There’s no doubt coffee has been around for a long time.
While flavored varieties, iced coffees and specialty brands are very new inventions, we’ve been grinding beans and savoring the smell of freshly brewed caffeine for hundreds of years.
It is believed coffee drinking for pleasure originated around a century ago.
However, only scraps of historical evidence exist to demonstrate this and they don’t tell us much about traditional cultivation or processing methods. Of the coffee history we can follow and study, there’s only about five hundred years.
Compared with tea and alcohol - both of which offer centuries of rich history – this makes coffee the new kid on the block. It has seen plenty of momentous events though, and even been the catalyst for some.
Slavery, scandals, bloody conflicts, colonisation: the modern history of your cup of coffee is bloodier than any episode of Game of Thrones.
So, let’s take a deep dive into the story of coffee.
The Legend of Kaldi
There are countless origin stories that describe how and why humans discovered coffee drinking.
Many of these tales have been mythologized and so appear larger than life, but they’re likely to be based on some nugget of truth. Take the legend of Kaldi, for example.
Kaldi was an Ethiopian goatherder wandering and working out in the Kaffa region of the country.
One day, he spotted his goats behaving oddly. Instead of calmly foraging as they normally would, they were jumping and bleating erratically. Kaldi ran over to investigate the problem and found only a few small, half eaten beans on the ground.
He decided to try one. The beans’ stimulating effects were immediate. With barely a thought, Kaldi stuffed his pockets with the black beans as his energy levels soared and he felt reinvigorated. He ran home to tell his wife.
Kaldi’s wife advised him to show the ‘magic’ beans to the monks at a nearby monastery.
However, the monks were very suspicious and questioned their origins. They cast the little beans into a fire, worried the Devil might have sent them as a temptation.
As the coffee beans grew hot and began to roast, they produced intoxicating aromas. Both Kaldi and the monks found the rich, earthy smells irresistible.
They quickly gathered the roasted beans from the fire, ground them into a fine powder and added boiling water. Voila, the cup of coffee was born.
This coffee origin story is well-known and celebrated in Ethiopia. Our best guess is it took place around 850 AD though it’s impossible to verify its authenticity. It’s just one of many humorous legends about the birth of the world’s favorite hot drink.
The Yemeni Natives
Later, most historical references to coffee drinking become easier to verify.
For instance, compelling evidence suggests Sufi monasteries in Yemen were cultivating and consuming coffee plants as early as the fifteenth century. Historical artifacts describe non-Muslim Arabians creating ‘wine’ out of coffee cherries for hundreds of years.
While we can’t be sure this ‘wine’ was an early version of brewed coffee, various Yemini legends tell of traders selling the drink in Turkish ports.
These trading hubs were copies of shops set up to sell coffee back home in port cities like Mocha. The new drink was wildly popular with residents of Istanbul, in particular, and its popularity spread like wildfire.
Another version of the legend depicts a Yemeni governor drinking coffee for the first time at one of the portside shops. After a sip, he was enamored with the aromatic beverage and immediately sent a batch of coffee beans to the country’s sultan.
The Sultan shared his enthusiasm and coffee drinking spread throughout the region as members of the public imitated their leader’s new habit.
There is more evidence to back up this story than Ethiopia’s legend of Kaldi. Yet, still can’t know for sure if it’s truly authentic.
What history does tell us is coffee drinking was a commonplace pleasure on the Arabian Peninsula and throughout North-East Africa by the middle of the 1550s.
There is clear evidence of coffee houses being used for social meet ups and community gatherings not just Ethiopia and Yemen but also in countries like Egypt and Syria too.
They played a central role in community life by providing places to debate, dine, meet friends and enjoy freshly brewed coffee. Some sources say, in Turkey, it was considered grounds for divorce if a wife couldn’t make a good coffee.
Some devout Muslims in these areas were worried about coffee’s stimulating effects. They discouraged people from drinking it out of fears it might corrupt minds in the same way as alcohol.
Various clerics attempted to have the beverage banned but their proposals were rejected. Coffee was here to stay.
It was hot, energising and utterly delicious. People didn’t want to stop drinking it.
The Road To Europe
It is likely coffee first came to Europe in the 1600s.
Evidence suggests it was imported by Turkish slaves brought to work in Malta. While it would grow in popularity on the island, its influence was somewhat limited. Its spread throughout Europe was impeded due to geographical obstacles.
It wasn’t until 1615 that coffee made its way to the mainland and delighted the citizens of Venice.
On its arrival in Italy, coffee quickly became the next big thing. Everybody from Venetian courtiers to lords and ladies were experimenting with the new drink.
In time, coffee became so ubiquitous it was sold from street side lemonade stands up and down the country.
As in Turkey, there were virulent critics. Some clergymen decried the trend for hot coffee, referring to as it ‘a bitter invention of Satan.’ Rather humorously, legend says Pope Clement VIII tasted the beverage in order to judge its legitimacy. After a few sips, he declared it so delicious it must surely be a divine gift from God himself.
It was all the approval Italians needed to start transforming coffee drinking into a treasured craft. By 1645, the country was packed with bustling, lively coffee houses.
Within three decades of the pope’s judgement, coffee was a common part of life in Austria, France, Germany and many other parts of the continent.