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Coffee Through History

In the Ethiopian highlands, where the legend of Kaldi, the goat herder, originated, coffee trees grow naturally today as they have for centuries. It is said that Kaldi discovered coffee after noticing that his goats, upon eating berries from a certain tree, became spirited. Kaldi dutifully reported his findings to the abbot of the local monastery who made a drink with the berries and discovered that it kept him alert for hours.  Soon the abbot shared his discovery with the other monks, and ever so slowly knowledge of the energizing effects of the berries began to spread around the world. From Asia to Africa, Central to South America, to the islands of the Caribbean and Pacific, all can trace their heritage to the trees in the ancient coffee forests on the Ethiopian plateau.

The Arabian Peninsula: The Arabs were the first to cultivate coffee and begin its trade.  During the 15th century, coffee was grown in the Yemeni district of Arabia and by the 16th century it was known in Persia, Egypt, Syria and Turkey. Coffee was not only drunk in homes but also in public coffee houses, called ‘qahveh khaneh’, which began to appear in cities across the Near East. Coffee houses soon became the central location for all kinds of social activity. People came together to listen to music, watch performers, play chess and get news updates.  In fact, coffee houses quickly became such an important center for the exchange of information that they were often referred to as 'Schools of the Wise.'

With thousands of pilgrims visiting the holy city of Mecca each year from all over the world, word of the 'wine of Araby' as the drink was often called, was beginning to spread far beyond Arabia. In an effort to maintain its complete monopoly in the early coffee trade, the Arabians continued to closely guard their coffee production.

Introduction to Europe: By the 17th century, coffee had made its way to Europe and was becoming popular across the continent. With the coming of coffee to Venice in 1615, the local clergy condemned the beverage as the 'bitter invention of satan.' The controversy was so great that Pope Clement VIII was asked to intervene. Before making a decision, however, he decided to taste the beverage for himself and found the drink so satisfying that he gave it papal approval.

PRBlogDespite controversy, in the major cities of England, Austria, France, Germany and Holland, coffee houses were quickly becoming centers of social activity and communication. In England 'penny universities' sprang up, so called because for the price of a penny one could purchase a cup of coffee and engage in stimulating conversation.  By the mid-17th century, there were over 300 coffee houses in London, many of which attracted patrons with common interests, such as merchants, shippers, brokers and artists. Many businesses grew out of these specialized coffee houses. Lloyd's of London, for example, came into existence at the Edward Lloyd's Coffee House.

The New World: In the mid-17th century, coffee was brought to New Amsterdam, a location later called New York by the British. Though coffee houses rapidly began to appear, tea continued to be the favored drink in the New World until 1773 when the colonists revolted against a heavy tax on tea imposed by King George.  The revolt, known as the Boston Tea Party, would forever change the American drinking preference to coffee.

Plantations Around the World: As demand for the beverage continued to spread, there was tense competition to cultivate coffee outside of Arabia. Though the Arabs tried hard to maintain their monopoly, the Dutch finally succeeded, in the latter half of the 17th century, to obtain some seedlings. Their first attempts to plant them in India failed but they were successful with their efforts in Batavia, on the island of Java in what is now Indonesia.  The plants thrived and soon the Dutch had a productive and growing trade in coffee. They soon expanded the cultivation of coffee trees to the islands of Sumatra and Celebes.

In 1714, the Mayor of Amsterdam presented a gift of a young coffee plant to King Louis XIV of France. The King ordered it to be planted in the Royal Botanical Garden in Paris. In 1723, a young naval officer, Gabriel de Clieu obtained a seedling from the King's plant.  Once planted, the seedling thrived and is credited with the spread of over 18 million coffee trees on the island of Martinique over the next 50 years.  It was also the stock from which coffee trees throughout the Caribbean, and South and Central America originated.

Coffee is said to have come to Brazil in the hands of Francisco de Mello Palheta who was sent by the emperor to French Guiana for the purpose of obtaining coffee seedlings. But the French were not willing to share. However, he was said to have been so handsomely-engaging that the French Governor's wife was captivated. As a going-away gift, she presented him with a large bouquet of flowers.  Buried inside he found enough coffee seeds to begin what is today a billion-dollar industry.

In only 100 years, coffee had established itself as a commodity crop throughout the world.  Missionaries and travelers, traders and colonists continued to carry coffee seeds to new lands and coffee trees were planted worldwide.  Plantations were established in tropical forests and on rugged mountain highlands. New nations were established on coffee economies.  And by the end of the 18th century, coffee had become one of the world's most profitable export crops.