History of Coffee


ancient coffee houseWhile the history of coffee can be a little murky it is nevertheless a fascinating story. What we know of the botanical history is a bit more accurate than what we know of exactly how the beans of this particular plant came to be brewed into one of the most popular beverages of all time.


However, even with some gaps and unconfirmed reports, the history of coffee is a great stroy.


The coffee plant almost certainly originated in what is now Ethiopia. For you ancient history buffs, this is the region that used to be called Abyssina. How this plant came to be part of the diet is less clear. However there is a popular legend. Here it is.


A goatherd named Kaldi was missing some of his flock. When he found them, they were frolicking, prancing on two legs and doing all manner of other rather ungoat-like things near a bush with shiny dark green leaves. Kaldi noticed that the goats were nibbling on the berries of this bush. He tried a few of the berries himself and soon felt as energetic as the goats.


What happened next varies in different versions of the story. They usually involve a monk who learned about the berries from Kaldi.


In one version, the monk thought the berries and their stimulant effect with the work of dark forces and threw them in a fire. He changed his mind when he noticed the wonderful aroma and flavor of the now roasted beans. Since coffee beans don't smell all that great in the early stages of roasting (I'm stating this based on the reaction I got when I was going through my roast-my-own-beans-at-home phase. I was strongly encouraged by my loved ones to leave it to the pros).


The version I like to believe is that the wise monk submitted the fruits of the coffee plant to systematic experimentation and eventually determine how to roast and brew coffee.


However this part of the story about Kaldi and the monk is probably more legend than history. In any case, coffee was not actively cultivated during its early days in Ethiopia. People harvested the wild bean rather than attempt to cultivate it. They were more likely to chew it whole by itself or mixed with other food than to make a beverage from it.


Active cultivation and refinement of coffee as a beverage was an accomplishment of the Arab world.


Sometime around 600 A.D. coffee spread from its native home inarabia felix map North Africa to the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. This is the country we now know as Yemen, then known as Arabia Felix. Although the coffee plant was actively cultivated, it was originally used as a medicine or as part of religious rituals (coffee may be where some whirling dervishes got their wild energy).


Turks brought coffee from Yemen to Constantinople in the mid 15th century and sometime around 1470 to 1475 and the first coffee house opened. It was called Kiva Han. The name still lives on. Kiva Han is the name of a coffee roaster and distributor as well the name of various coffeehouses around the world.


Pilgrims and traders visiting the Arabian Peninsula fell in love with coffee and it became a valuable trading commodity. The Arabs tried to maintain a monopoly by prohibiting the export of beans that had been parched or parboiled to make them in fertile. This was ultimately an exercise in futility.


Dutch traders eventually were able to smuggle out a single coffee plant from Yemen. They planted the seeds in their territories in Ceylon and Java. These locations remain prime coffee producing regions today.


Another story is that a religious pilgrim from India by the name of Baba Budan smuggled fertile seeds back to India from the Arab Peninsula. The seeds thrived and coffee cultivation became common in India.


From these beginnings soon spread worldwide rarer conditions support its growth. Coffee does best in cool climates, but it does not tolerate frost. Typically it grows best above 2000 feet above sea level, preferably between 4000 and 6000 feet. Generally speaking, the "coffee belt) ranges between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Tropic of Cancer. Coffee now grows in dozens of countries in this range.


To go back to history for a moment, France had a role to play in the worldwide propagation of coffee. In the 18th century coffee remained a luxury that only the wealthy could afford. Europe had to import its coffee either from Java or Yemen. The main port in Yemen at the time was Mocha. This gave rise to the Mocha-Java blend which remains popular today. In 1715 Louis XIV, who had become a great coffee lover, was able to convince the Dutch to give him a tree. Louis had the first greenhouse in Europe constructed to house, protect and propagate this precious plant.


Attempts to grow it in the open in France were unsuccessful because of the climate. However, it did much better in French colonies.


In 1720 a French chevalier, Gabriel Mathiew de Clieu, stole some coffee shoots to take with him on an expedition to Martinique. He stole them because he was unable to obtain them through official channels.


It was a long and hazardous journey. Only one plant survived when the ship was becalmed and water had to be rationed. Legend has it that the one plant survived only because de Clieu shared his meager daily water ration with it.


Once the tree was planted in Martinique, though, it's thrived.


As others had before them, the French tried to maintain a monopoly. This attempt came to an end in 1727 when a Brazilian, Lieut. Col. Franciso de Melo Paheta, visit Martinique to mediate a dispute between the Dutch and French. While there the story has it that he seduced the wife of the French governor and as a parting gift she sent him a bouquet containing viable coffee seeds and shoots. Those shoots were the origin of Brazilian and Central American coffee production.


When you think about it, it's astounding how many billions of coffee plants growing today are descendents of a single tree carefully nurtured in Louis XIV’s greenhouse.



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