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History of coffee

It is unknown when coffee was first discovered and when the first cup of real coffee was drunk. Many different legends exist, but there are no definite written sources or other proof that coffee was used before the early Middle Ages. Homer and some Arab legends tell the story of a mysterious black and bitter beverage with powers of stimulation, but it is not sure whether this really is coffee... Coffee most likely originated from what is now Ethiopia and may have spread North to Egypt and ancient Greek, or East to the Arab peninsula.


There are a number of different legends as to the origin of coffee and how it was discovered.

The most common is the legend of Kaldi the goatherd or shepherd who, in around 600-800 AD, was tending to his animals on the mountainside one night in Eastern Africa, most likely modern day Ethiopia, when he noticed that they were acting strangely. On investigating this he realised that they had been eating the cherry-red berries of a nearby shrub. As a result of this they remained awake, jumping and leaping around the whole night - even the older goats. Curious, the goat herder picked some and tasted them himself. He found that they invigorated him and made him more wide awake.

It was about this time that a monk from a nearby monastery was passing. The shepherd told him about the goats and he demanded to be shown this plant. Kaldi showed the monk a pretty little shrub with a greyish bark and brilliant foliage, the slender branches of which, at the base of their leaves, had bunches of small white flowers mingles with clusters of small berries, some green, riper ones a clear yellow colour and yet others, which had reached complete maturity, of the size, shape and colour of a cherry.


The monk, wishing to try the effects of these berries, crushed a few into a powder and poured boiling water over them to make a drink. This was the first cup of coffee - it was not until much later, however, that coffee was first roasted. Impressed with the results of the drink in making him wider awake and yet not affecting his intellectual capabilities, the monk took the new discovery back to his monastery realising that it would help him and his fellow monks stay awake during their long hours of prayer. Coffee soon spread from monastery to monastery and, therefore, became in much demand, and regarded to be a divine gift brought by an angel from heaven to the faithful.

This legend probably is of European origin, as there is no similar story in the Arab coffee tradition or legends. The oldest written source of this story dates from 1671, written by Antoine Faustus Nairon, a professor in Eastern languages in Rome. Already in 1699 the story was criticised by the French scholar Antoine Galland.

In the Arab literature many different legends on the origin of coffee exist. The most common is that the Archangel Gabriel offered Mohammed some coffee to give him more strength and endurance.

Another famous Arab legend tells of Sheik Omar who, around 1258, was banned from the city of Mocha . During their travels they collected some berries and boiled them in water. The brew gave them suddenly much strength and the story of the miracle berries spread to the leper colony in Mocha. The coffee cured the lepers, and Sheik Omar returned a hero to Mocha.


Who and where coffee was discovered still is unknown, the fact remains that the coffee plant originates in Africa, from which it spread to Yemen, Arabia and Egypt, where it developed enormously, and entered popular daily life. Wild coffee can still be found in Ethiopia today. The great port of Yemen, Mocha (now Al Mukha), became the centre of the coffee trade; it's name now synonymous with coffee. Coffee was already being cultivated in Yemen by the 15th century and probably much earlier than that.

Initially, the authorities in Yemen actively encouraged coffee drinking as it was considered preferable to the extreme side effects of Kat, a shrub whose buds and leaves were chewed as a stimulant. The first coffeehouses were opened in Mecca and were called 'kaveh kanes'. They quickly spread throughout the Arab world and became successful places where chess was played, gossip was exchanged, and singing, dancing and music were enjoyed. They were luxuriously decorated and each had an individual character. Nothing quite like the coffeehouse had existed before: a place where society and business could be conducted in comfortable surroundings and where anyone could go, for the price of coffee.

The Arabian coffeehouses soon became centres of political activity and were suppressed (the first time in 1511 in Mecca). Coffee and coffeehouses were subsequently banned several times over the next few decades, but they kept reappearing. Eventually a solution was found when coffeehouses and coffee were taxed.


The Arabs brewed their coffee by boiling the whole berry for a long time in water. The resulting drink was named ‘qishr', which was the name of the sweet outer layer of the berry. Coffee beans were probably first roasted in the early 16th century in Turkey. During the 16th century both coffee drinks co-existed, as was noted by the Italian botanist Prosper Alpinus during his travels in Egypt in 1592.

In the late 16th century the black coffee had spread all over the Arab world and was by far the most popular drink.

Coffee in Europe

The first description of coffee beans was printed in 1574 by the famous Dutch botanist Carolus Clusius (who also took the tulip to Europe). Clusius received information on the coffee beans from some Italian colleagues, who knew the beans from Alexandria in Egypt .

Coffee tree (O. Dapper, Beschrijving van Asië, Amsterdam 1680, p. 62)(source)

In 1582 the German Leonart Rauwulf published his travels through the Levant in Amsterdam . He was the first in Europe to describe the Arab habit of drinking coffee and the existence of the Arab coffeehouses. In 1592 the first picture of a coffee plant was published in Europe in Venice by the above mentioned Prosper Alpinus.

The Dutch East India Company (VOC) started with trading in Mocha in 1616 and during the first half of the 17th century the Dutch traded in coffee in the Arab world and Asia. There was no demand for coffee in Europe at the time.

VOC ships in the harbour of Mocha (from Reinders and Wijsenbeek, 1994)

In the early 17th century coffee was imported to Europe mainly through merchants from Venice . At first coffee was mainly sold by lemonade vendors and was believed to have medicinal qualities. The first European coffeehouse opened in Venice in 1683, with the most famous, Caffe Florian in Piazza San Marco, opening in 1720. It is still open for business today.

During the late 17th century coffeehouses spread all over Europe and the Dutch, English and French started to trade in coffee from different Arab ports.

All coffee at the time was imported from the Arab countries, as it was forbidden to sell or trade in fertile coffee beans or plants. Green beans (berries without the outer layers) or roasted beans are infertile.

From the early 17th century onwards European botanists tried to get coffee plants, mainly for scientific purposes, not for trading. Only when, by the 1690s, coffee became very popular in Europe and political problems in the Arab countries threatened coffee imports, different European countries tried to get coffee plants for trading purposes.

Dutch coffee conquers the world

The race to make off with some live coffee trees or beans was eventually won by the Dutch. They obtained the coffee plants most likely in Malabar (India), where the Dutch East India Company (VOC) ruled. Coffee plants were sent in 1696 by the Dutch governor of Malabar to his friend and colleague in Batavia (now Jakarta, Indonesia). In 1699 the plants were nearly destroyed, but by 1704 the plants grew so well, that the governor started to have the seeds planted in Java for commercial purposes. The VOC, who already traded in coffee for nearly a century, also had obtained knowledge how and where to culture the plants.

The first coffee, around 450 kg, from Java was exported to Europe in 1711. Ten years later the export had already grown to 60.000 kg.

In 1706 the first living plants were send as a gift to the mayor of Amsterdam from Batavia . He tried to cultivate the plant in the greenhouse of the local botanical garden. By 1713 the first European coffee was harvested from this single tree. Between 1711 and 1724 the Amsterdam garden exchanged coffee plants with numerous other European botanical gardens and in 1714 the city of Amsterdam presented a coffee tree to the French King Louis XIV, the most powerful European King at the time. The tree, planted in the Jardin des Plantes, became a famous tourist attraction...

Seeds of this plant were exported to the French Island of Martinique in the Caribbean, and from there to other parts of South America. The French were not the first to export the tree to the New World, as the Dutch already cultivated coffee in their colony of Surinam in South America as early as 1712. Surinamese coffee was imported to Holland in 1718. The first harvest from Martinique was exported in 1726.

In 1715 coffee was introduced in Haiti, most likely from Surinam. In 1727 coffee growing was started in North Brazil, but the poor climatic conditions gradually shifted the crops, first to Rio de Janeiro and finally (1800-1850) to the States of San Paolo and Minas, where coffee found its ideal environment.

In 1730 the British introduced coffee to Jamaica, where today the most famous and expensive coffee in the world is grown in the Blue Mountains . In 1825 coffee was first planted in Hawaii which produces the only US coffee. In the 19th century coffee was (re-) introduced in the European colonies in Africa .

Until the mid 19th century, most coffee grown outside Arabia originated from the few seeds imported and grown by the Dutch in Jakarta in 1699.....


The first coffee traded in Amsterdam in 1711 fetched 1,39 guilders per pound (500 gram), a huge sum at the time. This made coffee trade very profitable and by 1725 already 1,3 million kilo of coffee was imported in the Netherlands alone.

Initially coffee was mainly imported by the Dutch from Indonesia and in smaller quantities from Surinam and Ceylon (Sri Lanka), but by the end of the century most coffee came from Surinam . The Dutch ruled the international coffee trade during most of the 18th century, as their main competitors in world trade, the English, traded mainly in tea. By the end of the 19th century the French became the main coffee traders. The English who overtook Sri Lanka from the Dutch, increased coffee production there and became a leading importer of coffee in the 19th century.

By the end of the 18th century all over Europe the price had dropped so much that coffee has changed from a drink for the better off, to a daily drink for all layers of society.

Coffee was still imported from Mocha and at the end of the 18th century Mocha coffee was by far the most expensive. On the Amsterdam coffee exchange (the main coffee exchange in Europe at the time) Mocha coffee fetched 14,5 stuivers/pound in 1774, whereas coffee from Java fetched 10,75 stuivers and South American coffee (Martinique, Surinam) only around 6 stuivers. In comparison, tea at the same time fetched 18-60 stuivers/pound... As one stuiver equalled 1/20 guilder, coffee prices dropped from the initial 1,39 guilder/pound to 0,30 guilder/pound, not taking into account the inflation during 65 years... (see price list below)

Coffee bill from 1774 (from Reinders and Wijsenbeek, 1994)

Coffeehouses in Europe

Coffeehouses originated from the Arab world, but were easily adopted by the Europeans. The idea spread quickly across Europe and the houses became centres for intellectual exchange. Many great minds of Europe used this beverage, and forum, as a springboard to heightened thought and creativity. The first coffeehouse in England was established in 1650 in Oxford, its only customers being foreigners or British who had travelled to the Orient. As all coffee had to be traded at the time through Venice or other trading ports, supplying the coffeehouses was very difficult. Nevertheless coffeehouses were introduced in for example Amsterdam (1663), Marseille (1671), Paris (1672), Hamburg (1677), Vienna (1685) and Prague (1696). The coffeehouses at the time did not play a major role in society, on the contrary, the existence of coffeehouses in many towns is only known through criminal records....

The government in many countries included coffee with alcohol and tobacco and levied taxes. This did not improve the situation of many coffeehouses and probably many closed down.

Coffeehouse in Britain in the18th century. (Source)

The situation changed drastically in the early 18th century when coffee supplies became more reliable and coffee became cheaper. The coffeehouses no longer only attracted students, foreigners and common people, but more and more the richer people attended the coffeehouses. Coffeehouses became very luxurious establishments and also attracted (local) politicians. In England these coffeehouses developed in the closed clubs, which still exist today.

More and more coffeehouses were opened and any larger city boasted dozens of coffeehouses in the middle of the 18th century.

Coffeehouses were mainly visited by men, the only women present served the coffee. In Paris women drank coffee in open-air pavilions in summer, a practice which was followed in other cities.

Coffee at home was first only practised by the very rich, who could afford to import their own coffee. Coffee (and tea) was very suitable to drink from the equally expensive imported porcelain cups. To serve someone coffee at home was a way to show off your wealth in the late 17th century. When coffee became more common, and the coffeehouses became more fashionable, it was no longer a symbol of wealth to serve coffee. Coffee in the early 18th century was available for everybody in regular shops in most West and South European cities. Due to longer trading routes it took a few decades longer to become commonplace all over Europe .

Coffee in America

Coffee was introduced as a drink by the British in the 17th century to their North American colonies. The first reference to coffee being drunk in North America is from 1668 and in the 1680s and 90s, coffeehouses were established in New York, Philadelphia, Boston and other towns. The Boston Tea Party Of 1773 was planned in a coffeehouse, the Green Dragon. Both the New York Stock Exchange and the Bank of New York started in coffeehouses, in what is today the financial district known as Wall Street.

Coffee was declared the national drink of the then colonized United States by the Continental Congress, in protest of the excessive tax on tea levied by the British crown.

Today Americans are the largest consumers of coffee in the world.


Coffee was prepared for centuries by mixing ground coffee with boiling water. The coffee grains settled to the bottom and the coffee could be served.

In 1822 a new way of coffee making was introduced, the espresso. Espresso obtained its origin in 1822, with the innovation of the first crude espresso machine in France . In 1933, the Italian Ernest Illy invented the first automatic espresso machine. However, the modern-day espresso machine was created by Italian Achilles Gaggia in 1946. Gaggia invented a high pressure espresso machine by using a spring powered lever system. The first pump driven espresso machine was produced in 1960 by the Faema company. In the meantime espresso had become such an integral part of Italian life and culture, that there are presently over 200,000 espresso bars in Italy .

Another major breakthrough was due to Melitta Bentz, a housewife from Dresden, Germany, who invented the first coffee filter. She was looking for a way to brew the perfect cup of coffee with none of the bitterness caused by overbrewing. Melitta Bentz decided to invent a way to make a filtered coffee, pouring boiling water over ground coffee and having the liquid be filtered, removing any grinds. Melitta Bentz experimented with different materials, until she found that her son's blotter paper used for school worked best. She cut a round piece of blotting paper and put it in a metal cup.

On June 20th, 1908, the coffee filter and filter paper were patented. On December 15th, 1908, Melitta Bentz and her husband Hugo started the Melitta Bentz Company. The next year they sold 1200 coffee filters at the Leipziger fair in Germany . The Mellitta Bentz Company also patented the filter bag in 1937 and vacuum-packing in 1962.

Original filter holder (Source)

In 1901, just-add-hot water "instant" coffee was invented by Japanese American chemist Satori Kato of Chicago. In 1906, English chemist George Constant Washington, invented the first mass-produced instant coffee. Washington was living in Guatemala and at the time when he observed dried coffee on his coffee carafe, after experimenting he created "Red E Coffee" - the brand name for his instant coffee first marketed in 1909. In 1938 the Swiss company Nestlé introduced Nescafe, or freeze-dried instant coffee. Instant coffee was enormously popular with American soldiers during World War II; one year, the entire production from the U.S. Nescafé plant (in excess of one million cases) went solely to the military.

Instant coffee (Source)

Decafeinated coffee was introduced in 1906 by the Coffee Hag company in Germany (see the section on decafeinated coffee).

During the 20th century many small inventions changed the way coffee is brewed, but all were based on ‘traditional' filter- or espresso machines. The most recent technical breakthrough occurred in 2001 when Philips and Douwe Egberts (Sara Lee) introduced the system of coffee pads in Europe. This made it possible to brew very fast two cups of coffee with a small layer of foam. Other companies followed soon.

Coffee pads (Source)


Today, coffee is a giant global industry employing more than 20 million people. This commodity ranks second only to petroleum in terms of dollars traded worldwide. With over 400 milliard cups consumed every year, coffee is the world's most popular beverage. If you can imagine, in Brazil alone, over 5 million people are employed in the cultivation and harvesting of over 3 milliard coffee plants.

Today it is possible to find good coffee, specialty coffee and coffee bars in every major city of the world, from London to Sydney, from Greenland to Tierra del Fuego.

Coffee is crucial to the economies and politics of many developing countries; for many of the world's Least Developed Countries, exports of coffee account for a substantial part of their foreign exchange earnings in some cases over 80%. Coffee is a traded commodity on major futures and commodity exchanges, most importantly in London and New York .

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