Many have asked about coffee’s origins. We will look into the earliest stories up to the development of today’s cultivation.
The First To Drink Coffee
Going back to the ninth and tenth centuries we find several stories pertaing to those credited with discovering or bringing coffee into the public light.
The ninth century story of a goat herder, supposedly named Kaldi, who noticed his flocks acting strangely after consuming certain brightly colored berries. The animals were energized and frolicking so he went to investigate and tried some for himself. Finding that the fruit perked him up much as his flock he decided to take this new fruit to the Monastery to show it to the monks.
First they rejected the fruit as evil and cast them into the fire. To their surprise a strangely pleasant aroma emerged from the smoke of the fire. Other monks were drawn by this new thing rescuing the roasted beans from the fire. The story goes that they crushed the seeds up than made the first brewed coffee by soaking them in water.
There is no mention of this until some time in the sixteenth century so its validity is in question. Though it does make a nice tale to tell.
Another account involves a Yeminite Sulfi mystic. According to legend he was traveling in Ethiopia where he saw some quite active birds. He ate some of the berries the birds were eating and experienced a similar surge of energy.
Another telling attributes the discovery of coffee to Sheik Abo´l Hassan´s servant Omar. Writings in the Abd-Al-Kadir manuscript recorded this account. Omar had been exiled to the desert in Mocha at Ousab. Nearly starved to death he saw some red berries and gladly ate some. They tasted bitter so he ground some up and roasted them in the fire. Later he boiled some in water to soften them and a brown liquid resulted. After drinking the brew he was revived and sustained for days. Omar was asked to return to his former station after word of this miracle drug reached Mocha where he was sainted.
Whether any of these legends are true matters little to us. Coffee found its way into mainstream trade and developed into the most widely drunk beverage in the world.
Lets look into the earliest development of cultivation of coffee as a resource.
The first telling of the knowledge of drinking coffee appears in the early fifteenth century at the Sufi monasteries in Yemen. Traders there brought coffee from Karachi to Yemen and began its cultivation. Known as Quhwa, which means wine, Yemeni Sulfis used the beverage in ceremonies to aid meditation in chanting the name of their God. They also used it to keep themselves alert during nightlong prayer sessions.
According to Al-Jaziri’s manuscript the spread of coffee was from Arabia Felix in Yemen to Mecca and Medina. Consequently on to cities of Cairo, Baghdad, and Constantinople. In the early fifteenth century coffee was known of in Mecca. By sixteenth century it had spread to the Sultans of Mameluke in Egypt and North Africa, then to the Yemeni port of Mocha.
Many coffee houses began to spring up around the University of Ahzar in Cairo with the religious Sufis. Coffee consumption continued and spread to the sophisticated city of Aleppo in Syria. From there on to Istanbul, which was the capital of the Ottoman Empire. Then in the early 16th century coffee was banned for its stimulating effect by conservative Imams at the religious court at Mecca. Thankfully the Ottoman Turkish Sultan Suleiman I issued a fatwa in 1524 removing the ban against the consumption of coffee. A similar ban was imposed in Egypt in the city of Cairo.
Coffee importation had reached Italy and all of Europe by the 1600´s. The Dutch sent it to the Americas, first landing in the East Indies. Not surprisingly coffee was also banned by the Ethiopian Orthodox church in the early 18th century. Fortunately for us attitudes towards our favorite beverage softened by the second half of the 19th century. We can thank Abuna Matewos and Emperor Menilek, who convinced the clergy that it was not a Muslim drink.
Our Favorite Beverage Arrives In Europe
Coffee was imported to the island of Malta by the 16th century. Sadly the slave trade played a role in the spread of coffee in Europe. It seems that Muslim slaves of Turkey prepared their flavorful beverage during the Great Siege of Malta in 1565. They were mentioned in the publication Virtu del Kafé by Domenico Magri who said “Turks, most skillful makers of this concoction.” Another writer Gustav Sommerfeldt wrote in 1663 “the ability and industriousness with which the Turkish prisoners earn some money, especially by preparing coffee.” This drink became popular with Maltese high society through the proliferation of many coffee shops. The first European to mention coffee was the German botanist Leonhard Rauwolf in Aleppo by 1573.
Great quantities of coffee were imported via the trade between Muslim merchants in the East, North Africa and The Republic of Venice. This new beverage was introduced to mainland Europe by its popularity among the wealthy in Venice who were charging high prices for their new beverage. Venetian botanist-physician Prospero Alpini, in 1591, published the first descriptions of the coffee plant to Europeans.
Coffee comes to the Americas.
Coffee seedlings to were brought to Martinique, the Caribbean Island, in 1720 by Gabriel de Clieu. Fifty years later those sprouts grew to become some 18,680 coffee trees. This led to the spread of coffee cultivation in Saint Dominigue, now Haiti, and Mexico, as well as other Caribbean locations. French colonial plantations, which relied heavily upon slave labor, led to the popularity of coffee cultivation to become a major influence on the geography of Latin America. Tragically, the deplorable conditions put upon there slave laborers led in part to the Haitian Revolution. The industry found it difficult to recover there.
Coffee had been introduced to Brazil in 1727, but did not gain widespread cultivation until after it’s independence in 1822. Sadly large areas of rain forest were cleared around Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro for coffee plantations.
In 1773 after the Boston Tea Party, tea drinking had become unpatriotic and great numbers of new Americans switched to drinking coffee.
Coffee plantations sprang up all over Central America during the 19th century. Exploitation of indigenous peoples proliferated in most plantations. Naturally, this led to many revolts and uprisings which led to strained relations between indigenous populations and Guatemalan people that still exists today. Notably relieved from this is Costa Rica which lacked populations of laborers to create large farms. So smaller plantations and more humane conditions minimized unrest in the following years.
Coffee´s largest producer became Brazil by 1852 and they still hold that distinction. Their coffee plantations cover some 10,000 square miles. From 1850 till 1950 they exported more coffee than all other nations combined.
We have briefly covered the growth of coffee production and popularity to this day where Brazil leads production. Following them is newcomer Viet Nam which displaced longtime second place producer Colombia before end of the 20th century. Coffee has seen some difficult setbacks in production due to molds and diseases. We will look into those dangers and development of more robust varieties in another article to follow.
Keep the best brew in your cup! Cheers!