History of Coffee

In this article we explore the history of coffee.

I’m always fascinated by the origin of food trends. For instance, who decided to dig a potato up and eat it? Or who figured out that corn can change into popcorn. (I bet you that one was by accident, some corn fell into a fire and went “poof!”) And even more fascinating, who decided upon the person that would test out the possible new dish? Imagine how many times the plan backfired, next to the potato some random other poisonous plant grew and someone was unlucky to be the guinea pig for that idea!

The story of how coffee was discovered also has many legends surrounding it. One of the most popular stories involve a 10th century goat herder, called Kaldi. He was reportly the first one that discovered the potential of the little red berries.

The History of Coffee

While he was looking after his goats in the forest on the Ethiopian plateau, he noticed his goats were very fond of the berries from one specific tree. And every time they gobbled down some of these berries, they became so active that they couldn’t easily fall asleep that night.

Kaldi then shared his findings with an abbot at the local monastery. The abbot made a drink with the berries and discovered that it kept him wide awake for the long evening prayer sessions. He then shared his discovery with the other monks, and slowly the news of the energizing berries spread.

After this, coffee reached the Arabian Peninsula and began its journey, its reputation soon spread across the globe. By the 15th century, coffee was grown in the Yemeni district of Arabia and by the 16th century people in Persia, Egypt, Syria, and Turkey knew about it.

The earliest credible evidence of coffee drinking as we know it, was in the 15th century in the Sufi shrines of Yemen.

The Arabians were the first to figure out that the coffee berries must first be roasted and then brewed.

The first coffee beans were exported from Eastern Africa to Yemen. In Yemeni traders took coffee back to their homeland and began to cultivate their own plants. By the 16th century, it had reached the rest of the Middle East, Persia, Turkey as well as northern Africa. Thereafter it spread to Europe and the rest of the world.

Coffee becomes a Social Catalyst

Later on, coffee was not only enjoyed in homes, but also in public coffee houses, called “qahveh-khaneh”. The first documented coffee house was opened in Constantinople (Istanbul) in 1554, although there might have been others earlier in Cairo, Damascus, Mecca and Medina.

Coffee houses quickly became extremely popular and people frequented them for a variety of social activities. In the coffee houses patrons engaged in conversation while drinking coffee. They also listened to music, watched performers, played chess and discussed current news.

Soon the coffee houses became such an important place for exchanging information, they were referred to as “Schools of the Wise.” Thousands of pilgrims visited the holy city of Mecca each year from all over the world and soon knowledge of this “wine of Araby” began to spread.


Coffee’s distribution across Europe was amazingly swift. Venice’s first coffee house called a “bottega del caffe” was opened in 1645, England’s first one in 1650, France’s first one in 1672 and it spread into the New World as well to a Boston outpost in 1676. Our modern day coffee houses are not much different, the only real change of activities, is the addition of free Wi-Fi.

Coffee as a Trading Commodity

Coffee quickly became a very sought after commodity and coffee plants were extremely valuable. Some of the big European empires such as Holland and France tried to grow their own coffee plants, far from the tropical climates where it was already known to best thrive.

Did you know that most of the coffee we drink today is produced in regions situated in the tropics? To preserve their monopoly, the Arabian coffee traders intentionally made their export beans infertile through parching or boiling them before export to Europe.

But the Dutch persevered, they obtained coffee plants and created the first successful coffee plantation away from the Middle East. This was achieved in the colony of Java in early 18th century, Indonesia.

The process was started with just a few coffee plants that were obtained through trade with merchants in the Yemenite port of Mocha. And so Mocha Java was born, the first shipment to Europe dates back to 1719.

After the success of Java, coffee production was established on Sumatra as well as Ceylon. Some of the plants were cultivated in Amsterdam botanical gardens, specifically created for them. As part of a military agreement, France received a few of the plants as gifts in 1720. They promptly transported them to the colonies in Central America, a very good idea, coffee plants thrive in a Tropical climate.

Recently it was discovered that coffee was already growing in the French colony of Saint-Domingue as early as 1715, as well as in the Dutch colony of Surinam since 1718.

Coffee Travels even further

Coffee’s introduction to the Americas was achieved by Captain Gabriel des Clieux, a captain of the French Navy, who was ordered by King Louis the Fifteenth to establish a plantation in Martinique. He obtained cuttings from the reluctant botanist Antoine de Jussieu, he didn’t want to blemish the King’s coffee tree. Apparently during the voyage, water was rationed and the captain took care to share his portion with the plants.

Clieux then nurtured the plants on his arrival in the West Indies and he established them in Guadeloupe and Saint-Domingue in addition to Martinique. Disease had struck the cacao plantations and they were replaced by coffee plantations in about three years.

Lieutenant Colonel Francisco de Melo Palheta established the first coffee plantation in Brazil, 1727. He smuggled seeds in from the germ plasm originally taken from Yemen to Batavia. By the 1800’s, the Brazilian harvests turned coffee from an elite indulgence to a drink for the masses.

Brazil, like most other countries cultivates coffee as a commercial commodity, and in the beginning relied heavily on slave labor from Africa to make the plantations viable. But slavery was abolished in 1888.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Brazil was the biggest producer of coffee and basically a monopolist in the trade. But a policy of maintaining high prices soon opened opportunities for other nations including Colombia, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Indonesia and Vietnam.

Large-scale production in Vietnam began after standardization of trade relations with the United States in 1995. Almost all of the coffee grown there is of the Robusta type. It is now second only to Brazil as the major coffee producer in the world.

Where did the word “coffee” come from?

The word “coffee” comes from the Dutch word “koffie” and it entered the English language in 1582. The word was borrowed from the Turkish “kahve” that had borrowed the Arabic word “qahwah”.

“Qahwah” originally referred to a type of wine. The word basically meant to lack hunger, a reference to the drink’s reputation as an appetite suppressant. But this has been disputed, others say that it originally meant dark in color, dull, dry or sour.

Alternatively it can be traced to the Arabic “quwwa” meaning power or energy. Another possibility is from Kaffa, which is an ancient kingdom in Ethiopia, the origin of the plant.

I like the romantic idea of the wonderful berries being discovered in such a strange manner as a goat herder and super excited goats. But it might have been discovered in a more boring, everyday manner. Many historians frown upon the funny legend, arguing other more normal origins.

But either way, whoever decided to make that first cup of java, myself and millions of other coffee fans will forever be grateful to them for experimenting with the red berries!

Next time we will explore the production of coffee further, figuring out which countries produce which types of coffee and elaborating some more on the different types.

Do you know any other stories about the origins of coffee?