The History of Coffee: From Humble Bean to Modern Day Obsession

Hi! My name is Arne. Having spent years working as a barista I'm now on a mission to bring more good coffee to the people. To that end, my team and I provide you with a broad knowledge base on the subject of coffee.

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It goes without saying that if you're a regular Coffeeness reader, you absolutely love the magic brew. But allow me to ask: have you ever stopped to think about the history of coffee? How did this shrub and its seed take over the world?

It goes without saying that if you’re a regular Coffeeness reader, you absolutely love the magic brew. But allow me to ask: have you ever stopped to think about the history of coffee? How did this shrub and its seed take over the world?

Brew a mug and get comfy, because I’m about to tell ya! I want to take you on a wild ride that uncovers coffee’s global history. Let’s do it.

Coffee’s Origin in Ethiopia

Ethiopia is our first stop on this fascinating history of coffee journey.

The story begins waaay back in the 9th century. Legend has it that a goat herder, Kaldi, stumbled upon his goats munching on colorful berries. These berries, he noticed, made his herd very, very happy. Intrigued, he took the strange fruits to a nearby monastery, and it was here that the practice of brewing coffee began.

At first, coffee in Ethiopia was a backyard affair. Families grew, roasted and brewed coffee beans for the pleasure of it. But as the world woke up to the magic of these beans, Ethiopians realized they had something special.

By the 15th century, Ethiopia exported Arabica coffee to Yemen, the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea coast. The coffee train ride had truly begun and there was no stopping it!

Coffee in Yemen and the Arabian Peninsula

Yemen Coffee Regions

As soon as coffee got to Yemen, it spread across the Middle East and Arabia. By the 16th century, it was a staple across the Ottoman Empire, Persia and India.

As a non-alcoholic beverage, coffee or qahwa gave Muslims the caffeine kick they needed without jeopardizing their religious beliefs. In fact, Sufi monks filled up on coffee before their night-long meditations and prayers.

As a result, coffee became a must-have drink. Interestingly, a crucial part of the history of coffee in the Islamic world, is its role in fueling pilgrims on their hajj to Mecca.

Soon, cafés began to pop up in major Islamic cities. They became socialization and relaxation hubs. It’s my view that these coffee shops invented the “third place” concept way before Starbucks ever did.

The Rise of the European Coffeehouse

It didn’t take long for the Venetians, those great merchants of Europe, to notice how valuable this commodity was. By the beginning of the 17th century, coffee beans were already making their way to Europe.

In the early 1600s, European powers began establishing overseas coffee plantations. They then shipped green beans to mainland Europe from colonies like Indonesia (Java), Brazil, Martinique, Haiti (St. Domingue), Jamaica, Sri Lanka (Ceylon) and India.

Caffee Florian Venezia 1720

At first, Europeans were skeptical about the brew. But by 1600, coffee had gained Pope Clement VIII’s approval. This gave rise to the European coffeehouse.

Trendy cafés popped up everywhere, becoming intellectual and social hubs. The first coffee house, belonging to Venetian Pietro Della Valle, opened in 1615. Oxford followed suit in 1652 with the Grand Café and Amsterdam with the De Bolhoed in 1671.

Incidentally, in 1675 King Charles II tried to ban these cafés as he termed them anti-monarchical. The public outcry that followed soon put a stop to that. That’s how popular coffee had become!

Soon after, Paris joined the money train with Café le Procope in 1686. Vienna couldn’t help but take notice, opening Café Kramer in 1720.

From there, coffee became the non-alcoholic drink to rival tea in Europe. Whatever people’s objections (some still viewed coffee as a naughty stimulant), the history of coffee in Europe had begun. It was now time for this humble bean to make its grand entrance into the New World.

Coffee Captivates the New World

North America

Coffee followed the first European immigrants to the Americas. Thanks to the Dutch, the first coffeehouse in the colonies opened its doors in good ol’ New Amsterdam (modern-day New York City).

The uptake wasn’t spontaneous; the negative attitude towards coffee in Europe carried over. Nevertheless by the 1680s, coffeehouses started making serious waves.

It’s no surprise then that the history of coffee in America is synonymous with the Revolutionary War. Ignited by punitive British taxes on tea imports, the Boston Tea Party of 1773 was just the start. Patriots urged Americans to boycott tea and drink coffee instead. Coffee is still a preference in American homes today.

Later, coffee beans followed the pioneers who dared to explore the American West. Ever heard of campfire or cowboy coffee? This is where it came from!

Coffee was also a part of major events in American history. During WW1 and WW2, the brew kept American soldiers powered up in the fields of Flanders and the beaches of Normandy. Coffee even went to space, fueling the crew of Apollo missions!

By the 1970s, the birth of Starbucks gave rise to an Italian-style and decaf coffee culture that has never really left. Today, espresso is still the most popular coffee drink on the continent!

As for growing coffee, America was not so successful at first. It was until the 1870s that growers began to see success in Hawaii. Kona coffee was the result. More than anything, Kona, especially the Peaberry variety has put America on the specialty coffee map. In fact, America was instrumental in forming the Specialty Coffee Association that regulates this industry in the 1982.

Central America

Cuban Coffee Recipe

Central and South America had more success growing coffee than the North. By the 1720s, French colonists began plantations throughout their sugar islands. As a result, by the 1780s, Haiti produced half of the world’s coffee!

Just before the 1791 Haitian Revolution, however, French growers took seedlings to mainland Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Mexico. From there, Central American coffee spread to countries like Panama, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

Surprisingly, in the 1960s, experts discovered independent and indigenous coffee varieties. One variety, Panama Geisha, has direct genetic links to plants in Gesha, Ethiopia.

At independence, coffee remained an essential part of the economy and culture of these countries. Growers innovated with unique farming techniques like the “Coffee Leaves Method.” This improved crop quality and yields, attracting the biggest coffee companies, especially Starbucks.

However, there were many challenges, including leaf rust, climate change and a lack of infrastructure. Despite this, Central America continued to top the world coffee charts. It formed a significant portion of Fair-Trade and direct trade coffee exports.

Brazil and South America

Brasilien Kaffeefarm 2022 Arbeit

Now, we come to the big kahuna of the coffee world: Brazil and, by extension, South America. It all began in 1720, when a sneaky Portuguese lieutenant, Francisco de Melo Palheta, charmed his way into French Guiana. Legend has it that he wooed the governor’s wife and snagged a bouquet spiked with coffee beans! Palheta got these seeds to Brazil, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Coffee farming in Brazil took off like a rocket. The country became the largest coffee producer, by 1840, overtaking Haiti. This was only possible due to the country’s rich soils, favorable climate and dependence on slave labor (which ended in 1888).

Before long, Colombia and Venezuela jumped on the coffee bandwagon. Colombia, in particular, became famous for its high-quality Arabicas, which boasted excellent body, acidity and flavor.

And let’s not forget Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia! These countries developed their industries significantly in the 20th century. They still produce some of the rarest coffees in the world.

Coffee’s Growth Around the World

India and Southeast Asia

To look at how coffee got to Asia, I’ll rewind the clock a little bit to the 17th century. By this time, coffee was already a hot commodity in the Middle East and Europe.

That all changed when a Dutch official, Pieter van den Broeck, snagged some coffee seeds in Yemen (illegally, I might add). He brought them to the Netherlands, and from there, they sailed to Java. Indonesia later became a powerhouse of Robusta, mainly used in coffee blends and instant coffee.

Sacks of Coffee

At the same time, in 1670, an Indian pilgrim to Mecca, Baba Budan, also smuggled coffee beans from Yemen. He established plantations in Karnataka, South India. This is the origin of the famous Monsooned Malabar coffee.

Back to Indonesia and the Dutch. In 1699, the Dutch East India Company started commercial coffee plantations. Under a system called Cultuurstelse, local farmers were forced to cultivate coffee. This labor system ended in 1870, partly due to public outrage in the Netherlands.

But the real game-changers of the history of coffee in Asia were the French. A sneaky French official, Gabriel de Clieu, stole some coffee seedlings from the Royal Botanical Gardens in Paris. From there, those seedlings spread to Martinique, and eventually, the French Asian colonies.

By the 19th century, single-origin coffee production gained traction in Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and the Philippines. Indonesia, particularly, became a significant player in the coffee game. In fact, Indonesia’s Kopi Luwak is some of the most expensive coffee in the world today.

Vietnam also made a mark. They inherited a French coffee culture but put a unique spin on it. The invention of Vietnamese egg coffee (in response to a WW2 milk shortage) made a huge impact on the Vietnamese coffee scene.

The Far East

Unlike elsewhere, the history of coffee in the Far East is paradoxical. I’ll kick things off in Japan. Dutch and Portuguese traders first brought coffee to Nagasaki in 1700, but coffee started making waves in the late 19th century.

You see, Japan was all about tea at the time, with green tea reigning supreme. But that all changed when Westernization began during the Meiji era. Japan opened its doors to the world and its arms to new culinary experiences.

The first coffee shops popped up in Tokyo and Kyoto circa 1888. These served up manual-brewed coffee to curious locals. But it wasn’t just the taste of coffee that captured the hearts of the Japanese – it was the whole experience. Intricate pour-over techniques made coffee in Japan more about the ritual than the drink itself.

Coffee Drip Traditional in Japan Cafe

Additionally, coffee enthusiasts like Tadao Ueshima brought back knowledge on growing coffee from Brazil.

Consequently, Japan established its own plantations. These began in the Ogasawara Islands. Later, they thrived in Hyogo (Kobe), Miyazaki, Okinawa, Nagasaki and Kagoshima prefectures.

The route coffee took in China was very different. Believe it or not, China was one of the first countries outside Africa and the Middle East to cultivate and consume coffee. This precious commodity reached Ming-dynasty China via the Silk Road in the 1360s.

While tea still reigned supreme, coffee found its niche in certain regions. Yunnan, Fujian and Hainan proved ideal for growing the crop. It wasn’t until the 20th century that drinking coffee became popular in China. This was partly thanks to coffee chains like Starbucks.

Today, coffee shops are on every corner of major cities like Shanghai and Beijing. Luckin Coffee, established in 2017, is one such Chinese brand. Although mired in scandal, it has greatly influenced the culture of brewing coffee in China.

Africa

You may wonder why I didn’t include the history of coffee in Africa with Ethiopia. That’s because coffee went full circle, thriving elsewhere before returning home!

Like most places, African countries only got serious about coffee in the 19th century. Initially, colonial settlers in Kenya, Rwanda, Guinea, Tanzania and elsewhere, owned and profited from plantations. However, plantations reverted to farmer control and the respective governments at independence.

Rwandan Coffee Production Today

African countries formed coffee exchanges to help auction their beans. Crucially, farmers also joined cooperatives to ensure the highest coffee processing standards.

As a result, African Arabica and Robusta coffees became some of the finest java money can buy. And let’s be real, it is some of the world’s finest!

While drinking coffee is less widespread than, in Europe, the Americas and Asia, the commodity is still vital. It brings in much-needed foreign exchange to these developing economies. Most importantly, African specialty coffees have given growers a special kind of pride.

Over time, homegrown brands, like Java (Kenya), Café Neo (Nigeria) and Mugg and Bean (South Africa) have begun popping up. Crucially, these coffee chains are changing the way Africans drink and think about coffee.

Oceania

By the early 19th century, coffee was everywhere except Oceania. At the time, the region was all about tea. But that all changed when a wave of European immigrants brought a distinct Italian coffee culture to Australia.

Interestingly, the first Australian coffee beans arrived a little earlier, in the late 1700s. This was courtesy of the Dutch East India Company. Unfortunately, these plantations didn’t take off until the 1880s.

Because of this, Australia developed a brewing rather than growing culture.

In the 1850s, thanks to a little Italian invention called the espresso machine, Aussies began drinking and experimenting with espresso. This gave birth to innovative drinks like the flat white and long black. This is partly why Australia remains one of the few markets Starbucks couldn’t crack.

Papua New Guinea Coffee Beans

In Oceania, the emphasis was more on growing coffee. Thanks to 19th-century German settlers, Papua New Guinea and Fiji began farming Arabica coffee. Today, Papua New Guinea coffee, in particular, is famous for its unique flavor and balanced acidity.

Australia is doing alright, too. The country is making waves with its climate-friendly coffee that grows in Queensland, Tasmania and New South Wales.

Production isn’t much. But the growing techniques and intricate double-pass processing produce superb coffees! Also, super baristas here are experimenting with mind-blowing fermented coffees, particularly anaerobic coffees.

Final Thoughts on the History of Coffee

And there you have it, ladies and gentlemen – a short history of coffee!

This magical brew is now intertwined into the very fabric of our lives and culture. Indeed, it has fueled revolutions, birthed ideas and changed livelihoods for billions worldwide.

So, the next time you’re sippin’ on your just-brewed cup of joe, reflect on coffee’s fantastic journey over the centuries. Cheers to coffee, the ultimate globetrotter! Without this brew, the world would be a whole lot duller.

I hope you’ve come to love the brew even more after reading my blog. Do you have any interesting titbits to share not included above? Let’s meet in the comments section!

Your coffee expert
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Arne Preuss

Hi! My name is Arne. Having spent years working as a barista I'm now on a mission to bring more good coffee to the people. To that end, my team and I provide you with a broad knowledge base on the subject of coffee.

More about Arne Preuss

Hi! My name is Arne. Having spent years working as a barista I'm now on a mission to bring more good coffee to the people. To that end, my team and I provide you with a broad knowledge base on the subject of coffee.

More about Arne Preuss

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