Coffee, a History

During the years 1573 to 1578, a German physician named Leonhardt Rauwolf traveled throughout Turkey, Syria and Persia. Along the way he noted the use of various plants, and collected numerous specimens. Rauwolf wrote an account of his travels in which he was the first Westerner to describe coffee, which made him feel "curiously animated." Rauwolf's comments on coffee stirred interest in the beverage among Europeans, who looked to the Orient for exotic stuffs including silks and spices. Almost certainly first consumed in Abyssinia (Ethiopia), coffee was also used in Persia in 875, according to nineteenth century plant researcher Ernst Von Bibra.

Prior to the year 1000, members of the Ethiopian Galla tribe ground up coffee beans and mixed them with animal fat. They consumed this mixture as an energy food. Sometime around 1100, Arab traders brought coffee back to their homeland and cultivated the plant for the first time, in Yemen, along the coast of the Red Sea. The Arabians found a more pleasant and palatable way to prepare coffee, by boiling the beans. This resulted in a drink they call "K'hawah " (stimulating, energizing). By the late thirteenth century, Arabians roasted and ground coffee before brewing it, and coffee was consumed in the form that we know it today.

By the time the fifteenth century neared to a close, Muslims had introduced coffee to Persia, Egypt, Turkey and North Africa. Coffee became a major trade item, carried on the backs of thousands, and highly prized. The world's first coffee shop, Kiva Han, opened in Constantinople in 1475. A coffee shop may seem totally ordinary today, but at the time, it was a stunning new idea. Turkish men and women alike took to the new drink with fervor and alacrity.

In 1554 coffee houses opened on the Golden Horn, and became known as schools of the cultured. Coffee was called the "milk of chess-players and of thinkers." By 1630, over one thousand coffeehouses operated in Cairo alone. Coffee facilitated conversation, and the drinking of coffee in public places stimulated more conversation among men than any other event in history.

As coffee grew in popularity, intrigue surrounded its cultivation. The Arabs, protective of their precious Coffea arabica, refused to allow fertile seeds, coffee trees, or cuttings to leave their country. Transportation of the plant out of the Moslem nations was forbidden by law. But sometime in the 1600s (some say 1650) a Moslem pilgrim from India named Baba Budan snuck seven fertile coffee seeds out of Arabia. He planted his seeds in the hills in Mysore, India where they flourished.

In 1650, a Lebanese Jew named Jacobs opened the first coffee house in England, at Oxford. Two years later, a Greek from Ragusa named Pascal Rosea opened the first coffeehouse in London, in Cornhill. In 1652 a merchant named Edwards, who had brought coffee from the Levant and a Greek slave girl from Smyrna, opened a coffeehouse in London as well. From that point on, coffeehouses proliferated in the great city.

Edward Lloyd's coffeehouse opened in 1688. This operation eventually became Lloyd's of London, the world's best known insurance company. By 1700, over 2,000 coffeehouses operated within the city. Coffeehouses were known as "penny universities," for a penny was charged for a cup of coffee and a quickening of the wit.

The Dutch, mindful that coffee would be a huge and lucrative crop, began experimenting with its cultivation, with coffee plants from Mocca brought to Holland. In 1658 the Dutch began the cultivation of coffee in Ceylon. The industrious Dutch planted coffee successfully there and in Bali, Timor and Celebes, establishing Indonesia as a major producer of coffee, which it remains to this day.

Coffee inevitably spread to France, where the first coffeehouse in Paris was opened in 1689 by an Italian named Francois Procope. His Cafe de Procope was a major success, and became a popular meeting place. By 1700 over 250 coffee houses operated in the city. French innovation changed coffee drinking forever when they first made a different kind of infusion of the beverage. Up until that point coffee was roasted, ground and boiled. By the new French infusion method, ground coffee was placed in a cloth filter, over which boiling water was poured. This resulted in a cleaner, more refined and pleasant drink. The French also boiled milk and added it to coffee, making cafe au lait a popular breakfast beverage.

In Germany, coffee took off in the 1670s with the opening of the first coffeehouse in Berlin. Within 50 years coffeehouses operated in every major German city. Coffee became tremendously popular in Germany, though some stubborn physicians claimed that the drink caused sterility.

In 1683, The Turkish Army surrounded Vienna. Franz Georg Kolschitzky, a Viennese who had lived in Turkey, slipped through the enemy lines to lead Polish relief forces to the city. Following this act of bravery, the Turks were defeated in battle, and fled Vienna. Among the many goods they left behind, the Turks abandoned five hundred sacks of "dry black fodder" that Kolschitzky recognized as coffee. Kolschitzky claimed the coffee as his reward and opened Vienna's first coffeehouse, the Blue Bottle. In the habit of the Turks, Kolschitzky sweetened the coffee. He additionally filtered out the grounds and added milk. The resulting drink was sweet, fragrant, delicious and stimulating. It caught on like wildfire.

With the opening of the first coffeehouse in Boston in 1689, coffee began its steady campaign to secure the ardent loyalty of North American colonists. Tea was at that time the preferred caffeinated beverage in the new colonies, but that all changed in one eruptive burst with the famous Boston Tea Party of 1773. Angry colonists resisting a tea tax imposed by Britain's King George threw bales of British East India Company tea into Boston Harbor. Shunning tea became a patriotic duty. Coffeehouses fluorished. The coffee trade boomed. Roasting operations sprang up to meet demand. From a single Boston coffeehouse, the United States would become the greatest coffee market in the world. By the early 1940s, the coffee-powered United States imported 70 percent of the world's coffee crop.

Coffee cultivation intrique continued in 1714, when Louis XIV of France was made a gift of a coffee bush by the mayor of Amsterdam. The tree was lovingly cared for in the royal greenhouses, and was jealously protected by its tenders. Enter Gabriel Mathieu Desclieux, a French infantry captain stationed in Martinique. Driven by a burning ambition to grow coffee on the tropical volcanic slopes of the island, in 1723 Desclieux convinced the king's physician to secure for him a cutting from the precious royal coffee shrub. With his botanical treasure under glass, Desclieux boarded a ship for Martinique. Braving attempted theft of his plant, pirates and rough weather, the determined Frenchman brought the cutting safely to the lush shores of Martinique. 50 years later an official survey recorded 19 million coffee trees on the island! Mighty coffee continued on the move, advancing its position, etablishing domain in the Caribbean.

The gigantic Brazilian coffee industry also got off to an intriguing start in 1727, when a Brazilian official named Francisco de MeloPalheta was called upon to settle a border dispute between the French and the Dutch colonies in Guiana. There Palheta enlisted the governor's wife's willing aid in smuggling out some of the plant. When the good lady said good-bye to Palheta at the completion of his official mission, she presented him with a bouquet in which she hid coffee tree cuttings and fertile seeds of coffee. Palheta returned to Brazil and planted the coffee in Para state. Once again through subterfuge, coffee made its way to a prime growing area and took root. Brazil would become in time the greatest coffee-producing nation in all of history.

While coffee has played a giant role in the furtherance of conversation and commerce, it has also contributed to the power of the military. The noble bean figured heavily in World War II, when U.S. defense workers and troops were supplied with as much coffee as they required. The Army alone requisitioned an astounding 140,000 bags of coffee per month, and the Marines boasted that they drank more coffee than any other branch of the service.

Today, as the world's most popular beverage, coffee is grown in South America, Africa, Asia, Oceania, the Caribbean and Indonesia. Coffee brands such as Maxwell House and Nescafe are known around the world. And corporations like Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, Peet's and Seattle's Best now fight for U.S. cafe dominance, with Starbucks currently in the lead. Coffee has accomplished a mighty task. It has spread farther and wider than any plant, it has insinuated itself into the diets and kitchens of hundreds of millions of people, and it has spawned vast commerce. More than 400 billion cups of coffee are consumed each year. Not bad for a bean.

Chris Kilham is a medicine hunter who researches natural remedies all over the world, from the Amazon to Siberia. He teaches ethnobotany courses at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he is Explorer In Residence. Chris advises herbal, cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies and is a regular guest on radio and TV programs worldwide. His field research is largely sponsored by Naturex of Avignon, France. Read more at