By GIORGIO MILOS, Master Barista for Trieste, Italy-based illycaffè
Google “Origins of Coffee” and you get more than 8 million results. More noteworthy than sheer numbers are the differing schools of thought that click-throughs reveal, right on page one. Depending on whom you trust, coffee was discovered around the 13th century. Or the fifth century.
Coffee’s history comprises yet another great debate, like preparation method and bean source; one more example of deeply felt passion for coffee on display. Such intellectual debate is entirely fitting for a beverage known to stir provocative thought. The coffeehouse’s roots as a place for free idea exchange and political conversation in the 16th century Ottoman Empire are historically well established.
But I’m jumping ahead. Let me rewind, and give a very abridged version of coffee history. Hopefully, it will make your next coffee experience just a little richer.
Many of those Google results point to the legend of an Ethiopian goat shepherd named Kaldi, who noticed the strange ways his goats behaved after eating the fruit and leaves of a certain bush. The goats were jumping around and dancing, all full of energy, the story goes. Curious, Kaldi tried the fruit for himself, and felt a rush of energy. Some accounts peg the tale (real or fiction, I can’t say) to around 850 AD.
We do know for sure that the coffee plant originated from a plateau in Ethiopia, given its proclivity for spontaneous growth there as nowhere else. The region is known as Kaffa. It’s not clear if coffee took its name from the region, or vice versa. So it’s a short leap to assume that coffee was first consumed on a large scale in Ethiopia, and to figure out roughly when. Well, not so easy, and not so fast. We can’t know either for sure.
There is no documentation, so I came up my own theory. I imagine one of our starved ancestors (thousands or millions of years ago) walking around what is now Ethiopia looking for something to eat. Desperate, ravenous, he discovers a bush full of red fruit. He’s a little worried. He doesn’t know if it’s poisonous, but left with little choice, he picks a cherry and puts it in his month. He finds a relatively un-pulpy inside, along with two big beans.
The taste is sweet, signaling nourishment. Maybe this is okay, he thinks. He continues eating until he feels satiated, and realizes he feels more than just full. He feels rested, awake; his reflexes are alive. When night comes he can’t sleep. He likes this sensation—all these sensations—and decides to bring this new fruits to his people. And quite possibly from that moment, coffee (if not yet its beverage form) becomes part of his tribe’s diet.
Very real echoes of this story are found today in a tradition of an Ethiopian tribe, the Galla, who regularly consume “energy balls” made by blending animal fat and macerated coffee cherries. The bottom line for coffee’s history: those who consumed it early on were after the stimulant substance it contained, that alkaloid well known today as caffeine. All of coffee’s legends tell of its energizing effect, from Kaldi’s goats to Mahomet, who, after consuming a hot, black liquid given to him by the angel Gabriel, promptly removed 40 knights from their horses, and satisfied 40 virgins in just one day. (Take that, Viagra!)
The first person known to write about coffee was a Persian physician and philosopher named Rhazes or Razi (850 to 922 AD), who characterized it as a medicine. He described a beverage called bunchum, prepared with an infusion of a fruit called bunn—the Ethiopian name for a coffee cherry. Other early writings establish Yemen, on the southern part of Arabian Peninsula, just across the Red Sea from Ethiopia, as home to the first coffee plantations starting in the early 15th century. Coffee plants were brought over from Ethiopia, Yemen lacking its own indigenous coffee. There, Sufi monks prepared an infusion of coffee cherry leaves to stay awake and pray through the night. The first real roasting and grinding activities likely happened here.
Coffee’s true worldwide journey came with the Turkish conquests of the Arabian Peninsula during the early 16th century. It was the Ottoman Empire that brought coffee to entirely new places, for new reasons.
The Muslim religion’s prohibition of alcohol consumption gave a big lift to coffee throughout Turkey and the rest of the Ottoman Empire. Coffee became a substitute for wine, and was given the name kahve—literally, “wine of Arabia.” The word came from the Arabic term oahwah, itself from the verb oahiya, signifying the action of feeling sated.
Coffee diffused quickly throughout the Ottoman Empire, giving rise to world’s first coffee houses, called kaveh-kanes or oahveh-khaneh. The first documented coffee house opened in Constantinople (Istanbul) in 1554, but there may well have been others earlier in Cairo, Damascus, Mecca, and Medina.
The early 17th century saw Muslim coffee’s introduction to Christian Europe, through the work of Venetian merchants. It met with strong resistance from the Catholic Church, especially by the Pope’s Councilmen, who asked Pope Clemente VIII to declare the black beverage “the bitter invention of Satan.” The Pope opted for taste over haste before deciding. Fortunately, he liked what he tried, declaring, “this devil’s drink is so delicious … we should cheat the devil by baptizing it.”
Coffee’s diffusion throughout Europe went at breakneck pace. Venice’s first coffee house (“bottega del caffe`”) opened in 1645, England’s in 1650, France’s in 1672, and on to the New World, a Boston outpost in 1676. Today’s rapid proliferation of coffee houses: nothing new, save perhaps for the free Wi-Fi.
Coffee quickly became precious and coffee plants much sought after. Big European empires like Holland and France tried to grow coffee in their own territories, far from the tropical climates where it was already known to best thrive. (Virtually all of the coffee we drink today is produced in regions situated in the tropics.) To preserve their monopoly, Arabian coffee traders intentionally made export beans infertile by parching or boiling them before export to Europe.
The Dutch persevered, obtaining coffee plants and creating the first successful coffee plantation away from the Middle East, on their colony of Java in early 18th century Indonesia. They started with just a few coffee plants obtained through trade with merchants in the Yemenite port of Mocha. Mocha Java was born, its first shipment to Europe dating to 1719.
Following Java’s success, coffee production was fast established on Sumatra and Ceylon. Some plants were cultivated in specially created botanical gardens in Amsterdam. As part of a military agreement, France received some of these plants as gifts in 1720, promptly transporting them to its colonies in Central America. A captain of the French Navy, Gabriel de Clieu, was ordered by King Louis XV to establish a plantation in Martinique. As the story goes, during the voyage, water was rationed, and the captain took care to share his portion with the plants. Recent findings points to coffee already growing in the French colony of Saint-Domingue as early as 1715, and in the Dutch colony of Surinam since 1718.
The New World’s tropical regions revealed themselves as ideal for cultivation, and coffee plantations spread throughout Central and South America. Central America’s first coffee harvest occurred in 1726. Today, Brazil reigns as the world’s biggest producer, claiming no fewer than 10 billion (billion, with a “b”) coffee plants.
Coffee’s modern history, rich with innovation, scientific learning and large-scale commercialization, is a story all its own. I’ll leave that for another time. For now, the next time you take cup in hand, give thanks to Kaldi and those hyperactive goats.
GIORGIO MILOS, Master Barista for Trieste, Italy-based illycaffè, travels throughout the U.S., hosting illy Master Barista Series events at leading cafes and gourmet retailers, and training staff at top restaurants and hotels.