A Short History of Coffee Drinking

Over fifteen hundred years ago, a shepherd in the Middle East noticed how frisky his goats became, even the oldest lamest ones, after eating fruit off a small bush. He and other locals found that chewing these fruits, especially the hard kernel, would keep you awake and vigilant all night. Word of this remedy reached a local monastery, whose Abbot was fretting over the younger monks falling asleep during long sessions of prayer. The Abbot had the fruit brewed and served to his monks - the result was longer prayer vigils with no nodding heads. That brew was the world's first cup of coffee.

So says the myth. The truth is harder to come by. The bush that spouts the coffee bean grows only in the tropics and subtropics at an altitude higher than 1000 metres. The bush is thought is have originated in the country now known as Ethiopia, in an area known as Kaffa. The world's most popular drink may well have begun as a fruit natives of that African region ate for food.

Middle Eastern Origins

Around 1000 AD, Arab traders brought home coffee bushes which they then cultivated in secluded plantations. They harvested the fruit and boiled the kernel into a beverage they called 'Qahwa,' a word which translates literally from the Arabic as 'That Which Prevents Sleep.'

Again, this might be only folklore, because there are no written records concerning commercial coffee plantations in the Middle East until around 1400 AD in Yemen. By the 1500s, though, coffee plantations were all over the region, in Turkey, Syria, Egypt and Persia. Coffee quickly became a favoured beverage among the Muslim population because it was a stimulating drink not forbidden by the Koran, as alcohol was.

The world's first coffee houses were built in Mecca and soon after spread throughout the Middle East. A Mecca coffee house was simultaneously a place to transact business and a place to relax. Because thousands of Muslim pilgrims continually came to Mecca from all over the civilized world, the idea of the coffeehouse spread world-wide. Coffee came to be called the 'Wine of Araby' and its secret formula was jealously guarded by those in the know.

Coffee in Europe

Though coffee beans were a commodity shipped to cities all over Europe and Asia, the plant from which those beans came was guarded and kept secret. Foreigners could not visit Arabian coffee plantations and fertile coffee beans were contraband. Various European nations succeeded in circumventing these precautions and acquired coffee bush cuttings and fertile seed beans. Coffee plantations were established in a country's tropical colonies. For example, the Dutch stole an Arabic cutting and began growing coffee in Java and Indonesia, the French stole a bush from the Dutch for planting in Martinique and Brazil, in a story worthy of having a film made about the sequence of events, received a coffee cutting and seeds in 1727 from the wife of a French governor of French Guiana who fell in love with a Brazilian officer sent to settle a border dispute.

Traders from Venice in 1615 were the first to introduce coffee to Europe. There was so much controversy about this simple beverage that it took a testimonial from Pope Clement VIII to allow coffee to be sold and drunk. It's said that it was the Pope's personal taste test that sealed the deal.

In 1645, the very first coffee house opened for business in Venice, following the Middle Eastern model as a place for both relaxation and for business. The first coffee house in Britain opened in Oxford in 1651. Germany, Holland and France soon followed suit. The first coffee house in Vienna was the result of sacks of 'dry black fodder' left behind by Turks fleeing the city after being forced out by the Austrian Army - only one man, Franz Georg Kolczcki, recognised the substance as coffee, which he claimed as a reward for bringing in the Austrian relief - this coffee became the mainstay of his new Viennese coffeehouse in 1683.

Coffee drinking grew so popular in Britain, and so quickly, that, by 1700, over three thousand coffee houses flourished in London alone. The local coffee house came to be the business and social centre for the upper middle class, who flocked there to learn the latest news and transact the latest business. A 1668 London coffeehouse owned by Edward Lloyd became such a centre for maritime merchants and seamen that it eventually became the insurance company Lloyd's of London. The original name for the London Stock Exchange, however did not carry over from its humble beginnings - if it had, we'd be referring to the LSE as Jonathan's, the name of the coffee house from which that financial centre evolved.

Coffee in America

Coffee drinking also spread across the Atlantic to the North American colonies. The rebellion there in the mid-to-late 1700s also led to rejection of all things considered inherently British, such as tea drinking. Coffee, seen more as a European tradition, became the norm for the Americans and has been ever since.

Technology changed what we've done with coffee over the centuries. Coffee roasters were at first made of iron, but Elizabeth Dakin, the wife of a British tea and coffee merchant, did not like the flavour imparted to the coffee by the iron - in 1841, she helped to develop the first non-ferrous roaster, said to be made of a combination of silver, gold and platinum. But her greatest invention was what is now known as the French press or cafetiere, a method for separating coffee grounds from the beverage: a plunger on a rod moved down a cylinder within the coffee pot, forcing hot water through the grounds and pressing the grounds against the bottom of the pot.

Coffee in the Twentieth Century

The turn of the 20th century saw several more technological advances:

  • In 1900, the Hills Brothers began vacuum packing roast coffee beans in tins, a practice which marked the end of local roasting shops.
  • In 1901, the first "instant" coffee was created in a lab in Chicago, Illinois, USA, by Satori Kato, a Japanese-American chemist.
  • In 1903, Ludwig Roselius, a German coffee importer, had his researchers experiment on some coffee beans ruined in roasting - they found a way to remove caffeine from the coffee bean without harming the coffee flavour. He sold this new coffee product as 'Sanka.'
  • - In 1906, George Constant Washington, a chemist in Guatemala, produced the very first mass-market instant coffee: Red E Coffee.

In 1927, the very first American espresso machine, the La Pavoni, was set up in Regio's Restaurant in New York City - it is still on display there today. In 1938, the Nestle company perfected freeze-dried coffee and began selling Nescafe Instant. In 1946, in Italy, Achilles Gaggia installed his perfected piston espresso machine in Gaggia's Coffee Bar -- the resulting beverage had a foamy layer on top, its colour and shape looking much like robes of the monks of the Capuchin order, resulting in the name of the drink: The Cappuccino.

In 1971, the first Starbucks opened in Seattle, Washington, USA; the first Starbucks opened in London in 1998.

Coffee beans have become one of the world's largest commodities, both in volume and in value. The coffee industry, from cultivation to retail, is the basis for the national economy of dozens of countries and for the income of millions of people all across the globe. Coffee has been called both the devil's brew and a medicinal cure-all. In the last century, medical research has established that, in moderation, coffee poses no health risk, is good for us and gives us pleasure. What other simple beverage could do so much?

Black Coffee

Stockists - Where to buy a cafetiere in UK

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