Coffee is one of the most popular and unique drinks on the planet. It is no secret, that coffee is widely available today. Have you ever wondered where the coffee bean originated from? If so, you are in the right place! Today we share everything you should know about coffee history.
The coffee bean first emerged from a very specific region in the world. Once discovered, coffee beans grew in popularity and traveled across the globe. Many economies have relied on coffee beans for trade. Even today, coffee is still one of the largest trade commodities in the world.
Today we are covering the history of coffee, from the first coffee beans ever discovered to the modern coffee industry that exists today. Being an ancient relic, coffee has been around for centuries and is a part of world history. It is impossible to explore coffee history without reviewing its discovery in Northern Africa, its early use in Arabia as well as its introduction to trading routes in Europe and Asia.
As you can imagine, we have a lot to cover. Where appropriate, we have linked to sources that contain more information on related subjects that we can’t fully cover in today’s guide. These references back up our information and provide more reading materials, for readers who want to dive deeper into coffee and our shared history with it.
With that understood, let’s start with the history of the origins of coffee.
The Origins Of Coffee
In the beginning, coffee came from Ethiopia, located in Africa. Like many of the world’s most exotic goods, coffee came from Africa and has since become coveted by nations all over the world.
First, we should establish that this coffee is Coffea Arabica, the first cultivated coffee that still represents 60% of world supply today. We will share additional information on coffee and its connection to Arabian civilizations later.
There are multiple varieties of coffee, with Arabica beans considered one of the best types of coffee beans. Along with Arabica, there is Robusta coffee, which is cheaper and easier to grow. Its better taste and lack of availability make Arabica more desirable than Robusta in many contexts.
Arabica coffee beans came from patches of forest in Ethiopia. These coffee forests featured wild flowering coffee plants which were feasted on by local wildlife. Fortunately, humans were also one of the many creatures that stumbled upon those tiny patches of land where Arabica grew!
Even today, Arabica is still classified as endangered. Climate change concerns, mainly habitat loss, are threatening Arabica growth in mainland Africa and Madagascar. It is predicted that by the year 2080, Arabica plants in Ethiopia could be reduced by 85%! While such predictions tend to be pessimistic, and for good reason, we should make the most of the coffee forests that we have and find ways to protect them.
That’s why it’s a great idea to learn everything you can about coffee right now!
How Was Coffee Discovered?
If it wasn’t clear already, our discovery of coffee was very fortunate. With coffee forests being in short supply coffee lovers are lucky that they haven’t disappeared before we discovered a use for the beans they produced.
The story of the discovery of coffee is actually a happy accident! The true history of coffee continues to be a great debate. The story we are sharing today is the most popular explanation of how coffee beans were discovered.
How Coffee Began
The story starts in 700 AD, which was about 1,320 years ago. Back then, the region that would become modern-day Ethiopia was part of Abyssinia, also known as the Kingdom of Aksum or the Ethiopian Empire.
Here, a goat herder called Kaldi noticed that his herd was acting strange, much differently than normal. They were excitable and, by some accounts, dancing! He followed them around and saw that they were eating small, red berries on the nearby plants.
That same night, the goats refused to go to sleep as they were still bustling with energy. Figuring out that the berries were the cause of the goats’ behavior, he went to find somebody who could help.
That’s where he found a monk. From here, the story splits into two. In the first version of the story, the monk is studious and wants to find something that helps him stay up later. Other versions the monk disbelieves the beans and their ability. In the second case, he throws the beans into the fire and they create a pleasing aroma that gets their attention.
It seems believable that, for this period, a learned man like a monk would know how to bring out the best qualities of coffee beans. Back then, most educated people were religious advisors, and they often worked with plant ingredients for medical and ritualistic purposes. That said, it’s also possible that the monk created the first-ever roasted coffee in a freak accident, who knows?
What we do know is that we discovered coffee beans and have benefited immensely from them since. The first written story of Kaldi comes from 1671, so it could be a fabrication. Our knowledge of the history of coffee is much more certain from the 1400s onwards.
Two later stories credit a notable Moroccan mystic, Abu al-Hasan al-Shadhili, or his disciple Omar for the discovery.
Trade And Growth
We know so much about coffee from the 1400s onward because that’s where it started to grow in popularity. Here is the path that coffee took as it grew more common and traded its way across the world.
Arrival In Yemen
At some point in time, known to be in the 1500s, Muhammad Ibn Said Al Dhabhani crossed the red sea with coffee and arrived on the Arabian Peninsula. Dhabhani, a Sufi Imam, was known to trade between Ethiopia and the Peninsula.
Ethiopia was only a hop and a skip away from Arabia, so coffee beans didn’t have to travel far to get to some of the most advanced civilizations in the world at the time. Somali merchants from the ports of Zeila and Berbera often important coffee.
From there, coffee beans arrived at Mocha, a port city based in Yemen. Shipments of coffee were common to the port city and the word mocha became known as another way to refer to coffee. In fact, Mocha still describes Yemeni coffee beans today!
You may also recognize the word “mocha” still in use for popular coffee drinks today. The majority of the time the word “mocha” refers to a cafe mocha beverage. Coffee mocha is is a beverage that is served hot or cold, and is mixed with hot milk and chocolate flavoring.
If you would like to try a coffee mocha, be sure to check out our top iced mocha recipes by clicking here!
Through trading to Mocha, and a nearby city called Aden, the Somali coffee-trading business exploded.
Spread Through The Islamic World
Al Dhabhani and other Imams were enthusiastic customers of the Somali coffee trade because they used it to practice their religion. They used coffee as a stimulant, much like many of us do today, but they needed the energy for studying and performing religious ceremonies.
As coffee became popular for use in religious ceremonies, its popularity grew. Universities and schools of the wise (which were essentially coffee houses) became interested in coffee, which was dubbed “the wine of Araby.”
Coffee-serving establishments became places for people to communicate with one another – some things never change.
As the popularity of coffee grew throughout the Islamic world, coffee beans were sent to holy sites. These sites included the Mecca and Medina, in Saudi Arabia, along with Cairo (Egypt), Damascus (Syria), Baghdad (Persia), and Constantinople (The Ottoman Empire).
In the beginning Mecca banned its theologists from using coffee due to their conservative beliefs. This was overturned after the Ottomans declared it permissible through a fatwa.
Coffee & Islam
Other coffee bans did occur and would continue throughout the 1500s. Eventually, the majority of bans were eventually overturned. People loved their coffee so much they even rioted in the streets after coffee houses, which had become social hubs, were closed down!
Eventually coffee was grown in multiple territories of Egypt, Syria, Persia, and Turkey. As we said above, coffee was a divisive issue and multiple areas went back and forth on whether it was permissible under Islam.
Many likened coffee to alcohol believing that coffee affects cognition. As a result, they recommended that coffee should be forbidden on the same grounds.
Coffee lovers argued that coffee is nowhere near as intoxicating as alcohol. Many Imams and rulers were already drinking it, so surely it’s not that bad? It was also very, very profitable for the Red Sea region to trade coffee across the Islamic world.
Even today, you’ll find conflicting answers over whether coffee is halal (permissible) or haram (forbidden). Just like there are fatwas in coffee’s favor, others are condemning it. Coffee is accepted by the majority of faiths. However, the debate on if coffee is permissible still rages on in some areas. Additionally, interpretations of the faith also restrict its use.
Coffee was a common drink during Ramadan. This was because it helped Muslims fast during the day and keep active at night.
Arrival In Europe
The arrival of coffee in Europe is just as dramatic as its discovery. In the 1500s, after coffee made its way to the Turks, they would later go on the warpath. The Ottomans, under Suleiman the Magnificent, marched to the southeastern European Kingdom of Hungary with his army. Naturally, they needed a little something to put a spring in their step along the way.
In the famous Battle of Mohacs the Hungarian king was slain. This allowed the Ottomans to march even deeper into Europe. There, the siege of Vienna took place, and the Ottoman invaders introduced coffee to one of Europe’s most cultured capital cities as a result.
Not long after this, coffee was independently introduced to Malta by the Knights of St John. As part of the ongoing hostilities between the Christian Europeans and the Islamic Turks, the knights captured and traded slaves from Turkey after repelling the Great Siege of Malta, another historic event. The slaves made money for themselves by making coffee, and mixing the beans with water and sugar.
Coffee in Europe
Leonhard Rauwolf was the first European to officially mention coffee in his writings, which he did during a visit to Aleppo. The writings of European travelers, along with the booming trade routes between the Republic of Venice and Africa, brought coffee deeper into Western Europe.
The first European coffee house to establish itself without Islamic influence was in Venice. Another opened later in Vienna, after another battle over the city between the Ottomans and the Eastern European forces started by a Polish military officer. From here, we got mélange and the Viennese coffee house scene.
If you didn’t know, some of the greatest and most terrible people of the 19th century all shared coffee in the city, along with other notables like James Joyce and Gustav Klimt. This scene was well known for creativity and scientific curiosity. Unfortunately, it was later destroyed by the ideologies that came from its patrons.
This is where the Viennese Kapuziner was developed. Today, it is better known as the cappuccino!. At this point, coffee wasn’t just an Islamic import into Europe – now Europeans were creating and cultivating it independently.
History of Coffee In Britain & America
The English-chartered Levant Company brought coffee to Britain after Leonhard Rauwolf’s accounts. The first coffee houses opened soon after and they became a valuable commodity of the British East India Company. The Enlightenment era was spurred by intellectuals and scholars meeting in coffee shops, similar to the Arabians and the Viennese before them.
By the 1700s, coffee was introduced to the following places:
- The Ottoman Empire
- The Kingdom of Hungary
- The Republic of Venice
- Mainland Italy
- The Netherlands
In 1700, France owned the Caribbean island of Martinique. The tropical climate allowed coffee trees to thrive in Martinique. Today, you may know this location as Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
Like many crops of this period, the French used African slave labor to harvest them. Fortunately, this didn’t last long thanks to the Haitian revolution. While it crippled the coffee industry in Haiti, Latin America had already embraced coffee as a tasty beverage. In fact, it was one of the world’s most consumed drinks.
The colonies that formed the United States of America consumed tea, specifically in the port town of New Amsterdam. Nowadays, we know it as New York. The Americans largely switched to coffee after the Boston Tea Party, where anti-British Americans threw tea into the docks. Today, the USA is the leading importer of coffee, closely followed by France.
The Modern Coffee Industry
A year later, coffee was growing in Brazil. From Brazil it was then shipped to Kenya ending a centuries-long journey. Today, Brazil is still the largest coffee producer.
Colombia, Vietnam, and the Ivory Coast also entered the fray and secured their corner of the market. The Philippines, India, and Japan benefited from the mainstreaming of coffee, which also reached China sometime in the 1900s.
This is where companies like McDonald’s and Starbucks started in the 1950s and ‘70s, respectively. Both companies continued to grow with franchises opening worldwide. This becamse the catalyst that pushed the coffee house into the modern age.
McDonald’s McCafé coffee brand responsibly sources all the coffee beans used in their drinks. Their beans come from Brazil, Peru, and Honduras.
Starbucks has a broader footprint, sourcing from 30 countries. As the capital of Arabica production, Brazil is one of the main coffee suppliers.
Modern Chinese coffee cultivation only started in 1988, in Yunnan province. After the 1999 Olympic Games in Beijing, Starbucks opened its first Chinese store. We have more information on how coffee preparation has changed below.
Coffee had taken over the world by now, with people of all cultures enjoying it daily. Not bad for a few berries growing in the hills of Ethiopia!
The History of the Coffee Bean
That is the history of coffee or at least the most interesting parts that you need to know.
Let’s go into more detail about the nature of coffee. We will review what coffee is, how it is structured, and why the world i in love with it.
As we mentioned at the start of this guide, there are other coffee species too. Here’s a brief coffee history of each one:
We’re quite familiar with Arabica by now. It is the most popular and established coffee type, so most of the coffee you’ve had was likely Arabica. Their beans grow at a high altitude and require shade, along with a lot of rainfall. In those conditions, the trees are easy to care for, though they are delicate to wider environmental impacts.
Robusta is the coffee that thrives in hot climates. It also doesn’t care about altitude or rain that much, and it’s resistant to diseases. It may have a harsh flavor but it’s great for getting a caffeine boost and it’s affordable since it’s cheaper than Arabica. Some also claim that Robusta has a chocolate-like taste, so it’s a great accompaniment for desserts.
Liberica is a coffee cultivated in West Africa that has a smoky taste. It’s a larger, less common bean that’s instantly recognizable for having an irregular shape. It also has gained popularity in the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia.
Excelsa coffee has recently changed to become part of the Liberica family (designated Coffea liberica var. dewevrei). It has a slightly different taste to Liberica coffee, prioritizing the tart, fruity taste that was sometimes present in Liberica.
If you want to learn more about the coffee bean you are in the right place! Read on as we have your answers right here.
Coffee plants are small flowering plants in the Rubiaceae family. Along with vibrant green leaves, they sprout bushels of bright red berries called drupes. Drupe is the botanical term for a fruit that bears a single seed at its middle.
Peaches, plums, and cherries are drupes or also known as stone fruits. This also means that natural coffee is closer to cherries than berries, so that’s the technically correct term, though berries often come to mind when looking at the small, red orbs.
Inside the cherries are their seeds, which are usually green when unroasted in Arabica and Robusta yields. These are the beans that we use to make coffee. We grow coffee cherries to harvest and get the beans out of them.
Layers of the Coffee Cherry
There are three layers to a coffee cherry, here’s a brief rundown of what they are, what they do, and how useful they are to us:
Simply put, the exocarp is the skin of drupes, berries, and other similar fruits. It protects the contents of the fruit by warding away predators with its coloring. Coffea plants have long been used to make cascara too.
Cascara is a Spanish and Latin American recipe for herbal tea made from dried skins. Even back in Yemen and Somalia, they made a similar beverage called qishr and bun, respectively.
The mesocarp, more commonly called the pulp, is the flesh that makes up most of the fruit. This is edible with berries and some drupes, like peaches. Can you eat coffee cherries? Well, yes, but there’s a reason it’s not available at your local store. It isn’t much and it tastes fine, like a watered-down apricot. The taste of a coffee cherry is often compared to a watermelon.
- Parchment/Silver Skin
Then you get to the bean, though you can’t quite see it yet. The bean is swaddled in two layers of film that protect the seed. The first layer of the skin is referred to as the parchment with the second layer called the silver skin.
There are two main ways that coffee is harvested:
The first is through strip picking, where a machine or human strips cherries off of the Coffea plants one branch at a time. Most of the time when a human is hand pikcing cherries, they selectively pick the ripe cherries. The manual picking process allows the green berries to remain on the branch until they are ripe.
Just like a tomato or a strawberry, green means that it isn’t ripe yet! This means you can’t use it and, by picking it, it’ll never develop into a ripe cherry in the future. There is a difference between green coffee cherries and green coffee beans, which are the Arabica and Robusta seeds before they get blasted in a roasting machine.
Once the cherries have been harvested they are put in water to soften. This makes it easier to separate the stone inside from the skin and pulp. If they’re efficient growers, they’ll keep the skin and pulp to make cascara and other beverages, though some operations waste them.
- Raw coffee beans are separated from their cherries.
- A rotating drum is pre-heated to approximately 464 degrees Fahrenheit (240 degrees Celsius). The beans are loaded into the rotating drum.
- They are then removed after 12-15 minutes and left to cool.
- The beans are passed through a machine or hand-checked to remove any debris or defective seeds.
To finish off this section on coffee, here are some extra characteristics of the Coffea plants and the beans that we get from them:
- There are approximately 60 species of coffee plants growing across the world. Only a few of them bare cherries that are usable to us.
- There are 20 plant species that can produce fruit that can be used to make coffee.
- Even then, just 2 plants rule the industry – Arabica and Robusta.
- Most coffee growth and production are along the equator, where it grows best.
- If grown in different climates and heating environments, the qualities and characteristics of drupes change.
- The average Arabica coffee bean has 1.9 milligrams of caffeine while Robusta has approximately 2.9 milligrams of caffeine. Want energy? Get some Robusta.
- A cup will typically have anywhere between 50 to 100 milligrams of caffeine on average, though this depends on a lot of factors.
- The most expensive and popular coffee is the famous Kopi Luwak. Kopi Luwak is made using berries that are passed through a small cat-like mammal, the civet. The beans are then harvested from their dung. The average small cup can set you back $70. It is apparently very sweet.
Coffee As We Know It Today
To properly understand modern coffee preparation, you need to know about the waves of coffee. Waves of coffee is where production was revolutionized, first in the 1800s and then in the 1960s.
History Of The First Wave Of Coffee
The first wave of coffee began as a result of a rudimentary percolator that was invented in 1818. t Innovation later came by way of Jabez Burns. Burns was a New York inventor in 1864 who invented the first fireless coffee roaster.
Like with many innovations, the ball had started rolling. Next, John Arbuckle created a packaging machine that allowed his company to become one of the 1800’s biggest importers.
The first espresso machine was created in 1901. The inventor, Luigi Bezzera, created it because he wanted his employees to work faster!
His patent eventually sold to the La Pavoni company. They continued experimenting with the device. Achille Gaggia would later beat them to the punch by increasing pressure using a piston device.
At around the same time, German housewife Melitta Bentz used school papers to make the first recorded paper coffee filters. Like everybody else back then, she filed a patent and started a company based around it.
Also at this same time, the Brazilian government approached Nestle and other companies with a problem – they had too much coffee waste. The solution, after many years of research, was to freeze-dry the coffee and store it. This created instant coffee.
With these three inventions happening within the same decade, and then the US government starting Prohibition in the 1920s, coffee quickly became the country’s favorite drink.
History Of The Second Wave Of Coffee
The next big innovation in the world of coffee came from Alfred Peet, an American who came from a coffee-roasting family in Holland. Having moved to California, Peet opened Peet’s Coffee in the 1960s.
From 1971 onwards, Peet shared his specialty roasting techniques among friends. Impressed, they joined his business temporarily and then branched off to form their own stores, with Peet’s permission. The first of these offshoots started in Seattle – the store called itself Starbucks.
Starbucks hired salesman Howard Schultz. Schultz was well known for being inspired by Italian espresso café culture. He wanted a Starbucks on every street corner!
During the 80s, Starbucks bought their old mentor, Peet’s Coffee, and started to build their franchise. After leaving to pursue his own venture, Schultz returned and bought Starbucks, which only emboldened their vision of bringing Starbucks coffee to everybody.
This was the second wave of coffee, where Starbucks and industry imitators created the modern café experience that we know today. Starbucks has changed a lot since Peet’s roasting techniques but, no matter your opinion of them, they were instrumental in mainstreaming brewed coffee services.
It used to be a popular belief that brewed coffee was better than getting somebody else to brew it for you. With Starbucks and similar companies, they brought back the coffee house atmosphere that the medieval Arabians enjoyed when they first brought coffee into the limelight.
With that, we come to the end of our guide on coffee history. To properly explore the history of coffee and how it has changed the world, we had to journey from the dry hills of Ethiopia to the bustling cities of Europe, and finally the shores of the Americas. Together, we have tackled over 1,300 years of coffee history!
We hope you enjoyed today’s history lesson! Wishing you happy coffee drinking!