An Early History of Coffee

arabica coffee berries

By Dr. Heather Stein -

"If I couldn't, three times a day, be allowed to drink my little cup of coffee, in my anguish I will turn into a shriveled-up roast goat." -- Bach, "The Coffee Cantata" (c.1735)

We've come to think of coffee as the quintessential modern drink. Fancy machinery, precise measuring, and long-distance supply chains are characteristic elements of one of today's most popular beverages. Indeed, although it may not be the “second-most traded commodity after oil” as one coffee shop chain’s CEO recently told Congress, global trade in coffee is an estimated 19 to 23 billion USD.

Coffee, however, has a storied history. Long before Third Wave and instant, people were brewing water with roasted seeds of the coffea plant, native to present-day Ethiopia and Sudan. Indeed, the English word for "coffee" appears in 1582, borrowed from the Dutch koffie, from the Ottoman Turkish kahve, from the Arabic qahwah.

Coffee first spread from the Middle East, where it was prepared and consumed as part of Sufi rituals, to India, Persia, Turkey, North Africa, and eventually Italy in the fifteenth century. The vibrant Venetian trade with coastal Mediterranean port cities like Zara, Ragusa, Acre (Akko), and Constantinople (Istanbul) brought the dark, bitter drink to Europeans along with spices and glass-making as cargo in their light galleys. The first coffee house opened in Rome in 1645. There, a vast and cosmopolitan papal curia received coffee with mixed reactions.

Queen's Lane Coffee House in Oxford opened in 1654, a favorite site for young, educated men to banter and argue about philosophy and politics. Fears of the sedition sowed in these dark halls of public assembly encouraged Charles II of England to (unsuccessfully) attempt to suppress coffee houses, by royal proclamation in 1675, as potentially disruptive sites of public assembly.

While European rulers may have been critical about coffee consumption as a habit for their subjects, European merchants were quick to export the plant to the colonies. Coffee was first introduced in Java and Ceylon by the Dutch East India Company in 1711. French colonists planted coffea in Haiti in 1733, and their Portuguese counterparts did the same in Brazil in 1727.

Coffee-drinking, however, was slow to catch on in the North American colonies. Tea remained the morning (afternoon and evening) non-alcoholic beverage of choice well into the eighteenth century. Indeed, it was only after the Boston Tea Party on 16 December 1773 and its subsequent boycott of British import taxes on tea that the soon-to-be Americans swapped their steeped leaves for roasted and brewed beans.

Image by: Theeraphan Satrakom


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