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.
Who Discovered Coffee?
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.
Legend #1: Sheikh Omar From Mocha, Yemen
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?
Legend #2: The Goat Herder From Abyssinia (now Ethiopia)
The older, and more popular, legend tells of an Arabian goat herder in Abyssinia, now called Ethiopia, 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.
Related: Ethiopian Coffee Guide
Coffee In The Middle Ages
900 – 1599
Rhazes Says It’s Good For The Stomache
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 Promises A Good Smell
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”.
Sheikh Omar Believes In The Brown Water
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 Not On “No-Go” List In Mecca
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 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.
No Wi-Fi In Istanbul’s Coffee House
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.
Spread The Love For Coffee From Mocha
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.
Governor Of Mecca Executed For Not Liking Coffee
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.
More Coffee Shops In Middle East
Coffee shops start popping up throughout Egypt, Turkey and Syria with the cities of Cairo, Istanbul and Aleppo leading the pack.
German Botanist Only Interested In Coffee, Not Weed
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 Wrote About Coffee
Rauwolf becomes the first European to make printed reference to coffee.
Alpini Writes About Coffee In ‘The Plants Of Egypt’
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!
Italians And French Talk About Seeds Used To Make Liquid
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 And Coffee Shops
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.
“Those Damned Infidels And Their Coffe”, The English Cursed
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.
Coffee In The Modern History
1600 – 1699
Border Control Needs Improvements
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.
Coffee Compared To Mustard Seede
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, …”
Ahoi Captain Smith! Coffa It Is!
Another Englishman, Captain John Smith, mentions “Coffa” in his book Travels and Adventure.
This is the same John Smith of Pocahontas (1) fame who was the first to bring coffee knowledge to North America in 1607.
The Italians Start Selling Coffee
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.
First English Book About Coffee – So Tiring Coffee Is Needed
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.
Coffee Goes Mainstream In Amsterdam And N.Y.
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.
First Coffeehouse In England
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.
First Coffeehouse In London
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.
Coffee Becomes Popular In France
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.
Coffee Finally Arrives In Germany
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.
First French Coffee Tent
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.
Coffee In The Age Of Revolution
1700 – 1799
The First Coffee Magazine Of Germany
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.
First Coffee Shop In Berlin, Germany
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.
Bach Writes An Operetta About The Saxon’s Coffee Drinking Habits
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.
Frederick The Great Issues The Famous Beer And Coffee Manifesto
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?”
“I’m The Guy Who Decides Who Gets The License To Roast”, Says King Frederick
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.
Want Coffee? Of Course! Just Buy 50 Pounds!
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.
Coffee During Civil War
1800 – 1899
Thompson Invented The Percolator, Because He’s A Smart Guy
The coffee back then didn’t exactly taste great. An American-born British physicist called Sir Benjamin Thompson (2) thought
“Hey, I’m a smart guy. Surely there’s a better way to make coffee”
and promptly invented the drip coffeepot and coffee percolator. Ah, that’s better.
A French Dude Designs The First Espresso Machine
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.
Indonesian Coffee Farmers Consume Now Most Expensive Kopi Luwak Coffee By Accident
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 (3) was a poor man’s coffee in 1830 but now you’ll need to remortgage your home to buy a bag.
First Coffee Roasting Plant In San Francisco
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.
Instant Coffee Introduced In Civil War
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 (5) 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.
Coffee During World Wars
1900 – 1999
First Commercial Espresso Machine Patent By Luigi Bezerra
Luigi Bezerra patents the first commercial espresso machine.
It’s massive, looks like a space ship and produces bitter coffee.
“Luigi, You’re Wrong, Let Me Do It Right” Says Pavoni
Desiderio Pavoni reckons that the problem is that Luigi is going too hot and heavy. La Pavoni (6) 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.
Boooo Roselius. How Could You Tell The World About Decaf?
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.]
- Vincent Schilling, The True Story of Pocahontas: Historical Myths Versus Sad Reality Retrieved Sep 9, 2017 from https://newsmaven.io/indiancountrytoday/archive/the-true-story-of-pocahontas-historical-myths-versus-sad-reality-WRzmVMu47E6Guz0LudQ3QQ/
- Coffee percolator Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coffee_percolator
- Kopi luwak Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kopi_luwak
- Our Coffee History | Folgers Coffee | Folgers Coffee Retrieved from https://www.folgerscoffee.com/our-story/history
- Soldiers Loved a Refreshing Cup of Coffee Retrieved from https://www.historynet.com/soldiers-loved-a-refreshing-cup-of-coffee.htm
- Jimmy Stamp, The Long History of the Espresso Machine Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/the-long-history-of-the-espresso-machine-126012814/
Husband, father and former journalist, I’ve combined my love of writing with my love of coffee to create this site. I love high end products, but write all my content with budget conscious coffee enthusiasts in mind. I prefer light roasts, and my normal brew is some sort of pour over, although my guilty pleasure is the occasional flat white.