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A Brief History of Coffee: Part I

If you’re reading this article while sipping coffee, you should know that what’s inside your cup isn’t just rich in flavor. It’s rich in history too. Yes, coffee has been caffeinating the human race for centuries, and it has fueled the minds of many leaders and visionaries.

The origins of coffee aren’t clear. One amusing legend concerns Kaldi, a goatherd who supposedly lived during the 800s and who roamed a plateau in what’s now Ethiopia. One day, Kaldi found that his goats couldn’t fall asleep after they’d consumed a certain type of plant. He brought a sample of that plant to an area monastery, and a suspicious abbot threw it into a fire. The resulting fragrance intrigued the assembled monks, though, and they managed to retrieve some of the beans and brew a drink with them. The beverage delighted the monks, and word of that mysterious substance began to quickly spread.

Whatever coffee’s inception might have involved, during the 1400s, merchants in Yemen became the first to grow and trade this commodity. Sufis, people who belonged to a mystical Islamic sect, discovered that drinking coffee helped them to focus on their spiritual exercises. In the 1500s, the coffee industry flourished throughout the Arabian Peninsula and in Turkey, Syria, and Egypt. Around this time, the qahveh-khaneh began to appear all over western Asia; we know such an establishment as a “coffeehouse.” Many of those places thrived, and people would gather in them to share news, catch up with friends, and play board games.

Also during the 1500s, Europeans who’d visited the Middle East often told others about the special drink that they’d encountered. At this point, many people referred to it as the “wine of Araby.” Inevitably, some of those travelers brought coffee to their home continent, and Europeans would end up embracing it in large numbers and with great enthusiasm.

Nevertheless, coffee had plenty of detractors in Europe in those days. In fact, some people believed that the devil had created this drink. However, around 1600, Pope Clement VIII tried his first cup of coffee. He liked it, and thus, he gave the beverage his blessing.

Within a short period, European coffeehouses became popular. They appeared in Venice first, and by 1650, London alone was home to about 300 such businesses. They were sometimes called “penny universities” since cups of coffee each cost a penny. After paying that price of admission, a patron could sit and discuss the major issues of the day with his or her fellow coffee drinkers. In some places, different coffeehouses catered to different groups. One might have attracted artists, for example, while another might have appealed to businesspeople. In addition, many coffeehouses wouldn’t serve women.

Meanwhile, coffee was introduced to the American colonies during the mid-1600s. Even so, tea remained by far the most popular beverage until the British Parliament imposed a hefty tea tax in 1773. In short order, coffee became more prevalent than tea, and it has maintained that position in America ever since.

Until about 1650, Arab planters had held a virtual monopoly on the growth of coffee. However, the Dutch were determined to begin growing it. Dutch colonists tried to start coffee plantations in India, but those crops didn’t succeed. Later, they began growing coffee on Java, a tropical island that’s now part of Indonesia. Those plants took off, and the Dutch won a place within the coffee-producing world. For its part, the drink earned a lasting nickname: “java.”

A single coffee plant would soon have a profound influence on the industry. In 1723, Gabriel de Clieu, then an officer in the French Navy, took a coffee seedling from King Louis XIV’s royal garden. That seedling came from a plant that the mayor of Amsterdam had given to Louis XIV in 1714. After enduring a trip during which he faced severe storms and battled pirates, de Clieu made it to the Caribbean island of Martinique. He planted the seedling there, and that plant would have countless descendants. In fact, many of the coffee plants that are currently alive in South America, Central America, and the Caribbean islands can trace their roots ― no pun intended ― to that seedling, a true plant of destiny.