History of coffee

Ever wonder where coffee comes from and how it has become one of the most important beverages we drink every day?

The soberer of Europe and the seed of capitalism

An old Ethiopian legend tells a story of how a shepherd boy named Kaldi found his goats cheerfully dancing after eating strange red berried, apparently from the coffee tree. Because of its stimulating nature, coffee became very attractive as a beverage, it made its way fast out of Ethiopia to other countries and has been the most consumed stimulant in the world ever since.

Kaldi and his dancing goats

In 1536 the Ottoman Turks had invaded the Yemeni port Mocha (hence the famous name for coffee all around the world) and coffee started spreading throughout Turkey, later all over Europe as well. To prevent the cultivation of coffee plantations in other parts of the world and to hold on to the status of monopoly, the Turkish had forbidden the transportation of fertile coffee berries outside of Yemen, so they were either steeped in boiling hot water or roasted on the spot before being packed and exported.

In 1600 it was the first time a man, Baba Budan, successfully smuggled seven fertile coffee berries in his stomach to Southern India. In 1616 the Dutch, who at that time dominated the world trade, managed to transport a coffee tree to Holland and in 1658 began cultivating coffee in Ceylon. The second most famous coffee plantation known was started in Java in 1699. Already in 1750 coffee was grown on five continents.

With the prohibition of alcoholic beverages in the Arabic-Islamic countries – the culture that gave us modern mathematics -, coffee was considered to be a “non-intoxicating, indeed even sobering and mentally stimulating drink”, but in Europe it remained more of a curiosity until the 1600s because of its black bitter nature that reminded of black pitch – not very attractive as an idea of a beverage, if you ask me.

While the Arabs developed their intellectual capabilities, inventing and uncovering new scientific marvels drinking coffee, Europe was soaking and degenerating in alcohol. Medieval people drank a whole lot of wine and beer, especially for festive occasions, that said in Paris in 1660 they had a staggering number of 103 holidays to honor. Usually the drunken get-togethers would end with all of the people completely bashed and unconscious, stopping before would have meant to have “chickened out”.

Alcohol was a part of the diet of every member of the family. In England in the 1650s each family member would consume about 3 liters of beer, including children. A typical breakfast at that time was the ever-so-famous beer soup that was a staple food for both the working class and for the aristocracy. Beats me, but I am pretty sure it’s quite difficult to maintain a sane mind and body while being intoxicated 24/7.

Beer soup recipe – “Heat the beer in a saucepan; in a separate small pot beat a couple of eggs. Add a chunk of butter to the hot beer. Stir in some cold beer to cool it, then pour over the eggs. Add a bit of salt, and finally mix all the ingredients together, whisking it well to keep it from curdling(..)” (W. Schivelbusch, Tastes of Paradise (1992))

As all things exotic and new, eventually coffee got to be very fashionable in the higher classes in Europe, it became an important trade product between the Turks, the French and the Venetians. For the court aristocracy it was not the drink itself that was enjoyable but “how it could be consumed, the opportunities it afforded for display of elegance, grace, and high refinement”. The bourgeois on the other hand had other interests for this beverage and were more fascinated by the mind and energy stimulating properties that coffee could offer.

The interior of a coffee house, 1700. Courtesy British Museum

Protestants and the English Puritans were the most active in praising coffee for its energizing properties – it was considered to lower sexual desires, stimulating the intellectual capacities of the mind instead. In fact it was very much advisable for clerics living in celibacy. The women grew consistently more discontent for the fading men’s erotic attention, but coffeehouses continued sprouting; imagine how around 1700 there seems to have been 3,000 coffeehouses in London alone.

1674. Women sign a petition against men drinking coffee.Men had lost the interest for sexual relations. And the women were not happy…

At that time the coffeehouse was the symbol of business where people would negotiate, the center of communication where people would meet and exchange news, and writers and journalists would bring their literary creations into being.

In 1687 – 1688 Edward Lloyd opened his (famous) coffee house. In no time it became an important meeting place for the ones working in the maritime business to hear and exchange the latest trade news. Insurance brokers were a very important clientele of Lloyd’s and believe it or not, in the eighteenth century the coffeehouse stopped serving coffee and went on to become the largest insurance brokerage in the world today.

See how a cup of coffee could stir up so much movement in the world.


– Schivelbusch, W. (1980), Tastes of Paradise. A Social History of Spices, Stimulants, and Intoxicants.


Graduate in Gastronomic Sciences, Q Arabica Grader, WSET L2 in wine. Obsessed with cooking new recipes, I love visiting producers and travel for food!

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