World History of Coffee

Origins in Africa And The Spread to Islamic Nations

Coffee was discovered and first harvested in Ethiopia sometime during the eleventh century. It was soon established as an important trading commodity and quickly spread across the Arabian Peninsula, eventually arriving in Yemen, whose geography offered the ideal climate and soil conditions for the cultivation of bountiful coffee harvests, in the fourteenth century. For its first hundred years it remained within an initial trade circuit of the general region of the Red Sea, but by the sixteenth century it had reached the Islamic nations—reports say it landed in Mecca in 1511—and once there, spread even more rapidly.

At first it appears to have been more of a specialty beverage, consumed as a ceremonial drink by Sufi mystics (its caffeine allowed these devotees to continue the performance of important rituals long into the night), but within a century coffee established itself as a piece of the social fabric of the Muslim world.

Turkey and Early British Trading

It was in Istanbul that roasting and grinding coffee beans was first attempted and established as a viable preparation method. Once this caught on, coffee drinkers never looked back, and coffee soon conquered the Ottoman Empire. (The role of Chief Coffee Maker of the palace was of major importance: Ottoman history even chronicles several instances of the Sultan promoting them to the position of Grand Vizier!) The first coffeehouses also sprang into existence at this time, quickly becoming urban destinations for discussing art and culture, conducting casual business or simply socializing.

Britain took a hand in the growing empire of coffee commerce in 1620, but only as part of its East India Trading company, shuttling the beans (along with tea leaves) to and from different cities of the Muslim world but mostly shunning the product themselves. In fact, the beverage didn’t have a substantial impact in Europe for another 150 years.

Europe and America

Reaching Venice around 1615 and France and England shortly thereafter, coffee’s popularity simply exploded. Oxford had its first coffeehouse in 1651 and it was an immediate success (particularly with university students and professors), and dozens of cafés lined the streets of Paris.

It has been claimed it was actually the Boston Tea Party that precipitated Americans’ switch from tea to coffee as their beverage of choice (supporters of this theory point to a letter from John Adams to his wife, Abigail, stating as much). And once they switched, they drank it with a vengeance. The United States was in the midst of its industrial revolution by this time, and caffeine was seen as a necessity for working harder for longer hours, to say nothing of the love of the taste of coffee itself.

Today, the world consumes almost 400 billion cups of coffee per year— 146 billion of those in America (about 400 million cups per day). Truly, it is the world’s fuel—most of us reach for the beans in the morning before we’ve even gotten dressed. An entire planet of productivity, all thanks to a few bushes in Ethiopia whose bright red berries were sufficiently attractive for picking.