The history of coffee, like the history of mankind, trails off into the distant past with little but clues to guide us as to its origins. Now, of course, coffee’s importance around the globe is evidenced by the place it holds on the commodities exchanges, in many years second in value only to oil. How did a lowly berry become such a powerful and vital force in modern life and world economics? And how did it find its way around the globe to come full-circle back to its origins?
There is scant archeological evidence of the use of coffee before the sixth century. However, the coffee bush grows wild on the hills of East Africa, primarily Ethiopia and Kenya, and the Island of Madagascar. Botanically, there are hundreds of wild coffee species of the rubiaceae family-all are coffee, although the commercial coffee trade makes use of only two, Coffea Arabica and C. Canephora (the variety known as Robusta). Wild coffee trees grow as an understory bush in tropical forests, often at an elevation of up to 1500 feet. Wet, humid lands do not lend themselves to the preservation of food residue so lack of evidence for coffee’s usage is likely something that will remain conjecture. Given early man’s success at utilizing native fruits and seeds, it would be unusual that the sweet flesh of the coffee berry wouldn’t have been used as a part of the seasonal diet. That there is little evidence left reflects on just how little we know of early man’s diet in most areas of the world. Because developing civilization soon learned the process of fermentation, the sweet fruits would have lent themselves easily to the local production of wine and ceremonial drinks.The Arabic word “qahwa”, the origin of the word coffee, means wine. In Europe,coffee was called “the wine of Arabia.” The word, qahwa is recorded in mud tablets as for back as 1000 BC. That would seem to indicate that coffee berries were likely fermented into wine at some point, likely early.
The first reported evidence of coffee as a food or for medical use is about the seventh century AD. Oral tradition talks of African natives pounding coffee berries, including the seeds together with animal fat and rolling it into balls to be used for strength during journeys and when going into battle. What we know with more certainty is that, by the seventh century AD, the succulent outer cherry-like flesh was eaten by slaves taken from present day Sudan into Yemen and Arabia. They entered through the great port of its day, Mocha, now synonymous with coffee and explains the term Mocha for coffee. Obviously, the stimulant properties of the caffeine in the berries were self-evident. This importation into Yemen is why early European explorers attributed Yemen as the origin of coffee, as by that time, coffee was being grown there.
An early legend of medicinal properties associated with coffee is that of Omar the Dervish. The traditional legend states that Omar was a healer who was exiled from the area around the Port of Mocha by his enemies. Near death,Omar survived by drinking the liquid of roasted coffee berries and discovered his strength restored. By the ninth century, the renowned physician, philosopher and astronomer, Rhazes included the substance Bunchum in an encyclopedia of substances believed to cure diseases. Bunchum is believed to have been coffee. Medicinal uses of coffee continue into the 21st century and new scientific discoveries of its properties still surprise the world on a regular basis.
Coffee quickly came to be used in religious ceremonies in Yemen, Cairo, Aden and Mecca to enhance worshiper’s ability to maintain stamina and concentration during all-night prayer and meditation. Coffee drinking quickly evolved into a social activity outside of religious ceremonies as an acceptable alternative to alcohol, which was forbidden. ‘Kaveh kanes’, or coffee houses quickly grew in popularity, much to the consternation of religious leaders who were incensed that a religious drink was being quaffed in public places as an adjunct to music, dancing, chess and business deals. These kaveh kanes soon became centers of political activity and were suppressed by the Arabian government. The coffee houses remained popular and although faced with suppression several times through the next century, always returned as popular gathering places. The government finally resolved the issue by taxing them-a very modern method of solving a problem.
Mocha’s position as the main seaport for the water route to Mecca no doubt had much to do with the early spread of coffee through the Muslim world. Roasted beans soon found a place in the export cargo across the Mediterranean. Early in the 1600s, Pope Clement VIII, having been encouraged to ban the use of coffee as a drink of infidels’, instead tried it himself and then blessed it as a Christian drink. It quickly spread across Europe. At first, coffee was used primarily for medicinal purposes and sold by lemonade vendors. The first coffee house in England was opened by a Turk named Jacob in 1637 in Oxford. The importance of the newly acquired drink is shown in the fact that famous insurance giant Lloyds of London was started as a coffeehouse in 1688. There, Edward Lloyd prepared lists of the ships that his customers had insured.
Arab exporters knew enough to protect their market: they parched or boiled the beans to make them infertile before shipping them and made it illegal to export fertile beans. However, European traders knew a fortune could be made from this new drink-if only they could get their hands on some fertile seed stock. Legend says an Indian trader smuggled out seven fertile beans strapped to his belly around 1650. However it was accomplished, by 1699 coffee was growing in India and the Dutch soon transplanted coffee to Java. The Dutch colonies quickly became the world’s largest coffee exporters to the world.
The first historical reference to coffee being drunk in the new world is from 1668. Before long, coffee houses were established in Philadelphia, Boston and other towns. The Boston Tea party was planned in a coffee house called the Green Dragon. Both the Bank of New York and the New York Stock Exchange were started in coffee houses in the Wall Street area of New York. The Boston Tea Party was part of a series of events that popularized the drinking of coffee in the Colonies likely faster than the normal spread of a new drink: few American history books contain the fact that the tea so famously dumped into Boston Harbor was old, spoiled tea and had been shipped to them as the only tea they would be allowed to purchase. This was the King’s efforts at subsidizing the economically-strapped East India Tea Company at the expense of the colonists. The entire act of rebellion was likely as much about rotted tea as unrepresented taxation. The slogan quickly became that Tories drink tea, patriots drink coffee. The consumption of coffee rose in the colonies and that of tea dropped – never to match coffee again.
King Louis XIV of France worked diligently to acquire a coffee tree for The Royal Botanical Garden and was finally gifted with one from Java in 1714. As the tree didn’t grow well in the colder climate of France, he had a greenhouse built to protect it. He was apparently successful as it is said that this tree’s descendants were the source of many of the cultivators used in South and Central America. This was accomplished by the daring exploit of a young French naval officer on leave in Paris. Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu, was in Paris on leave from Martinique, a French colony in the Caribbean. Realizing Martinique could be a French version of Java, he requested clippings from his king’s tree but permission was refused.
Not to be denied, de Clieu led a successful moonlight raid of the Jardin des Plantes into the hothouse to liberate a sprout. De Clieu then sailed for Martinique with the small plant. However, his troubles were just beginning. After a series of mishaps on the voyage, including jealous passengers attempting to get pieces of the little plant, pirates and a water shortage, he managed to get the seeding to Martinique where the brave little plant produced 18 million trees in the next twenty years and began the coffee trade in the French colonies of the new world.
Despite De Clieu’s efforts, he was not the first to bring coffee to the Americas. The Dutch brought coffee to the colony of Surinam in 1718. Plantations followed in French Guiana. Soon, Brazil, seeing the wealth to be created from coffee export, entered into an intrigue to obtain some seedlings. Under the guise of settling a border dispute, they dispatched Lt. Col. Francisco de Melo Palheta to French Guiana. Knowing he would have little hope of getting any seedlings from the well-guarded plantations, Lt Paheta took a more circuitous route and romanced the governor’s wife. He apparently did well, as at the state farewell dinner in his honor, the governor’s wife presented him with a bouquet which included several coffee seedlings.
By eighteen hundred, Brazils coffee crop had started producing such massive harvests that coffee was now affordable for the common man and not just the elite. Brazil now leads the world in coffee exports, followed by Viet Nam.
Coffee’s importance in the political systems and economies around the world did not begin nor end with its significance in the American Revolution: The French Revolution was also planned in a coffee house. King Frederick the Great of Prussia once tried to ban coffee as its consumption was interfering with the profits of the beer brewing industry. And housewives in London in 1674, formed the Women’s Petition Against Coffee (WPAC). They complained that their men were always at the coffee houses, and not at home as needed to deal with domestic issues. During the American Civil War, Union soldiers were issued eight pounds of ground roast coffee beans as part of their one hundred pound food ration-or they could take ten pounds of green coffee beans instead. As the South faced a coffee shortage, housewives devised a substitute using roasted and ground chicory root, sometimes mixed with dandelion root.
Coffee continues to be of international significance, with forty-five exporting countries joining the International Coffee Organization (ICO) in an effort to stabilize prices and output and thus avoid the occasional boom or bust nature of the market. Extreme price volatility caused by weather conditions and excess production has historically both enriched and impoverished small coffee growers. Small growers constitute much of many countries’ export coffee and are at high risk of being taken advantage of by political and financial interests. The ICO attempts to promote stability and sustainable growing practices and enforce fair trade and dealing with individual farmers. Since 1963, 24 import and 45 export countries have cooperated through the ICO. By imposing a quota system, they can limit the outflow of beans from producing nations in times of oversupply. These controls, in force to sustain prices only until the market does so normally, have been applied several times.
These forty-five exporting countries girdle the globe-there is no continent in the tropic latitudes where coffee hasn’t become an economic force. China is currently developing its coffee production system and although still a tea-drinking nation, coffee has become a more viable product. It is questionable if they will join the ICO. At its origins in Africa, however, political upheaval and wars have prevented the populace in many small countries from taking advantage of the profitable export of the native crop. It remains to be seen if political stability will soon allow these farmers to contribute the wealth generated through coffee to their country’s economic well-being. Fair Trade Coffee organizations attempt to provide a decent return to these small producers and many conscientious Americans and Europeans prove themselves willing to pay a premium price for their products, knowing farmers got a fair price.
Coffee customs vary a great deal: in Turkey or Greece, the eldest is served first. Bedouins would greet the honored guest with “Allah wa Sablan”, meaning, “My home is your home”. In Uganda, the green beans are mixed with sweet grasses and various spices, dried, and then wrapped in grass packets, to be hung in their homes. It serves as talisman and decoration.
Coffee’s use as a medicine dates far into its history. Even today coffee has several common and accepted benefits that the average drinker takes advantage of. Coffee’s mild stimulant properties are what forces many a worker into wide-awake usefulness each morning. Caffeine in coffee increases concentration, intensifies muscle responses and elevates mood. Caffeine is actually listed as a drug on the Olympic banned drug schedule and testing limits the amount allowable in the blood stream to about five cups. Caffeine’s effects appear to be site-specific in that it dilates coronary and gastrointestinal vessels but constricts blood vessels in the head and may relieve migraine headache, the symptoms of which include swollen cranial blood vessels. It also increases pain-free exercise time in some angina patients. However, because it speeds up heartbeat, doctors often advise patients with heart disease to avoid caffeinated beverages entirely. It acts as a mild diuretic and may help with bloating caused by menstruation. Roasting the beans increases the niacin content available to the human body and is an important source of several other minerals.
Coffee has long been a recommended aid to treating asthma in Chinese medicine. According to a spate of recent scientific studies moderate coffee drinking may lower the risk of colon cancer by about 25%, gallstones by 45%, cirrhosis of the liver by 80%, and Parkinson’s disease by between 50% to 80%. Some studies have indicated that coffee contains four times the amount of cancer-fighting antioxidants as those of green tea. The Japanese use coffee to improve their skin, and reduce wrinkles, by bathing in coffee grounds that were fermented with pineapple pulp.
Coffee enemas were an established part of medical practice when Dr. Max Gerson introduced them into cancer therapy in the 1930s. Based on German laboratory research, Gerson believed that caffeine could stimulate the liver and gall bladder to discharge bile. He felt this process could contribute to the health of the cancer patient. Most people don’t know that the notorious coffee enema appeared at least as early as 1917 and was found in the prestigious Merck Manual until 1972. In the 1920s German scientists found that a caffeine solution could open the bile ducts and stimulate the production of bile in the liver of experimental animals. Researchers from Kaiser Permanente recently announced that coffee drinking appears to guard against cirrhosis of the liver; tea did not show the same advantage so evidently it isn’t the caffeine that is the beneficial agent.
Assuming one intends to consume their coffee in the usual manner, exactly how it is prepared can vary widely. The Bedouins generally serve coffee plain with ginger or cardamom. It has a yellow color and a very sweet taste. The Italians drink their espresso with sugar, the Germans and Swiss like to add equal parts of hot chocolate. Mexicans add cinnamon, the Belgians chocolate. Ethiopians drink their coffee with a pinch of salt, Moroccans with peppercorns. Coffee drinkers in the Middle East often add cardamom and spices. Whipped cream is the favorite amongst Austrians. The Egyptians like pure and strong coffee; they seldom add sugar, milk or cream to it. Traditionally, unsweetened coffee is offered to mourners and sweetened coffee at weddings. Many of Norwegian ancestry in the United States add an egg to the coffee during a special method of brewing. And some people add an eggshell to the pot and usually can’t tell you why-it’s a tradition they learned from their parents and grandparents. Several old cookbooks direct the use of eggshells to remove bitterness from cheaper coffee and that may be where the tradition started. Others suggest the calcium base of the eggshell assists in conditioning the water for a better tasting brew.
Most people today brew coffee at home using the drip method with coffee roasted and ground to work with drip coffee makers. Fifty years ago, the percolator was the rage. Now it’s the French Press. Decaffeinated coffee has been around since the early 1900s. The processes for decaffeination vary and many use rather unsavory chemicals in the process. A better solution may simply to use Arabica coffees as they have about half the caffeine of the Robusta varieties. Instant coffee, developed nearly the same time as decaffeinated, is made by brewing the roasted beans then dehydrating the results.
And coffee is still a social experience valued by the masses, as evidenced by the growth of the Starbucks chain and specialty coffee shops. When consuming coffee in a social setting, there is one time-honored tradition that we all follow without realizing it. This custom dates back to the early London coffee houses. There, conspicuously-placed small brass boxes carried the inscription, “To Insure Promptness”. The acronym, TIP, carries the same connotation today as it did nearly four hundred years ago and the wise customer still follows it.
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