History of Coffee: Facts & Timeline

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Coffee is one of the most important beverages in the world, but how did it get to be so popular? In this lesson, we'll trace the history of coffee and talk about its rise to culinary dominance.

Coffea

Oil is valuable. In fact, it is so valuable that it's often called black gold. However, oil isn't the only liquid to hold this title. Coming in as the second-most valuable trade item in the world, coffee has enormous economic, social, and even political power. Researchers claim that over 2 billion cups of coffee are consumed every single day. People around the world drink coffee. You may be drinking a cup as you're reading this lesson. I'm drinking a cup as I'm writing it. Coffee is simply everywhere. But how much do you really know about this drink, the bean from the coffea plant that keeps us awake during the lulls of the day? Like everything else, there's a history here: a long, and somewhat jittery, history.

Red berries of the coffee plant
Coffee

Discovery and Early Use

So, who was the lucky soul to first get to drink coffee? We'll probably never know for sure, but legends attribute the discovery to a goat herder named Kaldi. Kaldi lived in the central highlands of Ethiopia, the native home of the coffee plant, possibly as early as the 6th century CE. According to tradition, he noticed that when his goats ate the red, cherry-like fruit of a certain plant, they became really energized and wouldn't sleep at night. So, he tried the fruit himself and experienced a similar effect. As a reminder, this was a world before caffeine was a major part of people's lives, so we can only imagine what Kaldi's first experience with it must have felt like. Apparently, he enjoyed it and showed a local abbot. That abbot realized that the fruit helped him stay awake during evening prayers, and shared it around the monastery. Word of this amazing fruit spread quickly across northeast Africa and into the Arabian Peninsula, where it became a dietary staple.

The people of the Arabian Peninsula loved their coffee, which they called qahwah. They drank it both at home and in the first coffee houses, public places for people to meet, gather and talk. But what did this drink look like? Many recipes used the entire fruit of the coffee tree, making basically a tea. Others fermented the pulp of the fruit to make a coffee wine. It wasn't until the 13th century that people started roasting the bean inside the fruit, which is how we make coffee today.

Coffee drinking the Arabian peninsula started early, and remained virtually unchanged for centuries
Coffee house

Coffee in Europe

The Arabian Peninsula was the center of international trade in the medieval world, and by roughly the 17th century merchants had introduced the drink to Europe. It is not much of an overstatement to claim that coffee revolutionized Europe. For one, the popularity of the drink introduced a huge economic opportunity for merchants who gained royal charters to start colonizing areas where coffee plants could grow in order to compete with Arabic merchants. The Dutch Empire in particular found great success and wealth by planting the beans in their colonies of Indonesia, starting with an island called Java. To coffee drinkers, that name should sound familiar. The Dutch were also the first to call the drink koffie, likely from the Turkish name for it, kahveh.

Coffee also transformed Europe in another way. As they had in the Arabian Peninsula, coffee houses became definitive places for social gathering and for discussing world politics and local gossip. In fact, so much information was exchanged in coffee houses that people of the 17th and 18th centuries called them penny universities because for a penny (the cost of a cup of coffee) you could learn anything you wanted. These places were also unique because the rules of social class that governed European society were largely ignored in coffee houses, and only in coffee houses. The coffee houses became institutions of equality, where all had the right to mix and mingle and drink coffee regardless of wealth or political power. In fact, many historians trace attitudes that would lead to things like the American and French revolutions back to the atmospheres of European coffee houses and the intellectual discussions about equal rights they prompted.

Coffee houses were, often somewhat rowdy, places of equality
Coffee house

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