The History of Coffee: Goats, Popes, and Pirates

The consumption of coffee is one of humanity's most enduring hobbies. It has been and continues to be, enjoyed by people worldwide, from Europe to Africa, India, and the Americas. Its history is full of interesting stories about its origins and spread around the globe.
History of Coffee

You may already know that coffee was discovered in the 15th century, but you probably didn’t realize that it might not have existed at all if it wasn’t for a famous Ethiopian goat herder.

You also might not know that coffee is responsible for major cultural movements. The rise of the industrial revolution, and reading clubs in Europe, and the spread of literacy in India all helped along by coffee.

So grab a cup, and let’s traverse some key moments in the history of coffee.

How Goats Discovered Coffee Plants

Coffee history highlights the story of a goat herder named Kaldi, who noticed his goats became so energized after eating the berries from a small shrub that they refused to sleep. Curious, he took some of the berries from the coffee plants and chewed them himself.

He then became very active and was motivated to dance continuously through the night. It is said that a Muslim monk saw Kaldi performing his dance around a fire one evening, and decided to try the fruit himself.

The monk returned to his monastery, where he brought some of the berries for fellow monks to try. They discovered they could stay alert without feeling tired or ill, even after they consumed a full meal before their evening prayer time later that night.

It is a commonly held belief that coffee cultivation began in Ethiopia during the 9th century (the Yemenite origin points to an earlier date) and it is also said that the coffee plant was so named either by Arabs in remembrance of their native province, or because the coffee berries were first discovered there.

Coffee Houses of the Arabian Peninsula

After the discovery of coffee, it didn’t take long to spread around the Arabian Peninsula. In fact, history records one of the first coffee houses being established in Cairo, Egypt, in 1554.

This story is told through a writer from Yemen named Sheik al-Yemen al-Amadi, who wrote about a man named Omar who had a shop that served two cups of coffee for free to those who came in to tell stories or discuss history.

Soon enough, many people spent their evenings in Omar’s shop discussing history, politics, music, philosophy, and art. The shops became hubs of intellect and were referred to as “Schools of the Wise” all around the Arabian Peninsula, particularly in Mecca and Medina.

Coffee Beans Smuggled into India

It’s said that coffee plants did not exist outside of Arabia until the 1600s. Arabian coffee traders would render the beans infertile by boiling them before they were sold. Bab Budan, an Indian pilgrim, was able to smuggle 7 fertile coffee beans out of Mecca.

On Budan’s return trip home, he planted the beans on the slopes of the Chandragiri Hills in Chikkamagaluru district, Mysore State (present-day Karnataka). These beans grew into massive groves that became a coffee plantation. Before long, the popularity of coffee drinking spread throughout India, and people began guzzling coffee at social gatherings and festivals.

Westward into Europe

It didn’t take long for coffee cultivation to spread west. First brought into Europe by an Ottoman traveler named Pasqua Rosee in 1615. Shops began to pop up in metropolitan areas like Venice, Paris, and London.

The history of coffee houses in Europe largely surrounds who ran the first coffee house in each city. In Italy, records credit Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli for operating the first public coffee shop in Paris in 1645.

The names for coffee houses were coming from different languages: “Kaffee” for German coffee houses and “cafe” for those in France.

The Arrival of Coffee Houses in England

By the mid 17th Century, London already had 3000 coffee shops! Residents still enjoyed tea throughout the day, but coffee quickly replaced beer and wine as the primary breakfast drink. This is because coffee’s stimulating effect was noted to last longer than that of alcohol and because the bitter taste paired better with a solid breakfast.

The first English coffee house opened in London, England, in 1650 by a Jewish man named Jacob (also called the Angel). Coffee shops were places where people felt free to gather, discuss politics, science, literature, and even play chess. The term “penny university” was coined to describe these coffeehouses since a cup of coffee costs a penny.

Some men began inviting women into these coffeehouses socially, which was a source of controversy at the time. This was because women were not allowed in most public places outside of drinking establishments. However, some women felt that the coffeehouses provided them with a place to socialize and advance their intellectual talents without offending the sensibilities of society.

The Pope Loves Coffee

Coffee was immediately popular with most people, but some feared this new beverage and called it the “drink of the devil” because they claimed coffee was evil and could drive people crazy.

However, in 1600, the most powerful man in Europe at the time, Pope Clement VIII, loved coffee and even helped fight back against those who believed it was a sinful drink that should be outlawed. He tried some and declared that it wasn’t an issue of morality, but an issue of taste!

He declared: “Why, this Satan’s drink is so delicious that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it.” With the pope’s blessing, it quickly became known that coffee was okay by the church, which helped it gain popularity across Europe.

Coffee in France

After the Pope blessed coffee in Rome, France was the first to adopt it as a national drink in 1674. However, only the wealthy were able to regularly enjoy this drink because they could afford sugar and milk.

A couple of decades later, coffee was finally accessible for all in France when David Francois cut out the middle man and began selling coffee beans directly in Paris.

Coffee Makes it’s Way to the Americas (There be Pirates)

In 1723, coffee had still not made its way to the New World. That was until Chevalier Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu stole a seedline and carried it across the sea.

He endured heavy storms, an enraged Dutchman, and even a pirate attack during his long journey. After weeks of travel, all but a single seedling had died. De Clieu nurtured the last sprout by sharing half his water ration the rest of the way.

Finally, he arrived at Martinique and planted the coffee tree on the island. He then shared his love of coffee by planting spoutings of that original tree all over Martinique.

While the exact number is unknown, historians estimate that the coffee plant which de Clieu brought produced around 18 million coffee trees throughout its lifetime.

In 1728, Govorner Sir Nicolas Lawes brought coffee to Jamaica, where he cultivated it on his estate. A gift of seeds from the head gardener of King Louis XV. The seeds planted in 686 farms produced thousands of coffee shrubs within 20 years. Today, Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee is among the most expensive coffees in the world.

The History of Coffee in the New World

Tea stayed the primary drink in the United States until December 16, 1773, when the colonists finally had enough taxation from England.

Around 50 men dressed as Mohawk Indians boarded 3 ships in Boston Harbor and threw all of the tea overboard to protest high taxes. This event is known as the Boston Tea Party.

Following the event, people in the United States began drinking considerably more coffee than tea. There were even articles published in newspapers about how drinking tea was unpatriotic. After that, the coffee industry in America exploded!

People couldn’t get enough. Thomas Jefferson is even quoted as saying, “Coffee, the favorite drink of the civilized world.”

Today, Americans consume more than 300 million pounds of coffee every year.

American Expansion

While coffee was originally brought to the Americas by colonists, it would become truly an American drink when John E Diedrich began selling roasted coffee beans in 1849. Previously, you had to acquire green coffee beans and roast them yourself.

Coffee followed the American colonists as they migrated west. In 1864, John and Charles Arbuckle, brothers from Pittsburgh, purchased Jabez Burns’ newly invented self-emptying coffee bean roaster. Arbuckle coffee became known as the coffee that won the West.

By 1880, the American coffee market was dominated by roasted and ground blends sold by several companies from coast to coast because of improved railroad transportation.

In 1898, the U.S. annexed Hawaii. Two years later, they officially took control of Hawaii as a territory- and with that came large coffee production from those fertile islands.

The Rise of Specialty Coffee Roasting

In the 1960’s specialty coffee awareness was gaining ground, making way for places like Starbucks in Seattle 1971. Other roasters quickly followed suit, and the demand for high-quality coffee has continued to grow ever since.

Today, specialty companies roast high-end beans that are certified organic and fair trade. Now we can drink our daily cup without guilt!

History of Coffee Holiday

Let’s Make it a Holiday!

Coffee is a worldwide drink and even has its own holiday! First started by Japan in 1983, it is now celebrated globally on September 29th, encouraging people to enjoy their morning cup of joe (as if we need a reason).

Let’s Wrap It Up

Coffee is a rich drink with an interesting history. Its origins are in the Middle East, but it has become America’s favorite beverage of choice. These days Americans consume 400 million cups per day! Around 25 million farmers worldwide produce 8.5 metric tons annually. The rise of specialty roasters has also coincided with the increased awareness in the 1960s, allowing for more sustainable roasting methods.

Browse our site to discover more amazing coffee facts, or, if you’re like me, just talking about coffee makes me thirsty. Let us help you find great coffee beans and brewing gear.

Picture of About the Author Kris Silvey

About the Author Kris Silvey

As a semi-professional at-home barista and full-time software engineer, my love for coffee borders on obsession. By combining my passion for coffee with an engineering mindset, I strive to perfect my brewing process and share that knowledge with each of you.

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