The History of Coffee

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Second only to water, coffee is the most consumed beverage today. Its allure lies in its taste, smell, and subsequent alertness and increased energy. Today, coffee is grown worldwide, namely in the Caribbean, Latin and South America, and Asia. Although the exact origin of coffee is unknown, all coffee-producing countries can trace their origins to ancient Ethiopia.

For centuries, coffee trees have grown in the Ethiopian highlands. Although the origins of coffee are unclear, the story of Kaldi, the goatherd, might hold some truth. In this legend, Kaldi noticed that after eating berries from certain trees, his goats became excited and could not sleep at night. Intrigued, Kaldi informed the local abbot of his findings. The abbot used the berries in a drink, and remained alert even during long prayer hours. After sharing the drink with the other monks, coffee slowly began to spread to the Arabian Peninsula. Here, coffee began a global migration.

The Arabs were the first peoples to not only cultivate coffee, but to trade the coffee beans as well. By the 15th century, coffee was growing in Arabia, and by the 16th century, the beverage was traded in Egypt, Turkey, and Persia. Some theorize that coffee spread quickly through the Muslim world because, for religious reasons, Muslims do not consume alcohol. Additionally, drinkers probably enjoyed coffee’s stimulating side effects.

Although the Arabs closely guarded coffee production and trade, coffee’s migration was inevitable. Europeans traveling to the Near East discovered the drink. By the 17th century, coffee was not only prevalent in Europe, but was quickly gaining widespread popularity. However, some, like the Vatican, criticized the beverage, considering coffee to be satanic. The controversy grew, and the pope intervened. However, after tasting the brew, the pope found it so satisfying that he approved the drink.

Regardless, coffeehouses became commonplace in major European cities in England, France, and Germany. Much like they had in the Arab world, coffeehouses served as centers for communication, social activity, and even learning. In England, coffeehouses were penned “penny universities” because, for a penny, one could buy a cup of coffee and socialize. In the 1650s, London boasted over 300 coffeehouses. Some were specific to one’s interests and trade. For example, coffeehouses existed for artists, merchants, and brokers.

By the middle of the 17th century, coffee had spread to the Americas via the British. Although coffeehouses became prevalent in New York City, tea continued to be the choice drinks for colonists until the Boston Tea Party and the resultant revolution.

While the Arabs attempted to monopolize coffee cultivation, coffee plantations successfully spread globally, first by the Dutch in Indonesia. Next, the French gained coffee seeds, and 18 million coffee trees thrived on Martinique in just 50 years. From this stock, coffee spread to the Caribbean and Latin and South America.

In about a century, coffee became a thriving cash crop around the world. As missionaries, explorers, and colonists traveled, they introduced the beverage to new locations, popularizing the drink. By the late 18th century, coffee was one of the most valuable export crops.

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