Before the seventeenth century, the history of coffee was contained to Ethiopia in Africa and Arabia. It’s name originated from the Arabic Qahwah, through its Turkish form of Kahveh, becoming Koffie in Dutch. From the Levant it spread all the way into America, changing lifestyles everywhere it landed – first arriving in Venice, sweeping turbulently through Europe on its way to their respective colonies, where plantations of Coffea Arabic thrived.
Towards the end of the thirteenth century in Yemen, a wine was made from the berries of coffee trees. This wine replaced the forbidden wine which was drank during religious ceremonies, because the people were so enchanted with its effects of alertness and awareness. It was the era of the early Mohammedans which honoured the new drink, giving it its new name.
Where Did Coffee Originate From?
Kaldi and the Dancing Goats
The earliest mention of coffee was in the tenth century and legends attribute its discovery to different people. One story which I found particularly captivating is the one about ‘Kaldi and the dancing goats’. A young Ethiopian goat herder called Kaldi, noticed that his usually sleepy goats became excited after eating certain berries and decided to try them.
Forgetting about his troubles and heavy heart, his happy new condition was noticed by the local monks from monasteries of the Yemen in Southern Arabia, who followed suit and chewed on the bright red berries! Feeling quite alert for their prayers that night, it wasn’t long before all the monks were praying without feeling sleepy. This story sure does paint a picture in ones mind doesn’t it? Perhaps this was an early sign of caffeine addiction!
The First Coffee Bean Roasting
Around the time of the introduction of ‘the wine’ in Yemen, was the first roast of green coffee beans in the thirteenth century. The drink became popular amongst the Sufi Muslim population spreading to Mecca and by the fifteenth century to all parts of the Islamic world, by Muslim pilgrims. From here it extended Egypt, Persia, Turkey, Africa providing Arabia with a very profitable export and trade.
The First Coffee House
The wealthy had special rooms, specifically for coffee drinking. As the drink became more and more popular, the first coffeehouse opens and more spring up and were frequented by people who would normally be at the Mosques praying! This saw the start of lifestyle changes everywhere these coffeehouses appeared, spreading from East to West.
A characteristic which followed the spread to Italy (seeing the birth of the Italian Espresso), then to the rest of Europe, was this gathering of drinkers who, whilst enjoying a cup of this strange new brew, engaged in political arguments leading to unrest and accusations of immorality, bringing with it a certain state of havoc and revolution instigated by the religious.
Coffee History in Europe
A tumultuous introduction to say the least, was seen as coffee made its way across Europe. In 1675, the new drink was almost discredited by French wine makers because it was seen as direct competition to the fundamental social drink. This followed a publication the previous year by women in London complaining of their men folk never being home, but were at the first coffee houses of London instead, when they were most needed.
The priests of Italy claimed the brew to be ‘the drink of Satan’ and tried convincing the Pope Clement VIII it was the unholy drink of the previous Muslims of early Yemen. The Pope was already hooked on this beverage and dismissed their claim instead baptising it in an effort to cheat Satan!
Early in the sixteenth century, the first European travellers to the Levant (described by the University College London Institute of Archaeology as the ‘crossroads of western Asia, the eastern Mediterranean and northeast Africa’) were conveying details of this odd drink back to their respective lands. There was a short time space of around 5 years, between the introduction of tea by the the Dutch to Europe and the first coffee beans brought home by the Venetians. This marked the start of the coffee trade for the Arabians, who became the sole suppliers.
Not until they were steeped or parched were these Coffea Arabica berries traded to the outside world. This prevented germination of the coffee seeds by foreigners. The Arabians kept their trade jealously guarded for over a century, until the pilgrims journeying from India and Mecca smuggled out the first beans.
By the end of the seventeenth century, the Dutch had set up coffee plantations in Java, Sumatra, Bali and Timor by the Dutch (Netherlands) East India Company, who realized the huge advantage of coffee cultivation to trading. This was after the apparent theft of the first coffee plant by Dutch traders in 1616!
The French followed suit, into Latin America and the West Indies. Soon followed by Spanish colonies in Cuba and Costa Rica, and Britain finally in Jamaica and later in India, where they had concentrated on tea production.
Coffee History of America
Late in the 1720’s saw the start of the greatest coffee empire, Brazil. From a coffee plant hidden in a bouquet of flowers to the Governor’s wife, progression of plantations and coffee production spread slowly across Brazil into other parts of South America. By the end of the century, Brazil gained new world domination of the coffee trade after a disease hit the coffee plants of Asia. It was Brazils expansion and superiority for world supply which saw this new beverage become a common drink and no longer a luxury to be consumed only by the wealthy.
When America becoming the worlds biggest customer, taking about a third of supply, consumer demand became so massive that a coffee belt spread to everywhere suitable for production. This coffee belt, which lie between the Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn spread largely across the Americas, Caribbean all the way across to Africa and Arabia, India and the Pacific Islands.
Brazil Dominates the World Market of Expensive Coffees
Following on from the Second World War, saw Africa lay down competition with Brazil who still dominated the worlds demand, next to other regions of South America. But this was mainly with the cheaper Coffea Robusta (Robusta Coffee). Competition grew fierce, over and under production took place, next to threats of natural disaster and disease, caused ruthless price cutting until in the 1950’s production and price was stabilized between the top coffee producing countries.
The first long term International Coffee Agreement was in the United Union in New York in 1962, followed by three others which ensured a fair price structure and balancing of coffees supply and demand. They had a stabilizing effect on price, until the expiration of the last agreement in 1989.
Disaster for Producing Countries
This expiration spelled disaster for the supplying countries, while keeping prices low for the consuming countries. The countries which produce coffee relied heavily on this income, so the ‘no quota’ market saw a huge over supply which drove prices sharply down. It was only the better known quality coffees which retained their value in the market place. Today coffee remains the second most traded commodity in the world, next to oil.