the lives of nations and peoples, and remains a massively contributing cash crop to several developing nations within the world’s “coffee belt”, including Colombia, Brazil, Venezuela, Guatemala, Ethiopia, Kenya, Yemen, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, and more.
When tracing coffee’s history from spiritual drink to global staple, one must start at the very beginning. The coffee plant was indigenous to the plateaus of Ethiopia, where legend has it that a goatherder first came across the plant’s stimulant effects by observing his charges get high on its berries.
The tradition of eating the berries and boiling the seeds spread to the Sufi mystics of the Arabian Peninsula, who traded with the Ethiopians and spread the beverage throughout the rest of the Islamic world. While coffee was known as bun in Ethiopia, it became known as qahwa in the Arab world, a word previously attributed to wine.
While no one is entirely sure how coffee first made its way from Ethiopia into Southern Arabia, one legend has it that a Sufi mystic in the court of the Ethiopian sultan Sadaddin II made note of the coffee plant’s remarkable capacity to promote alertness and stave off exhaustion, and brought it back to Arabia.
Over the course of the next several centuries, coffee or qahwa became a defining part of Islamic culture, being served in the homes and palaces of Islamic merchants and noblemen alike, as well as the nomadic tents of the North African Bedouin.
Coffee was so ubiquitous that the Arab dirham still features a coffee-serving dallah on its coin face. It was apparently the Persians who eventually began roasting the seeds, a practice that spread back throughout the coffee-drinking world of East and North Africa, although much of the Arabic world still traditionally prefers very lightly toasted coffee.
By the 16th century, coffee had become synonymous with Islamic intellectualism and a growing secular culture, one that was particularly promoted in the urban centers of Egypt, Syria, and the Ottoman Empire, where coffeehouses served limitless cups of fresh coffee alongside hookahs serving flavored tobacco.
While there was much opposition against coffee over the centuries, the fact that it was a favorite of countless influential men and religious figureheads meant that any attempts to totally ban coffee-drinking were futile, or at the very least short-lived.
When coffee was first introduced to European travelers and merchants, it was known as the Wine of Islam. French merchants told lively stories of Persian coffeehouses, where men engaged in vivacious discussions of politics and other matters.
Imports from Arabia led to the introduction of coffee in Venice, Marseilles, and London in the first half of the 17th century, and it was London that established its own first European coffeehouse.
The Birth of the English Coffeehouse
London’s first coffeehouse was the invention of Pasqua Rosée, an Armenian immigrant who worked as a servant alongside a merchant specializing in importing goods out of the Levant.
A handbill published in 1652 advertising his new coffeeshop shows how he purported coffee to be a panacea grown in the “Deserts of Arabia”, and drunk by the Turks. “It is very good to prevent miscarrying’s in child-bearing women”, he explained, and “good against the headache”.
Pasqua’s coffeehouse spawned a coffee revolution throughout London and drew the interest and patronage of thousands of gentlemen and intellectuals over the years. Contemporaries of the later years of the 17th century claimed that there were “over 3,000” coffeehouses in London, and the popularity of the drink grew to such proportions that King Charles II attempted to crush them, but failed.
It concerned the king greatly that many Londoners could sit down and discuss politics feverishly for the price of a single penny – and that had been the drink’s primary selling point.
Up until that point, London and the rest of England were consumed by alcohol, and quite literally so – the only alternative to the dangerous and infested waters of the Thames were a light ale, and most of the city’s denizens were typically inebriated at all times of day.
Coffee provided a stimulant alternative to alcohol, and while it didn’t taste good at all and would have been undrinkable by today’s standards, it brought with it an eccentric collection of establishments keen on hosting the most interesting and rousing discussions in the city, each with their own gimmick or unique offering, whether it’s a taxidermy collection, a catalogue of prostitutes, or coffee-fueled dancing on a floating café on the River Thames itself.
Although London’s coffee culture was arguably unparalleled at that point, the drink had spread first throughout Italy due to Venice’s flourishing trade with the Arab world, and an official edict of approval by Pope Clement, who proclaimed that something so divine-tasting could not be a drink of the Devil, even if it did come from Muslim soil.
France, Poland, and Austria caught onto the coffee trend later on in the 17th century.
Introducing Coffee to the Americas
While the Dutch were the first to cultivate coffee outside of the Arab world – in their colony of what would one day become modern day Jakarta, Indonesia – the French transported coffee plants to the Americas. Those first imports eventually flourished into a region-wide cash crop, one that South America is still famous for.
While coffeehouse culture had spread from England to Boston and New Amsterdam in the colonies of North America, coffee was still not as popular as alcohol.
That all changed as the British made the transition towards tea with cheap imports from their lands in India, and the Americans began switching over to coffee after relations with England grew sour during the early years of the Revolutionary War. The beginning of the 19th century saw England ban imports of tea to North America, cementing the American love for coffee.
By the 19th century, coffee was being grown in dozens of nations and colonies around the equator. Much of the world’s coffee came from Brazil, while Colombia, Guatemala, and Venezuela accounted for most of the remaining coffee trade.
Since then, the South American coffee exporting supremacy has waned somewhat in the face of growing competitors, particularly Vietnam. Other important coffee-exporting regions include Africa and Central America.
Modern day coffee history can be summarized by the first, second, and third waves of coffee.
The first wave came about as a result of World War II, seeing the rise and proliferation of soluble instant coffee, and plummeting coffee prices. By the 1970s, consumers in America wanted a better taste of coffee as more than just a stimulant, importing European coffee culture in the form of the coffeeshop and espresso variants.
With a heightened interest in coffee as an artisanal product came the third wave of coffee, which as a relatively new development has seen customers request specific varietals and show interest in differences between species across regions, brewing methods, and more. Away from the lattes and Frappuccinos, and more towards the unique tastes and flavors of coffee for coffee’s sake.
While coffee remains an ancient tradition in several regions, particularly the states of the Arabian Peninsula and Ethiopia, Western coffee culture is also growing in these countries, riding in alongside Starbucks and similar modern coffee chains that offer more than just brewed coffee with sugar and creamer, or a post-supper espresso.