‘Wherever it has been introduced, it has found revolution. It has been the world’s most radical drink in that its function has always been to make people think. And when the people begin to think they become dangerous to tyrants.’ William Ukers
Coffee is such an essential part of our cultural identity in the West that it’s hard to believe most of us know so little about the drink’s history.
Let’s change that.
Sadly, coffee has a history that’s as bitter-sweet as the drink itself. From goats to revolution, fueling the American army during WW2, to the humble Caramel Macchiato… The humble coffee bean has had quite a journey over the last 1200 years.
In this article, we’ll teach you everything you want to know about the history of coffee, and we’ll even throw in some information about the coffee plant itself. As an international favorite, the history of coffee jumps from place to place worldwide. To make things easier to follow, we’ve split the narratives up by location.
Let’s start by looking at the coffee plant itself.
Meet Your Stars
The coffee plant (also known as Coffea) has over 120 species. They are small bushes that grow tiny white flowers that fruit into sweet red berries. These berries are very high in caffeine, and in some countries, are used to make popular fruit juices.
The berries’ seeds are generally referred to as Coffee Beans. These beans are roasted before being ground into fine granules.
The two most popular Coffee species are Coffea Arabica and Coffea Canephora (commonly referred to as Coffea Robusta).
|Medium caffeine||High caffeine|
|Smooth taste||Bitter taste|
|A delicate plant needs specific growing conditions||Hardy plant|
|Brew on its own, or blend with Robusta to make it more palatable||Brew in a blend|
|Most popular||Second most popular|
From Vine to Venti
Have you ever wondered how coffee goes from being a small, red berry (yes it starts as a berry) to a creamy latte? Well, wonder no longer…
The ripe berries are picked from the trees. Some countries like Costa Rica still do this by hand, but it can be done mechanically. They are then stored in a cool, dry location.
The berries are separated into pulp and bean. This is called Hulling. The beans are grown inside the berries. The pulp is used to make a highly caffeinated fruit juice. The beans move onto the next stage of the process.
After being Hulled, the beans are Polished. Here any last trace of the fruit is removed. At the end of this process, we are left with green beans.
Next, the coffee is cleaned (to the country’s standards they will be sent to), and the beans are graded on their size.
Some beans are aged before they are roasted. Old coffee beans are a growing trend in Europe.
Most coffee beans are sold at this point. They are then roasted and ground by the company that wishes to sell the coffee. The coffee may travel halfway across the world before being roasted.
The Surprisingly Interesting (and dark) History of Coffee
As with all histories, the best place to start is at the beginning. This particular tale begins in Ethiopia.
The History of Coffee in Africa and the Middle East
Africa and the Middle East brought us coffee as we know it today. This is where our story begins. And it starts before humanity began to exist.
- The legend begins: 5-8th Century, a goat farmer in Ethiopia discovers coffee berries
- 5th Century: Ethiopia invade Yemen and introduces coffee
- 5-6th Century: Sufi priests adopt coffee; coffee becomes the drink of choice for Islamic men
- 6th Century: Coffea Arabica is grown for the first time
- 7th Century: Coffee takes over Arabia Society
- 15th Century: The Dutch arrive and take coffee back to Europe
- 16th Century: Coffee is briefly banned from Mecca
The Legend Begins
Ethiopia and the dancing goats
Like many of the earth’s plants, the coffee plant is believed to be older than humanity. And just like humans, coffee’s birthplace is the beautiful nation of Ethiopia.
In Ethiopia, coffee grew wild in thick forests before humanity began their love affair with the bean. The Ethiopians tell this story about the discovery of coffee:
One day, a goat herder called Kaldi let his goats graze next to these coffee forests. He left some unattended, and when he returned, he thought they had gone mad. They were more lively than he had ever seen them.
He watched as another goat ate a handful of berries from the coffee bush and fell under the same effect. Kaldi decided to also try the berries. Soon, he too was hit by the effects of the berries. He shared the berries with a local monk who dropped them into a campfire. They fished out the roasted beans, added water, and had the world’s first cup of coffee.
Records show that in Ethiopia, it was typical for the Oromo tribe (the group who discovered coffee) to grind the beans up and mix them with fat. They ate them in the way we would eat a power bar. Designed to aid travelers and soldiers.
Yemen (5th Century)
The first records of coffee beans being roasted were not noted until coffee had reached Yemen. We, in fact, owe much of our modern coffee drinking habits to the people of Yemen.
Ethiopia invaded Yemen bringing with them their super beans. Sufi mystics in the city of Mocha quickly began avid coffee drinkers as they discovered it made their all-night prayer sessions a lot easier.
It was around this time that the first Coffea Arabica plants were grown. Coffea Arabica is still one of the most popular strains of the coffee plant to this day. 60% of the world’s coffee supply comes from Arabica beans.
Here coffee was given the name Qahwa, which can be roughly translated as wine in Arabic. Etymologists believe that a mishearing of this word by European traders is where the name coffee comes from.
The Rest of the Middle East (7th Century)
Coffee quickly became the drink of choice for Islamic men. As they chose not to drink alcohol, they had not developed ‘pub culture’ the same way Europe had. Instead, they opted for cafes, where Islamic men could talk about enlightening topics such as philosophy, business, and religion.
These cafes became an essential social space outside the home in Islamic society. Soon, coffee was so entrenched in their everyday lives that we even saw it influence laws. If a husband did not provide his wife with daily coffee in Turkey, she had the right to divorce him.
The Rest of the Middle East (16th Century)
The Turkish Ottman empire quickly built a monopoly over the coffee industry. They introduced the drink to many European countries, including France in 1669. Their control over the coffee industry particularly frustrated the Dutch, who took coffee to Asia and South America to build their own plantations.
These cafes quickly became a worry for the authorities, who worried about their populations being too educated or enlightened. Many attempted to ban coffee (you will see this repeatedly happen throughout coffee’s history). A Turkish Ottaman tried it once, and the backlash was so fierce that he was forced to lift the ban.
One of the most successful bannings of coffee was in the 16th Century when the drink was briefly outlawed in Mecca. The drink was brewed illegally until the ban was lifted.
Interestingly, during this period, coffee was banned simultaneously in Constantinople and Mecca.
The Discovery of Robusta (1869)
In one of those historical coincidences that seems almost impossible, the year that Rust Leaf killed off all the Coffea Arabica in the South Pacific, Coffea Robusta was discovered.
Robusta plants were resistant to most diseases. They also grew and produced their beans at a much quicker rate than Arabica. So, it’s good by Arabica, hello a new age of cheaper Robusta coffee, right?!
Sadly, Robusta had one significant flaw – it tasted awful. It wasn’t until the rise of Instant Coffee that Robusta found its place. It is still common to find it blended with Arabica beans to take the edge off its bitterness. As the Instant coffee standards are much lower, the majority of Robusta produced goes straight into Instant coffee production.
The History of Coffee in Europe
Europe is arguably responsible for the world’s obsession with coffee. In many ways, they forced it into the rest of the world. Coffee led to enlightenment and one of Europe’s most violent revolutions.
- 16th Century, Europe is introduced to coffee – beans replace beer
- 16th Century, the Dutch take coffee to Asia and beyond
- 17th Century, London goes cafe crazy
- 17th Century, England tries to ban coffee
- 17th Century, Turkey introduced coffee to France
- 17th Century, Prussia bans coffee
- 17th Century, Europe takes coffee to South and Central American
- 17th Century, Benjamin Franklin hears revolutionary talks in a French cafe
- 19th Century, the French revolution
Europe before coffee
Before the introduction of coffee to Europe, the Europeans drank mainly beer. Their drinking water was not safe to use, so they would drink 100s of liters a year per person.
In the early 16th Century, the Dutch and the Turkish introduced Europeans to coffee. Things began to change rapidly after this.
England and Coffee
London was the first city to be taken over by the coffee craze. Tea hadn’t fully arrived yet in the UK, so coffee became the drink of choice. Coffee crossed the channel in the early 17th Century. Then the British went crazy…
Between 1672 and 1700, over 2000+ cafes were opened in London alone. The British couldn’t get enough of drinking coffee and debating each other in cafes. Like many leaders before him, Charles 2nd tried to ban coffee and close the cafes as he was worried they would lead to revolution. He was like most unsuccessful.
Coffee was successfully banned in Prussia for some time during the 17th Century. The Czar even employed secret anti-coffee police.
In London, these cafes were referred to as Penny Universities. This was because coffee cost a penny, and sitting in one of these cafes was an opportunity for the common man to hear the best and brightest of London debate each other. All this was made possible by the lack of alcohol in these cafes.
Another interesting fact about 18th century London cafe culture was that the businesses Lloyds Bank, the London Stock Exchange, and the East Indian Trading Company started as cafes selling coffee.
Seeking to build their own coffee Empire the British set up plantations around Asia. However, one bad year of deceased crops led to them abandoning coffee for tea.
Women were not allowed in cafes and were thought to generally be against coffee shops. There was a Women’s Petition Against Coffee that advocated banning the drink and all the men returning to pubs.
However, the enlightenment in London was not as drastic as what happened in France… Perhaps Charles 2nd was right to be concerned.
France and Coffee
The French Revolution was undoubtedly a catalyst for many changes across the world. However, very few people are aware of the connection coffee has to these events.
France’s story with coffee began in 1669 when the Turkish introduced it to Paris. Initially, the French were not taken by the bitterness of the drink. Legend has it, however, that once the effect coffee had on the bowels was discovered, the French took up drinking coffee enthusiastically.
Cafe’s quickly became trendy in Paris, and it was not uncommon for famous philosophers to be seen frequenting them – Voltaire being particularly partial to them. Another notable figure who was spotted in cafes around this time was Benjamin Franklin (yes, that Benjamin Franklin).
On the 12 of July, Camille Desmoulins delivered the speech that eventually led to Bastille’s sacking. This speech was given in… you guessed it, a cafe. This event began the French Revolution.
France, at one point, had a significant stake in the coffee industry. Thanks to their colonies in the Caribbean. After a violent revolution in what is now Hati, they lost many of their farms.
Cafe culture is still an integral part of French society, much like in other European and Scandinavian countries like Italy, Denmark, and Finland.
The History of Coffee in Asia and the South Pacific
Many areas of Asia and the South Pacific have the ideal growing conditions for coffee. So it seems inevitable that the large empires of the time would look to this area of the world…
- 16th Century, coffee arrives with the Dutch and then the British
- 1869, the Year of Rust Leaf changes this region forever
Coffee Arrives (16th Century)
Dutch traders were determined to end the Turk’s monopoly on coffee supplies. So, in a move, not unlike the one that started the Opium Wars between Britain and China, the Dutch took Turkish coffee plants and took them to India.
After India, they spread out their coffee plantations across a vast South Pacific area. Here they enslaved the locals, taking their land and forcing them to work in the fields.
Many Dutch traders grew very rich from these slave ran plantations. However, not all consumers back in Europe were happy about their exploitation and actions.
The Year of Rust Leaf (1869)
This is arguably one of the most critical years in the history of coffee. This indeed was a disaster on an epic scale.
In a coffee plantation controlled by the British in Sri Lanka (Ceylon at the time), a few plants caught a disease called Rust Leaf. This disease turned out to be fatal for Arabica plants. Within months all the coffee plants in Sri Lanka, India, and the South Pacific had been killed by rust leaf.
At this point, the British abandoned coffee production on a mass scale and moved over to growing tea on the scale it became famous for.
You may recognize that date. The second reason this is possibly one of the most important years in the history of coffee is that this also happens to be the year that Robusta coffee plants were discovered. (For more on this, check out the section on Africa’s coffee history).
After this year, coffee production in this region is severely reduced and becomes more prominent in South and Central America.
The History of Coffee in South and Central America
While coffee helped to free Europe from tyrants, it also motivated them to enforce tyranny on the rest of the world. Most of the history of coffee in South America is quite tragic. This area of the world was home to some of the most advanced and ancient civilizations in the world before European invaders changed the continent’s face. However, something quite different happened in Costa Rica.
- 17th Century, Europe brings Coffee
- 17th, Caribbean coffee dominates European markets
- 18th Century, the Haitian revolution
- 18th Century, Costa Rica begins farming coffee
‘Ruined by a plant from whose destructive form of cultivation left forests razed, natural reserves exhausted, and general decadence in its wake’ – Edward Galeano
Coffee arrives (17th Century)
The varied and luscious climate of Central and South America made it the perfect place to grow coffee (and other valuable items like sugar and cotton). European explorers quickly released this upon arrival in these new lands.
Word reached Europe, and many want to be ‘farmers’ headed over the Americas. These colonizers arrived with slaves and new plants to grow in the New World.
European settlers violently stripped the Indigiounus people of their lands to build their plantations. Many were killed in the process. Those that weren’t killed were forced to work as slaves on land they used to own.
Like in Asia, a select few men grew very rich from the work of their slaves. Customers in Europe were growing increasingly uncomfortable about how their coffee was produced.
Coffee, the Caribbean, and France (17th – 18th Century)
A French explorer took a single coffee plant to Martinique. His vessel was nearly shipwrecked twice, and they had to ration water. The Frenchman gave half of his daily water ration to his plant. He also brought a large number of slaves with him.
Within 50 years, the island had grown 18 million coffee plants, all descended from the plant that survived the journey. Soon Martanquie and Saint-Domingue provided Europe with 50% of their coffee. All produced using slave labor.
The Haitian Revolution (1791-1804)
After 13 years of bloody battle, Hati overthrew the French and claimed independence. The massive victory for the self-liberated slaves came at France’s cost losing its dominance in the coffee market.
This led to Spanish and Portuguese colonies in South America becoming more relied on to meet Europe’s, and now America’s, growing demands for coffee.
Coffee and Costa Rica
Costa Rica is a nation worth noting for the way that it deviates from its neighbor’s coffee history. Where the other nations of South and Central America built their coffee reputations by enslaving the local population, Costa Rica did something different.
There are different reasons why Costa Rica took the approach it did. Some claim it is because so many natives were wiped out by Spanish invaders that there were not enough locals to use as slaves. Others argue that the nation’s approach to coffee came from the natives’ beliefs about respecting the land.
What we do know for sure is that instead of letting European men run huge coffee plantations using slaves, Costa Rica divided their land between families. These families then worked their own land. Yes, there were still slaves in the country, but no amount even comes close to matching the rest of the region.
Coffee became an essential part of Costa Rican life. The people of Costa Rica believed in the importance of respecting their lands and what they produced. Coffee is referred to as ‘grano de oro’ (the golden bean). To this day, they still pick their coffee by hand.
In 1892 coffee became Costa Rica’s biggest export. In the 19th Century, the Costa Rican government started giving away land to farmers as long as they used it to grow coffee.
There are 8 coffee districts in Costa Rica. Due to its many microclimates, it can grow nearly all Coffea Arabica subspecies. Interestingly, it is illegal to produce anything but Coffea Arabica in Costa Rica, as they want the reputation of growing the best coffee in the world. They do not believe they will get this by developing Coffea Robusta.
The laws and hard work have paid off, as Costa Rica does have a reputation for producing some of the best coffee on the planet. Costa Rica also protects 21% of its lands. This harks back to the natives’ belief that the land should be respected. The same attitude that brought the community approach to growing coffee.
Many national monuments, including the National Theater and a whole railway line, have been built in Costa Rica using the profits of coffee.
The History of Coffee in America
Drinking coffee in America started as an act of rebellion and is now almost as common as breathing. Thanks to America, it’s hard to imagine a life without coffee.
- 18th Century, Benjamin Franklin hears revolutionary talks in a French cafe
- 18th Century, The American Revolution – coffee to rebel
- 20th Century, America at War – coffee to survive
The American Revolution (18th Century)
When the rulers you are plotting to overthrow come from a tea-obsessed nation, what’s the best way to rebel against them? Why drink coffee, of course.
As you’ve already seen, coffee has a wild and revolution-filled history. Being able to debate soberly led many to reach enlightenment. So, it won’t be a huge surprise that many of the founding fathers’ meetings were held in coffee shops. Particularly, if you remember that Benjamin Franklin was known to frequent them in Paris.
Coffee had a massive surge in popularity during the American revolution as drinking coffee was seen as a patriotic act. This is where we see the beginnings of America’s love affair with coffee. I’ll skip over the bit in Boston Harbor just in case any tea lovers are reading…
The American Dream
Now that drinking coffee has been established as an essential part of the American bean, we begin to see the demand for coffee growing. This only increased during the two World Wars.
By the end of World War 1, the US Army alone was going through over 40 million cups of coffee a day. Many countries in Central America were sending their entire coffee supply to the USA to satisfy this demand.
The Morden Coffee Revolution – How Coffee Change our Society
Believe it or not, our current coffee culture is less than 30 years old. And at the beginning of the 20th Century, Instant coffee was a rarity, and Espresso had only just been invented. In this final section, we will discuss the defining coffee moments in the last century (give or take a decade).
- The Espresso machine is invented
- Instant Coffee
- Rise of fair trade
- Starbucks open
Instant coffee vs Espresso (20th Century)
As we enter the modern area of coffee, there are three leading players to watch out for:
- The USA
Italy plays a vital role in making coffee accessible to the masses and easy to make. But it is America who can make coffee a working-class drink with the invention of Instant Coffee. These two developments had similar goals but completely different values.
In 1903, an Italian man named Angelo Moriondo put the world’s first Espresso machine on sale. The Espresso machine’s main lure was that it took the brewing time of coffee down from 5 hours to 30 seconds. It also did it in a way that avoided burning the beans.
Another critical coffee development that the Italians are responsible for is the invention of the Cappuccino. This was a Vancian development and involved adding milk and sugar to the bitter drink. It was named Cappuccino as the brew resembled the color of Capuchin monk’s robes.
Because of these two inventions, we now drink all our coffee in Italian – latte, cappuccino! Except for Mochas, who is named after the Port city in Yemen where coffee first became popular in the Islamic world.
The Italian coffee developments were very much centered around making coffee more accessible without compromising quality or taste.
Things were a little different in America…
The other key development in coffee production worth mentioning from this area is the popularisation of Instant Coffee. Although originally invented during the American Civil War, instant coffee didn’t truly take off in popularity until the early 20th Century.
At the time, the most popular Instant Coffee producer was a brand called George Washington’s Coffee (not that George Washington, it was a Dutch/American man with that name). During World War 2, the American army brought up Washington’s entire coffee supply for their troops overseas.
One of the significant reasons American companies pushed for Americans to drink Instant Coffee was that they could turn a hefty profit. Due to Instant Coffee’s inability to maintain delicate coffee flavors, the companies could get away with using Robusta beans. Robusta beans were a fraction of the price of Arabica ones, and with Instant Coffee, no one could tell the difference.
In 1938, Nestle (now the world’s favorite Instant Coffee brand) began producing Instant Coffee.
After World War 2, the home coffee machine was invented, and it became possible for the American and European working class to brew coffee at home. This invention coincides perfectly with the mass availability of Instant Coffee. Most Americans are drinking bitter coffee in their homes from this point. Cafe culture all but ceases to be a thing.
This development leads to the coffee renaissance in the late 80s and early 90s. The USA led this with companies like Starbucks, but we’ll get onto that later…
Coffee still remains a popular beverage in the Middle East and other Islamic countries. However, one country really rules the coffee world right now… Brazil.
Unlike Italy or America, Brazil hasn’t produced any developments in the world of coffee. However, without Brazil, we probably wouldn’t have a world of coffee. As it is Brazil that makes a third of the world’s coffee. The country has been the world’s leading producer of coffee for over 150 years.
One of the most talked-about things when it comes to Brazil and coffee is its reliance on slaves over the years. Notably, Brazil relied on slaves to farms its coffee, that it was one of the last countries in the world to ban slavery. When it ended slavery in 1888, 10% of the countries population were slaves.
As well as producing a third of the world’s coffee, Brazil makes the majority of the world’s Robusta crops. These crops go almost exclusively into Instant Coffee.
In the mid-20th Century, Brazil’s vast production of coffee caused the price of coffee to drop drastically. This opened up a whole new market for coffee, of working-class Americans and Europeans who can now afford to drink Instant Coffee like it’s going out of fashion.
The Rise of Fairtrade
In the late 20th century, concern began to grow about the wages workers on coffee farms were getting paid. There was also concern that these farms were being exploited by corporations to make more money.
A certification called Fair Trade was founded. This movement’s goal was to give farmers wage security and end their exploitation. Companies would have to commit to paying workers fair wages for hours worked, not just for their produce.
The move was backed by many major coffee companies. Companies have also gained Rainforest Alliance certification for protecting the lands around which they grow coffee.
Many companies have begun to move away from fairtrade now. There are two main reasons:
- Getting certified as Fair Trade costs over $2000 per item in the line. Most small businesses can’t afford to do this, even if they meet all the criteria.
- Many companies now have ethical and payment policies that go far beyond Fair Trade’s standards.
However, millions worldwide still benefit from the work of Fair Trade, particularly throughout 2020 as Fair Trade secured many struggling farms major support during the Covid 19 crisis.
The Rise of Starbucks
We have reached the final section of our complete history of coffee – the rise of the coffee franchises.
This development took coffee from a working-class necessity to something cool again. Now on the streets of nearly every city in the world, you will see people walking around with coffee cups in their hands. It is hard to believe that our coffee culture has changed so much in the last 30 years.
In 1971 the first Starbucks was opened in Seattle, Washington. Howard Schultz, who became Starbucks’ director of operations in 1982, when they only had three stores in Seattle, claims that the Italian romanticization of the Espresso is what inspired his expansion of the business.
At the time, Instant coffee was the market dominator, and Starbucks started initially by delivering grounds to the homes. After Schultz, who later bought the brand, visited Italy, they began to try and replicate the Italian coffee community and culture in the USA.
People were drawn to their high-quality coffee, and soon they began to open stores worldwide. The mentor of the Starbucks founders was the man responsible for bringing custom coffee roasting to the USA. At the time, they were really doing something unique.
Starbucks now has stores in 65 countries and serves over 80 million customers a week (according to Howard Schultz in 2015). The business is now worth over $80 billion.
So, where does all this leave us?
Coffee is currently more popular than it has ever been. The only drink humans consume more of is water. Nearly every country in the world drinks coffee. While it is not the revolution starter it once was, coffee (and the treatment of the people who make it) isn’t any less controversial.
As you will have noticed from that history, coffee truly is a global drink that has left its mark everywhere it’s been.
Where to buy your coffee today?
Before we finish, let’s talk a bit about which coffee-growing regions you should be looking out for when buying today.
Here are the top 5 coffee-growing countries you should be looking out for:
Having read the rest of this article, it will come as no surprise to you that Costa Rica is on this list. With its laws against growing bad coffee, its 8 distinct coffee regions, and hand-picked beans, Costa Rica really is the best of the bunch.
When talking about coffee regions, Brazil is a country that just can’t be ignored. This country produces 60% of the world’s coffee. It makes a staggering 7 million pounds of coffee every year.
Not only does Brazil make a lot of coffee, but it also makes a lot of good coffee. Brazilian coffee has won more awards than any other country in the world. Look out for coffee that comes from the Para region. This where coffee was first grown in Brazil and continues to produce some of its most sought-after beans.
Many people are shocked when they find out that Vietnam is actually the second highest coffee-producing country globally. It makes about half the amount that Brazil does. The majority of the coffee produced in Vietnam is Robusta beans, and many well-known brands have purchased from this region.
Only 3% of the coffee produced in Vietnam is Arabica beans. However, if you’re a huge coffee fan, you will find Vietnamese Arabica a real treat. These beans are famous for their complex flavor profile and high caffeine count.
As the birthplace of coffee, it would be sacrilegious of us not to include Ethiopia in this list. They are the fifth most prominent producers of coffee in the world and have three key growing regions, with dozens of sub-regions.
The region has had many issues with larger coffee house chains undercutting its farmers. This has led to many Independent Coffee Companies being given access to some of the best coffee in the world. When purchasing Ethiopian coffee, look out for fair trade or fair pay labels on the packet.
Madagascar is not only famous for its lemur, vanilla, and beautiful beaches, but it has an impressive reputation in the world of coffee. Madagascar is the second-largest island globally and can be found 400 miles off the East Coast of Africa. It is the 23rd largest coffee-producing nation in the world.
The country has no distinct coffee-growing regions. However, it has become the bean grower of choice for a few large name coffee brands and many Independent coffee companies around the world. Keep an eye out for any coffees containing the rich, Madagascan Arabica beans.
A final fact…
Interestingly, and perhaps unexpectedly, the country that drinks the most coffee per capita in the world is Finland.