Coffee is one of the most popular and unique drinks on the planet. While it’s widely available today, being found in cabinets and coffee shops everywhere, the coffee bean first emerged from a very specific region in the world. From there, they were taken across the globe, and many economies relied on them for trade. Even today, it’s one of the largest trade commodities.
Today we’re covering the history of coffee, from the first coffee beans ever discovered to the modern coffee industry that we have today. Being one of the older beverages that we still drink, the history of coffee is tied to our own history. It’s impossible to explore it without touching on its discovery in Northern Africa, its early use in Arabia, and 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
While history can get messy and confused, one thing is certain – coffee came from Ethiopia.
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. Why is it called Arabica? We have more on coffee and its connection to Arabian civilizations later.
Arabica isn’t the only coffee but it is considered the best coffee. 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.
This coffee came from patches of forest in Ethiopia – so-called coffee forests – where the wild flowering coffee plants were feasted on by local birds, baboons, and other animals in the area. Fortunately, we were some of the 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. By 2080, the coverage of 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. Many other natural resources have been lost to time and, with coffee forests being so limited, we’re lucky that they weren’t dried up or bulldozed before we discovered a use for the beans they produced.
Even the story of coffee being discovered was a happy accident. Like many old stories, its accuracy can be debated, but the story 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. He is portrayed as either a studious monk, who wants to find something that helps him stay up later at night for reading and praying, or he 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 was a Sufi Imam known to trade between Ethiopia and the Peninsula, specifically Yemen.
Ethiopia was only a hop and a skip away from Arabia, so it didn’t have to travel far to get to some of the most advanced civilizations in the world at the time. Coffee was exported by Somali merchants from the ports of Zeila and Berbera.
From there, it arrived at Mocha, a port city based in Yemen. Shipments of coffee were common to the port city. As a result, the word mocha is often used to refer to coffee. Mocha is still used to describe Yemeni coffee beans. However, most of the time it refers to cafe mocha, which is where coffee is mixed with hot milk and chocolate flavoring.
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 such, coffee was heavily tied to Sufism in those regions. Universities and so-called schools of the wise (which were essentially coffee houses) started to become 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 it spread through the Islamic world, coffee was sent to holy sites at Mecca and Medina, in Saudi Arabia, along with Cairo (Egypt), Damascus (Syria), Baghdad (Persia), and Constantinople (The Ottoman Empire). Initially, Mecca banned its theologists from using it due to their conservative beliefs, though this was overturned after the Ottomans declared it permissible through a fatwa.
Coffee & Islam
Other bans happened and would continue throughout the 1500s, though all of them were eventually overturned. In some cases, the people rioted in the streets after coffee houses, which had become social hubs, were closed down!
At this point, coffee was being grown in 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.
Like alcohol, coffee affects cognition, so it should be forbidden on the same grounds. However, coffee is nowhere near as intoxicating, and 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. While it is generally accepted nowadays, the debate still rages on in some areas and some interpretations of the faith may restrict its use.
In both religious and non-religious circles, one thing is encouraged – drink it in moderation. Where it was permitted, coffee was a common drink during Ramadan as 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.
The result of this incursion was the famous Battle of Mohacs, where the Hungarian king was slain and the Ottomans marched 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, 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 yet another battle over the city between the Ottomans and the Eastern European forces, and it was 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 known for its creativity and scientific curiosity, though it would later be destroyed by the ideologies that came from some of its patrons.
This is also where the Viennese Kapuziner, better known as the cappuccino, was developed. 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, just like the Arabians and the Viennese before them.
We’re in the 1700s now, where coffee has been introduced to the following places:
- The Ottoman Empire
- The Kingdom of Hungary
- The Republic of Venice
- Mainland Italy
- The Netherlands
At this time, the Caribbean island of Martinique was owned by France and seeded with coffee trees. These developed so well that they were later cultivated at Hispaniola, the Caribbean’s main island and the location of modern-day 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 grown in Brazil and then shipped to Kenya, not too far from Ethiopia, 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. As both companies exploded and franchises opened worldwide, the coffee house was taken into the modern age.
McDonald’s (or McCafé, as its coffee brand is called) responsibly sources their coffee beans from Brazil, Peru, and Honduras while Starbucks takes 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 get into more detail about the nature of coffee – what it is, how it is structured, and why the world fell 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 type of coffee that we haven’t mentioned yet. It’s a larger, less common bean that’s instantly recognizable for having an irregular shape. It’s named after Liberia since it is mostly cultivated in West Africa, though it has been introduced to the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia too. It has been described as having a smoky taste.
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.
Maybe you’ve been following the history of coffee but you’re confused about how coffee grows in the world – beans, berries, what does it all mean? Fortunately, 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. These are called drupes, which is the botanical term for a fruit that bears a single seed at its middle. Peaches, plums, and cherries are drupes. Drupes are sometimes called 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, wards away predators with its coloring and, in the case of Coffea plants, it has long been used to make cascara. 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 gets compared to a watermelon often.
- Parchment/Silver Skin
Then you get to the bean, though you can’t quite see it yet. It is swaddled in two layers of film that protect the seed and perform other vital functions where the seed interacts with the rest of the fruit. The first layer is called the parchment while the second layer is called the silver skin – no prizes for guessing why!
Assuming a healthy crop of Coffea plants that are bearing fruit, there are two main ways that coffee is harvested.
The first is through strip picking, where a machine strips cherries off of the Coffea plants one branch at a time. This can be done by a human being in some cases. However, in most cases where a human is involved, they selectively pick the ripe cherries. This is better because the green berries should not be harvested.
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. Note that 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 all been harvested, they are thrown into some 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 bear cherries that are usable to us.
- Of those 60 plant species, only 20 of them make fruit that can be turned into satisfying coffee.
- Even then, just 2 plants rule the industry – Arabica & 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 taste and strength of the bean can be affected.
- 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. This is where berries are passed through a small cat-like mammal, the civet, and the beans are 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. This is where coffee production was revolutionized, first in the 1800s and then in the 1960s.
History Of The First Wave Of Coffee
The first wave came after a rudimentary percolator was created in 1818 Paris. 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 (no, not the Garfield character) created a packaging machine that allowed his company to become one of the 1800’s biggest importers.
In 1901, the first espresso machine was then created in Italy. It was apparently made because the inventor, Luigi Bezzera, wanted his employees to get to work faster! The patent was sold to the La Pavoni company, which 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.
Met with success, Starbucks hired salesman Howard Schultz, who was 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.
For a time in the early 1900s, home-brewed coffee was thought to be 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 have also included valuable details about coffee types, the structure of coffee cherries and beans, and some information on how they are harvested and prepared. Knowing everything in this guide is essential if you’re interested in coffee and the history of how it found its way to your cup.