Scientists tell us that there are an infinite number of alternate universes, all with their own unique realities and histories. Fortunately, the universe we live in is one in which the inhabitants of a small blue planet, circling an unremarkable sun, have access to the miracle that is coffee.
When you read the history of coffee and the series of accidental discoveries that led to your morning cup of sanity, you realize just how close we came to being one of those saps in the other universes. The ones where they have to endure caffeine free Mondays.
I’ll now take you back to the beginning and tell you the history and the legends behind the discovery of coffee. This will not be a history lesson like the ones old Miss Grundy gave in the 10th grade. I prefer a more fun, entertaining style.
There are two (out of many) legends that lay claim to the discovery of coffee.
Depending on who you ask we either have to thank a desperate Yemeni sheikh with a sense of culinary adventure or some goats who helped keep monks awake in church.
In 1258 AD Sheikh Omar, the founder of the city of Mocha, was driven by his enemies into the desert along with his supporters where they figured that they would starve to death.
Omar stumbled on a bush with some strange red berries and figured:
“I’m going to die anyway so I may as well take a chance and chew on these.”
They were extremely bitter and, seeing as they hadn’t poisoned him, he tried to make them palatable by roasting them. His men must have been distinctly unimpressed with his cooking skills because now the beans were less bitter but they were now too hard to be chewed.
“Let’s boil them and see what happens”, said one clever chap.
The beans remained inedible but in their desperation they drank the resultant brown water. As a result Omar and his not so merry men felt a lot more pepped up all of a sudden.
Still buzzing from their first cuppa they returned to Mocha, shared their discovery and Omar was apparently made a saint.
Deservedly so, right?
The older, and more popular, legend tells of an Arabian goat herder in Abyssinia called Kaldi whose career path back in the 9th century looked similar to yours but with less traffic in the morning.
Near one of the monasteries the goats would eat red berries from the bushes that grew there and start going into goat overdrive, bouncing all over the place.
Kaldi, annoyed that his staff were clearly feeling a lot more energetic than management were, complained about it to a local monk.
The monk, who had been falling asleep during their all night Ge'ez marathons, thought, “I’ve gotta get me some of that!”.
After boiling the beans up and drinking the liquid he felt bright eyed and bushy tailed throughout the next mass. After sharing his discovery with his fellow monks they all agreed that it was a close second to turning water into wine and there was much rejoicing. Amen.
I really like the one with the goats so it’s around about that time that we begin our coffee history timeline.
The genius Iranian doctor Rhazes while writing the precursor to the Dr Oz books writes about something he calls bunca or bunchum.
He describes it as “hot and dry and very good for the stomach”.bunca or bunchum.
Avicenna Bukhara was a Muslim doctor and philosopher from Uzbekistan, who wrote about the awesome things coffee does for you and, like Rhazes, called it “bunchum”.
He said it “fortifies the members….and gives an excellent smell to the body”.
Trust me guys. Drink this brown mystery water. It’ll probably be fine.
Sheikh Omar tells his hungry band of soldiers,
“ Trust me guys. Drink this brown mystery water. It’ll probably be fine”.
He saves the day and uses coffee to bring a nice caffeine buzz and peace to Mocha.
Coffee hits the streets of Mecca.
The Prophet Mohammed died in 632 AD, long before coffee was known, so it didn’t make the list of no-no’s like booze did.
Phew. A collective sigh of relief went up all through Mecca.
The Ottomans (not the chairs, the people) introduce coffee to Constantinople (Istanbul).
The Turks eventually pass a law saying that a woman can divorce her husband if he doesn’t give it to her often enough. Coffee, that is.
The first coffee house opens in Istanbul at a place called Kiva Han. Some Turks say coffee only got to them in 1517 so who knows.
The only thing we can say with certainty is that there was no free Wi-Fi.
The port city of Mocha starts to spread the love.
People begin to realize the business opportunity coffee presents and ship coffee from this port in Yemen into Egypt and North Africa.
The governor of Mecca bans coffee because people keep talking politics while drinking it.
Coffee shops are shut down all over the place and naturally people riot.
Common sense prevails when the Sultan of Egypt says coffee is sacred, has the governor executed and it’s business as usual.
Coffee shops start popping up throughout Egypt, Turkey and Syria with the cities of Cairo, Istanbul and Aleppo leading the pack.
German botanist and physician Leonard Rauwolf returns from his travels to Aleppo in Syria after learning of coffee which he calls chaube.
There’s no evidence that he partook of any of the more “interesting” plants grown in the middle east for “research” but who knows.
Rauwolf becomes the first European to make printed reference to coffee.
1592: Another botanist / doctor called Prospero Alpini brings coffee back to Italy after his trip to Egypt.
He becomes the first to print a description of the plant and the drink in his book called “The Plants of Egypt”.
It must have been a pretty short book if you’ve seen all the sand they have there.
But in Egypt's defense, it's not all sand, they have been a major food producer for Europe and Turkey, so they do actually have a lot of plants there!
Italian botanist and author Onorio Belli makes the first reference to coffee in France when he writes to Charles de l’Ecluse, a French physician, botanist and traveler about “seeds used by the Egyptians to make liquid they call cave”.
Arguments between the French and Italians over how coffee should be made persist ever since.
The Dutch, not content with their cheese, first begin to take an interest in coffee as it is mentioned by Dutch traveler Paludanus in a note in Linschoten's Travels.
If only he knew what would eventually be the real attraction to Dutch coffee shops.
The English get in on the action with the first printed mention of a drink called “coffe”.
Recounting his travels in the middle East, Anthony Sherley writes of "damned infidels drinking a certaine liquor, which they do call Coffe".
Sherley was a kind of travel blogger / colonial enforcer. You can only imagine the selfies if they had Instagram back then.
Baba Budan makes a pilgrimage to Mecca and enjoys spiritual enlightenment and his first caffeine high.
He smuggles seven coffee beans in his clothes on his trip back from Yemen to his home in India.
Customs and border agents were a lot less thorough back then.
First time the modern word for coffee Coffe was used in printed form in Sir Antonie Sherlies Travellers.
William Parry, one of the Sherley party wrote:
"...drinking a certaine liquor, which they do call Coffe, which is made of seede much like mustard seede, …"
Another Englishman, Captain John Smith, mentions “Coffa” in his book Travels and Adventure.
This is the same John Smith of Pocahontas fame who was the first to bring coffee knowledge to North America in 1607.
Venetian Traders start selling coffee in Western Europe for the first time unaware of the thousands of marauding tourists that will eventually spill out of cruise liners to complain about the high prices of a single espresso.
The Diary and Correspondence of John Evelyn is an eye wateringly boring read but it has the honor of being the first reliable document mentioning coffee in England.
John tells of a Greek man who visited his college and drank coffee. He also mentions that the drink only caught on there 30 years later.
The English were always a little behind the curve when it came to culinary matters.
The hipsters cringe as coffee begins to go mainstream. The first commercial quantity of coffee is sold in Amsterdam and is also sold in New Amsterdam, now called New York.
The coffee houses in Amsterdam will eventually sell more weed than coffee while New York insists medicinal use is all that is allowed.
In spite of their penchant for legislation New Yorkers can still order coffee without a prescription.
Finally England’s first coffeehouse is opened in Oxford by a Jewish man called Jacob. The coffeehouse was opened at the Angel in the Parish of St. Peter in the East church.
The potential faith based conflict of interest didn’t seem to dampen Jacob’s astute business acumen and no one else seemed to mind after the first cup.
There’s still a coffeehouse on the same site today called The Grand Cafe.
Two years later the first coffee house in London would welcome its first customers.
Pasqua Rosée, seeing how well his London venture was doing, then headed to Holland in 1654 to open the first Dutch coffee house and started getting the Hollanders hooked on caffeine.
Could coffee be a gateway drug?
The French Get Addicted To Coffee
Some French merchants from Marseille had set up base in the Levant for a few years and had cultivated a respectable coffee addiction.
They wanted to return to France but the absence of coffee there was a terrifying prospect so they brought some beans back with them.
Suleiman Aga, an Ottoman Empire ambassador, visits French King Louis XIV in Versaille but only wears a simple wool coat and refuses to bow down to him.
Louis throws a fit and banishes Suleiman to Paris. In an awesome game of oneupmanship Suleiman organizes elaborate coffee parties where he introduces high society Parisian women to coffee.
They adopt the Turkish fashions the waiters wear into their own designs and coffee becomes popular in France.
While the German Leonard Rauwolf may have been the first to make printed mention of the beverage, it took almost 100 years before the first coffee was actually drunk in Germany.
It quickly took off with coffee shops popping up all over Germany.
The very first coffee shop in Germany opend in 1673 in Bremen.
It’s also a little embarrassing that one of the first coffee shops in Hamburg was opened by an Englishmen in 1679.
An Armenian man called Pascal opens a booth at the St. Germain Fair in France and soon every city in France has a coffeehouse.
It’s not documented but from recent experience in France we assume the prices were exorbitant and the service terrible.
Germans were taking coffee seriously, as they should, and the first coffee magazine was published called The New and Curious Coffee House.
The full title of the periodical was
The New and Curious Coffee House, formerly in Italy but now opened in Germany. First water debauchery. "City of the Well." Brunnenstadt by Lorentz Schoepffwasser.
The first coffee shop opens in Berlin and King Frederick William I is a big fan.
He tells the Englishman operating the coffee house that he doesn’t have to pay any rent as long as he keeps the coffee flowing.
Coffee hasn’t only been the inspiration behind your late night hours in the office.
In 1732 Johann Sebastian Bach wrote: "I need to have coffee, coffee; if you want to give me a treat - pour me a cup of coffee,".
The poor people started grumbling because they couldn’t afford coffee. The upper class and some doctors spread rumors saying that coffee caused sterility so poor people shouldn’t bother with it anyway.
Bach went on to compose his Coffee Cantata in protest.
King Frederick II was less of a coffee fan than his predecessor. It wasn’t the taste that bugged him but how much money was flowing out of German coffers and into foreign merchant’s accounts.
He issued his Beer and Coffee Manifesto in an effort to convince his people that they should stick to drinking German beer but eventually people just said:
“Hey, why don’t we just drink plenty of both?”
OK, you can have your damn coffee but you need a license to roast it and I'm the guy who decides who gets a license!
King Frederick says:
“OK, you can have your damn coffee but you need a license to roast it and I’m the guy who decides who gets a license.”
Turns out he only handed licenses out to his rich buddies. If you’ve ever tasted burnt coffee then you’ll agree that a license to roast may not be such a bad idea.
Frederick actually commissioned some of his wounded soldiers to walk around and sniff out people who were roasting coffee illegally.
Thou shalt not roast!
Eventually even the Bishop of Münster was preaching
“Thou shalt not roast”
from the pulpit.
He put out a manifesto saying that you could only drink coffee at home if you could afford to buy 50 pounds at a time. It’s hardly surprising that there were fewer people in the pews the following week.
Those that did show up slept through the whole service.
By this time the French were loving their coffee but the thought of using a machine with American and British roots to make their brew was just too much.
Lucky for them a Frenchman called Louis Bernard Rabaut designed a machine that used steam power to force hot water through the coffee grounds giving birth to the espresso and saving face for France.
World coffee production hits 2.5 million bags per year but it’s still hampered by elitist attitudes in places.
In Indonesia the coffee farmers were not allowed to pick their own coffee cherries. To get their fix they would collect the coffee cherries off the ground that had been eaten and passed by a luwak, or Asian civet cat.
It turned out that the undigested beans made even better coffee than the beans that had been nowhere near a cat’s bum.
Kopi Luwak was a poor man’s coffee in 1830 but now you’ll need to remortgage your home to buy a bag.
William H. Bovee opens the first coffee roasting plant in San Francisco and then four years later sells it to one of his employees,
It’s been more than 150 years and Folgers still can’t manage to roast a decent coffee.
Oh well, it was a start.
If you thought the American civil war was pretty bad with all the shooting and dying, imagine how terrible it was due to the first instant coffee being created and sold as “cakes”.
Robert E. Lee is quoted as saying:
"It is well that war is so terrible, or we would grow too fond of it."
The same could probably be said for instant coffee.
Desiderio Pavoni reckons that the problem is that Luigi is going too hot and heavy. La Pavoni buys the patent and works with Luigi to get the pressure and temperature just right (195F degree and 9 BAR pressure).
The new machine can make 1,000 shots per hour!
Forget the Mario Brothers, these guys are the real Italian heroes.
Ludwig Roselius accidentally discovers decaffeinated coffee after a shipment of his coffee beans was soaked in seawater.
“Hey Ludwig, this coffee still tastes fine but I’m not getting any buzz.”
They eventually started using benzene in the process which is fine if you don’t mind getting cancer. They don’t use this anymore but it’s probably safer to avoid decaf. Just in case.
[Note: This Ludwig guy was a majority shareholder of the Focke-Wulf company during the 2nd world war. The other majority shareholder at the time? ITT, an American company. They actually claimed for damages that their interests suffered by Allied bombing. You can’t make this stuff up.]
John F. Kennedy says that if they don’t manage to get trade agreements with coffee producing countries that it could “threaten the security of the entire hemisphere”.
Cuban missile crisis? Easy.
No coffee in the morning? Now that’s a problem.
First Starbucks opens - of course in Seattle - and as the prices steadily rise and the coffee quality declines free WiFi will eventually be one of their last redeeming features.
The first ever McDonalds McCafe opens in Melborne, Australia with one eventually opening in the USA in 2001.
The circle is complete.
The history of coffee began with a watery brown liquid that tasted horrible and the race for the Dollar has driven us back to those roots.
George Howell, who had started his single origin focused The Coffee Connection back in 1975, finally cashes in by selling it to Starbucks.
Sadly this sale included his trademarked Frappuccino and so this aberration continues to be sold as “coffee” in Starbucks stores to this day.
Stella Liebeck buys a coffee from a McDonald's drive-through and proceeds to spill it on her legs causing third degree burns.
She sues McDonald's claiming that the coffee was “unreasonably dangerous” and “defectively manufactured”.
She was awarded $2.86 millions but after trial she finally received $640,000.
Dunkin’ Donuts realizes that there is more potential for profit in Dunkin’ than in Donuts and begins to shift its focus to coffee.
Their tag line “America runs on Dunkin’” omits the rest of the line which should read “but very slowly because of the donuts”.
How to drink decaf?
Pour it down the drain, make real coffee, and drink that instead!
The smart folks at the University of Florida discover that decaffeinated coffee still has some caffeine in it with 5-10 cups of decaf giving you the same buzz as one regular cup of Joe.
They still haven’t come up with sound research explaining why anyone would drink even one cup of decaf, never mind 10.
Starbucks realize that there’s an untapped market of lonely, single, coffee lovers who are too lazy to come to their stores for coffee.
They produce the Verismo which is their first single serve coffee maker.
It’s really expensive, makes OK coffee but you’re still drinking alone so it only really makes sense if you’re all out of booze.
Death Wish Coffee lives up to its name by producing a seriously strong nitro cold brew coffee that also just might contain botulin which is basically Botox.
Injected into your face it’ll get rid of your wrinkles but if you drank it you’d end up with botulism.
The FDA recalled its Nitro Cold Brew but the name on the can should have been your first clue.
If you trace the incredible history of coffee you begin to take your morning cup a little more seriously. When you think of the religious, political and economic battles that were fought because of it.
The protests when people couldn’t get enough of it and the lengths (or bottoms in the case of Kopi Luwak) people were willing to go to just to have one more cup.
From its accidental discovery the history of coffee has moved in waves.
The first wave drove it from a curiosity enjoyed in the middle east to a cornerstone of some economies introduced to the masses by the likes of Juan Valdez, Folgers and Maxwell.
The second wave sees coffee go from a beverage that is simply enjoyed in homes to one that needs to be shaped by artisanal roasters, brewers and baristas that can tell you the name of the small South American town where the beans came from.
It goes beyond the innovation of the first coffee machines and becomes a culture, something that has to be branded and mass marketed by companies like Starbucks and Peet’s.
The third wave has moved serious coffee drinkers away from the idea of the big brand coffee pushers. Our need to be in control and the desire to have our individual needs catered for has driven us into the arms of specialty coffee producers.
We now insist on only drinking coffee made from freshly roasted beans and forego machines, preferring manual brewing methods.
It makes you wonder what’s next.
Will the next wave have us looking beyond coffee that is simply organic but have us insist on it coming from a certain town or farm. Will we insist on coffee that is not only Fair Trade but is picked by barefoot virgins under the light of a full moon?
Before you scoff, imagine trying to get people to use an Aeropress back in the 80’s.
We’ve changed. Coffee has changed.
The future of coffee may not be up to us. Perhaps global warming will change it all for us. Pretty soon dwindling supplies may see us go back to a time where coffee is in such short supply that only the rich are able to afford it.
The importance of coffee to our civil society may once again come to the fore when the man on the street is rationed to one cup a day. One cup a week.
If it ever came to that you can be sure that I’d be joining the protests to do my part in shaping the future of coffee history.
The final question is: will you join me?
Coffee lover and Dad on a budget. Since the wishes of my beautiful wife and two charming kids are of course of much higher priority than my own ones, I always keep an eye out for coffee products which give me the biggest bang for the buck!
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