Coffee is a language in itself: the history of the legendary beverage

A humble bean that has circled the globe for hundreds of years, the story of coffee is quite incredible. From modest little trees in Ethiopia, to being the world’s second most traded commodity, via tales of smuggling, theft from royalty and altering nations’ entire economies.

But where did coffee first come from, and how did it become the drink we fuel ourselves on today? Find out, as we go on a journey of caffeinated discovery through different countries and centuries.

The discovery, Ethiopia and dancing goats

The origin story of coffee — at least, the most popular one — tells the tale of Kaldi, an Abyssinian (now Ethiopia) goat herd from around 700 AD, who one day noticed something odd about his goats; they appeared to be dancing! He attributed their abstract behavior to some red berries that he soon realized they had been eating, and then shared this discovery with a monk, who was delighted to find out about a magical food that would allow him to stay up all night praying.

The impact of Arabia

The cultivation and trade of coffee began on the Arabian peninsula, particularly in Yemen, where it has been grown since the 15th Century. By the 16th Century, coffee had been spread, mainly by the Ottoman Empire, to modern day Turkey, as well as Persia and Egypt. — or coffee houses — began popping up across the Middle East, as coffee was enjoyed socially as well as at home. As their popularity grew, they became place for all social activity.

Much like entertainment venues today, coffee houses were not just for drinking and chatting, people enjoyed performances, listened to music, discussed current events or just had a game of chess. They were nicknamed “schools of the wise”, thanks to how they became the center of information sharing and public discourse.

With so many people making the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca annually, news of the “wine of Araby” quickly shot to fame.

Europe gets a taste

Into the 17th Century, where by now coffee houses were becoming part of European city landscapes, from France to Austria to the Netherlands. They too became locations for socializing, for engaging conversations and debate, and would soon be known — in England, at least — as “penny universities” where, for the price of a cup of coffee, you could learn any number of different things, simply by listening to conversations. Even businesses grew out of coffee houses, including Edward Lloyd’s, which became a major insurance company.

Oxford was home to the first coffee club in England, where ideas and innovations materialized and were nurtured. Oxford Coffee Club grew to become The Royal Society.

Coffee houses by day, pubs by night — that’s how Englishmen were now spending their time. This rather upset the women, left angered by their husbands who were never at home anymore, instead they were always having religious and political dialogues with their associates over a cup of beans. In fact, they were so disgruntled that in 1674, the Women’s Petition Against Coffee was drawn up, as they tried to get coffee prohibited and their husbands back inside the house!

The Turkish Ambassador gave the French their first taste of coffee in 1669. The court of Louis XIV became enamored by the drink and Paris was rapidly deluged by the beverage.

The Turks, retreating in a hurry from the Austrian capital after the Battle of Vienna in 1683, left behind bags and bags of coffee beans, which the locals used to open The Blue Bottle, the first Viennese coffee house and the origins of Vienna’s coffee house culture, which today is protected by UNESCO. Adding milk and sugar to coffee was popularized in Vienna.

Voyage to the Americas

Decades later, King Louis was still receiving coffee-related gifts; in 1714 he was given a young coffee plant by the Mayor of Amsterdam, which he had planted in Paris’ Royal Botanical Garden. Nine years later, Gabriel de Clieu, a young navy officer, took a seedling from the same plant which he managed to take to Martinique despite a terrible voyage; he and the seedling survived pirate attacks, the attempted destruction by a saboteur and dangerous weather en route. After plantation, the plucky seedling thrived and over the next half a century, 18 million coffee trees had spread across Martinique. This one seedling is not only credited for those, but is the parent plant for every single coffee tree in Central America, South America and the Caribbean today.

The Brazilian Boom

Brazil is the number one coffee producing country in the world, but how did that come about? We have to go back to 1727 and a dispute between the French and Dutch, which Brazilian colonel Francisco de Melo Palheta was tasked with settling in Guyana. While on the diplomatic mission, his personal goal was to — by any means — get hold of some coffee and take it back to Brazil.

After initially being refused seedlings by the French governor, he resorted to Plan B: he used his charm to seduce the governor’s wife, who later was able to give de Melo a few plant clippings in secret.

Back to Brazil he went with them, and despite it taking nearly a century for the industry to boom, by 1852, what had begun as a few clippings had turned into the world’s largest coffee empire, and to this day the South American giant remains the world’s biggest coffee producer.
By 1893, coffee had gone almost full circle; as Brazilian coffee trees were taken to be cultivated in Kenya and Tanzania, close to its East African birthplace of Ethiopia.

America’s impact on coffee

It was, somewhat ironically, the Boston Tea Party that began America’s relationship with coffee in the year 1773, when a group of patriots, many donning the dress of Native Americans, smuggled themselves aboard British ships docked in Boston Harbor that were bringing tea from India. They threw the tea overboard in protest against the British tea tax. Tea, thus, became a symbol of British rule and un-American, so coffee stepped in as the go-to hot beverage.

Since then, the USA has been the biggest coffee importer, buying much more coffee than anywhere else in the world.

The States’ coffee obsession has done wonders for many other nations of the Americas, creating a great injection into their economies.

But America does its fair share of growing the beans, too. Coffee was brought to Hawaii in the early nineteenth Century by those widely-traveled Brazilians, so when Hawaii became part of the United States in 1959, the US became a coffee growing nation! 1825 saw the planting of the first coffee orchard in Hawaii, which is where the Kona Coffee and Tea Company made its name.

The modern coffee industry

Shipped everywhere and drunk by everyone — by the 19th Century coffee really had become a global powerhouse. After all four corners of the globe had been reached, new ways of brewing, roasting and packaging have almost reinvented it drink over the last two centuries.

Coffee was not going to be an afterthought during the industrial revolution, leading to the invention of the percolator in 1818 by a metalsmith from Paris. The hallmark of a good invention, it has been adapted little over the last two hundred years, just the functionality has increased. The percolator had crossed the Atlantic by 1865 when the first American percolator was patented by James H Nason. Traditionalists may not look kindly on the time when the mass production of coffee became reality, but back then, it was a huge breakthrough.

With coffee being imported and exported the world over, it needed to be weighed, packaged, sealed and labeled efficiently and properly. That’s where, in 1871, John Arbuckle’s machine for doing all those things came in. His company became the largest coffee importer on the planet, owning more merchant ships than anyone else, which were always busy going back and forth between the USA and South America, full of paper packages stuffed with “Joe”.

In 1901, Italian Luigi Bezzera had a problem. It was taking far too long for his workers to get and drink a cup of coffee on their breaks, so, to speed things up, he came up with the first espresso machine. Using water and steam under high pressure, the machine was able to brew the coffee much quicker than before. It seemed like the perfect solution for everyone, but unfortunately the coffee produced by Bezzera’s machine was terribly bitter.

Four years later, though, industry experts began making improvements to the original espresso machine. The patent was purchased by Desiderio Pavoni, who was intent on improving the taste. He found that the steam and racing temperatures were responsible for the bitterness. His adaptations meant the temperature would not go over 195 degrees, and the pressure would be 9 BAR.

Four decades on and Italians were still tinkering with the espresso machine. Achille Gaggia went a step further, extracting the coffee at an even greater pressure by using a piston.

But it’s not all about machinery. Maybe you prefer a paper filter? If so, you can thank Melitta Bentz, a housewife from Germany who, in 1908, used her son’s school papers to filter coffee, and soon obtained a patent for her invention. “Where’s your homework?” “Well, my mum used it to make coffee!”

By the 1900’s, Brazil was producing far too much coffee waste, so the Brazilian government approached Nestle and tasked them with solving the problem of all the waste. Many years of experimentation later, they came up with Nescafe, instant coffee, made possible by their new process of freeze drying coffee, and today, Nescafe is the globe’s leading brand.

Too many issues around alcohol consumption led to prohibition being enacted in 1920’s America. Looking for a replacement, many Americans turned to coffee, creating a spike in sales which was further boosted in 1926 when the Science Newsletter wrote of coffee’s benefits.

Coffee gets special

Specialty coffee and some of the huge chains we know today have their roots in the second half of the twentieth century. Peet’s Coffee was opened in 1966 in California by Alfred Peet, and five years later Peet disclosed his coffee secrets and techniques to some friends. Once these friends had learned the trade at Peet’s, they asked Alfred if they could open a coffee shop that used the same beans, roasting techniques and even store layout. Peet gave them the green light, and the shop was born. It was called Starbucks.

Love Starbucks or hate it, if you’re a coffee drinker at all you should be glad of its impact, as they pioneered coffee’s second wave both in the USA and beyond. The concept of freshly roasted, ground coffee being a tastier alternative to the jars of pre-ground stuff on supermarket shelves was being replanted in the minds of Americans. Having these freshly brewed beans at modern, stylish cafes located at neighborhood hotspots made for quite the cool experience.

In A Capsule

The variety of coffee capsules available nowadays is enormous; we are spoiled for choice and may have almost any beverage in a capsule, including coffee, hot chocolate, flavored coffees, and tea. Capsules are available in a variety of shapes and sizes to accommodate various capsule coffee machines. So, to summarize, the capsule has gone a long way from its start!

The concept of capsule coffee goes back to 1975 (not that long ago! ), when Swiss engineer and inventor Éric Favre was keen to show his wife Anna-Maria that he could brew the greatest espresso. The ambitious engineer and his wife traveled to Italy in search of the best espresso. In Italy they discovered inspiration along with wonderful coffee.

The curious couple saw that many people visited a certain coffee shop and vowed to understand the ins and outs of the business by interrogating the employees. The bartender gladly revealed the recipe for their brew to the couple. It demonstrated that the barista’s way of pumping the espresso was critical to unleashing the optimum espresso’s flavors and smells. Mr. Favre had an epiphany and built a prototype espresso machine to replicate the procedure.

He therefore came to the conclusion that the ideal espresso was a frothy espresso made of air, water, and coffee oils. Mr. Favre then created a sealed coffee capsule with air trapped inside it, which he then forced water through to create a frothy espresso.

Éric Favre was working at Nestlé® at the time and was having difficulty persuading the corporation of his groundbreaking invention. Only ten years later, in 1986, did the corporation allow Mr. Favre to introduce Nespresso® and the ever-popular Nespresso® capsule.

When it comes to supplying customers with capsule coffee machines, Nespresso® is the industry leader today.

With a completely untouched market — coffee capsules presently account for just 1% of the multibillion-dollar coffee industry, and this is predicted to climb to 20% over the next decade — the capsule’s future appears promising. Mr. Favre’s brilliant invention has made the art of espresso-making accessible to millions of people. Where formerly a fine espresso was a rarity, coffee aficionados may now simply and conveniently experience the pungent scents and rich tastes of the world’s coffees.

Legacy

As you sip the cup you’re having right now, only oil is being traded more than coffee the world over. And that cup you’re enjoying now is one of 400 billion that will be consumed this year! With cafe culture seemingly on an upward trend and more types of coffee arriving all the time, it appears that our coffee consumption will not be slowing down anytime soon.

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