Coffee has a long and complex history on the world stage, spanning countries and continents to become a drink with a truly universal appeal. In this blog, we’ll look at some coffee history facts, the earliest recorded origins and its evolution right up to the present day; reflecting on how it has transformed our world as we know it today.
The word ‘coffee’ first started to be used in English-speaking countries in 1582, as an amalgam of the Dutch phrase koffie and the Arabic word for the substance, qahwah. However, coffee took a long road to get to this point. Amongst many countries, coffee first gained an impressive reputation as an appetite suppressant and in time, became known for its energy-enhancing properties. In some nations, it was considered as medicinal.
The story of who discovered coffee is hard to pin down precisely; the caffeine-infused benefits of coffee were first discovered by Ethiopia’s Galla tribe, who began mixing the berry with ground-up animal fat to create a natural stimulant.
There are other legends surrounding coffee’s early years, including a tale of a Moroccan mystic whose travels meeting with the Ethiopian people led him to a fascinating discovering; noticing local birds seemed to have unusual energy, the mystic sampled the berries birds had been eating and felt instantly revived.
Coffee was a major trading substance for Arab traders of this era, who began to cultivate the plant for their own purposes on local plantations. Interestingly, the stimulating effects of coffee were enshrined in the name of the drink which they created with the boiled beans,’qahwa’, which translates directly to ‘that which prevents sleep’.
After exporting coffee beans from Ethiopia to Yemen, traders in the area began cultivating coffee beans, and drinkers in Yemen used coffee primarily as a concentration aid which also had significant ritualistic and spiritual connections for these societies.
The energising effect of coffee made it a fantastic choice for night-time alertness during spiritual chanting and devotions, and this influence spread not only through Yemen but also through large cities such as Damascus, Baghdad and Constantinople.
It was the Ottoman Empire which introduced the world to its very first coffee shop, launched in Constantinople in 1475. Coffee arrived in what is now modern-day Turkey earlier than this, however – beginning to take hold in 1453. The Ottoman Empire was big fans of coffee, to the extent that drinking it was considered problematic in some non-Ottoman-aligned territories.
India had already tried coffee before the East India Company plantations arrived, but the dominance of this significant historical trading company plays a significant role in the history of coffee in Asia and India. The company soon became one of the top coffee exporters in India, with the bulk of coffee produced exported to other territories.
"Coffee - the favourite drink of the civilised world." - Thomas Jefferson
Coffee first entered Europe via the thriving port of Venice, having been introduced by Italian traders to Western nations. Coffee drinking as a 'luxury coffee' became hugely popular amongst the monied classes in Venetian society, and coffee shops in this region often charged high prices for the beverage to help enhance the image of exclusivity.
For a time, there was discussion over whether the drink was considered Christian enough to be allowed there, given its original association with the Ottoman Empire. The Pope eventually ‘baptized’ the drink, allowing it to be served freely.
Coffee reached the New World in 1607 courtesy of Captain John Smith and the Virginia Company. By 1668, it had become New York City’s most popular drink, and the city continues to thrive on coffee.
Coffee also played a significant role in the American Revolutionary War, as following the Boston Tea Party, drinking the quintessentially British cup of tea was considered unpatriotic – so a new, stronger alternative was required to help usher in the United States as we know it today.
The Dutch were the first European country to obtain coffee trees; within a few years, the Dutch colonies in Asia and the Americas were the leading importers of European coffee. In France, coffee-drinking as a national pastime can predominantly be attributed to the court of King Louis XIV, who was a major proponent of the beverage.
Within Germany, coffeehouses sprang up alongside ports in areas such as Bremen and Hamburg. By 1645, Italy had opened its first coffee-house, setting in motion the Iong-standing Italian love affair with the beverage. In 1652, coffee houses began to open in England, and in 1672, a café devoted to coffee opened in Paris.
By 1675 there were over 3000 coffeehouses throughout England. They swiftly became known as hotbeds of political intrigue and discussion, making coffee houses a surprisingly controversial venue amongst the upper classes of English society.
Entry could be gained to a coffee house for a small fee, which concerned Charles II as it opened up public debate. The monarch subsequently tried unsuccessfully to ban coffee houses during 1675, and instead, they continued to pedal their unique brand of energising drink and political discourse.
The first coffeehouses opened in Vienna in 1683, and in Berlin in 1727. Coffee seedlings were first brought to the Caribbean in 1720, and within fifty years, there were over 18,000 coffee trees in the region, allowing for extensive cultivation.
French territories overseas soon began cultivating their own coffee and were quickly one of the world’s top suppliers. Brazil first got a taste of coffee in the early 1700s, and later became a major coffee-drinking region after claiming independence.
In 1732, Johann Sebastian Bach composed Kaffee-Kantite, an ode to coffee and rebellion against the popular movement which sought to ban women from drinking coffee. It was believed at the time that coffee drinking rendered women infertile, but it wasn’t long before coffee consumption crossed gender-boundaries.
This is the year when the very first espresso machine was designed. A Frenchman named Louis Bernard Rabaut pioneered a device which used steam to develop the ‘drip’ method of coffee production which so many of us who love coffee are familiar with today.
By now, the world was well and truly hooked on coffee; which made it an excellent time for ambitious entrepreneurs eager to find new ways of producing, packaging and selling coffee beans to the public. The Hills brothers began vacuum packing coffee in 1900, and in 1901, Luigi Bezzera built the very first coffee machine which included a boiler, matching a contemporary design of coffee filtering as used in the modern world.
1903 saw the launch of the first-ever decaffeinated coffee, allowing even those who had an allergy to caffeine or just wanted to enjoy the taste without the stimulant properties could indulge in this favourite drink. This decaf alternative was named ‘Sanka’, after the French ‘sans caffeine’.
By 1907, Brazil was responsible for 97% of the world’s coffee bean harvest, making coffee one of the region’s most significant exports.
The very first commercial espresso machine was manufactured in Italy in 1905 when the Pavoni company began mass-producing coffee machines based on the Bezzara model from 1901. The company sold these machines far and wide and installed espresso machines in New York in 1927 – some of which remain in use to this day.
Prohibition came into effect in the United States in 1920, making it illegal to sell or consume alcohol. This made Americans seek alternative drinks, and coffee sales saw a rapid rise in popularity throughout the era of prohibition.
Food and beverage giant Nestle was commissioned by Brazil to help find a way to make the most of their significant coffee surplus; the area was merely producing more coffee than they knew what to do with! This led to the invention of freeze-dried coffee, and the Nestle Nescafe brand was born.
Perhaps recognising how much coffee had now impacted the lives of ordinary people, during WWII American soldiers were issued Maxwell House instant coffee sachets as part of their rations. Coffee is so desirable a product that even devoted coffee drinkers back home are busily hoarding their stores, resulting in widespread coffee rationing domestically.
One of the world’s favourite coffees, cappuccino was created in 1946 by Italian Achilles Gaggia. Enabled by the perfecting of his espresso machine to allow the cream to be incorporated into the coffee, the Cappuccino was named after the Capuchin order of monks and their white robes.
Worldwide coffee export quotas were set by the International Coffee Agreement in 1962. The agreement fell into disarray in the 1980s, which in turn led to a great deal of volatility in the coffee market for both growers and companies seeking to trade.
Now to be found on streets around the globe, Starbucks opened its first premises in Seattle in 1971. Offering freshly roasted coffee in impressive surroundings, the launch of the first Starbucks marked the beginning of a new era of coffee shops quite unlike the coffee shops found around Europe hundreds of years before.
Now a popular cause for environmentalists, the first coffee pods were created in 1976. They truly revolutionised coffee drinking, enabling a fast and delicious coffee to be produced in just minutes.
However, they have since been cited as damaging to the environment as many varieties of coffee pod can’t be recycled. Thankfully there are a few coffee pod brands on the market helping to revolutionise coffee drinking once more with a new, eco-friendly alternative.
Coffee first arrived in China in the 19th century, courtesy of Western missionaries who brought plenty with them when they came in major ports. Yet the nation has such a grand tradition of tea, that coffee has taken significantly longer to gain much traction.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Shanghai’s café’s offered many cosmopolitan delights, though these were swiftly shut down by communist rule in 1949. Coffee shops first began to re-emerge in the 1980s, fuelled by a rising interest in global culture. Since the mid-2000s, there has been a significant influx of coffee chains and smaller independents eager to gain a foothold on the Chinese coffee market; and so far, they’re doing exceptionally well.
Starbucks is the leading coffee brand in Beijing, but there are also plenty of delightful outlets which are seeking to replicate the coffee culture found in other nations with more affordable and inventive concoctions.
Coffee remains one of the world’s most popular drinks, but what of the future? Several studies have explored how the coffee market looks set to evolve in the coming years, and they uncover some fascinating findings.
Coffee shops are set to overtake pubs in popularity and number by the year 2030, representing a significant shift towards a more caffeinated nation. Much of this push comes not from larger coffee chains but from smaller independent coffee outlets which promise a unique experience for the coffee drinker. As well as by new innovative Britsh coffee brands, who have for the last 20 years been pushing the boundaries, that have helped create the desire among a new generation of consumers, for better quality, fairer and more sustainable speciality coffee.
In the 21st century, fans of coffee can pop into a coffee shop and find almost anything they could possibly want within; new varieties of coffee are continually arriving, and there’s a dynamic industry surrounding the drink.
For those more interested in making their coffee at home, the plethora of new coffee machine options and both ground and instant coffees on the market also offer something very exciting; including organic coffees perfect for a more ethical and healthy cup.
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Seán Farrell – Founder, Chateau Rouge