I’ll bet that most coffee drinkers today have barely given the history of their favorite drink a thought. However, from its discovery over a thousand years ago to its eventual acceptance in Europe and the Americas, it certainly has had its ups and downs. Coffee certainly has a much longer and more intricate history than most people are aware of, in fact, it was almost not accepted in Europe at all.
Indeed, the first reported accounts of coffee go back to 9th century Ethiopia, which is still a large scale producer of coffee beans today. One particular legend about the discovery of coffee supposes that an Ethiopian goat herder noticed that his goats became energetic and couldn’t sleep after eating the berries from a particular tree. A drink was produced from these berries and the news spread across to the Arabian peninsula, allowing the newly-discovered coffee beans to be traded around the globe.
Whether in fact, this story is true, is impossible to say for sure. One thing we can say for sure, however, is that coffee certainly exploded in popularity as it was traded via the Silk Road of the Middle-East and Central Asia.
By the 15th century, coffee had been cultivated in many countries around North-East Africa and the Arabian peninsula. By the 16th century, coffee was being drunk in homes as well as in the coffee shops which had started to appear. The coffee shops offered people a social hub to meet others and relax, as well as to drink this newly discovered delicious beverage which gave them a boost of energy, allowing them to work and socialize longer without getting tired.
As time progressed, it was realized that roasting the coffee beans allowed the production of a more flavourful and tasty beverage, more like the one we drink today. In the 15th century, the first known coffee shop was opened in Istanbul (known as Constantinople at the time) and called “Kiva Han”. Then in the 16th century, European traders became aware of the beverage and began exporting it back to their native countries. The Dutch traders were the first to transport coffee to sell or trade back in Europe.
Initially, when coffee was brought back to Europe, many people were skeptical of it and denounced it, calling it the “bitter invention of Satan”. The energy-giving properties, combined with the jet black appearance made people very wary, some even comparing it to witchcraft. This was definitely a little over the top, but the view was strengthened after the clergy in Italy publicly condemned the drink in 1615, and advised people not to drink it.
The future of coffee was left hanging in the balance. A great deal of controversy surrounded the mysterious black potion, and it wasn’t until Pope Clement VIII had to step-in and intervene that public perception began to change. The Pope tasted the drink for himself and enjoyed it immensely, and with Papal approval, coffee could continue its rise in popularity within Europe.
As interest for the drink kept on spreading, there was a savage rivalry to develop espresso outside of Arabia and North Africa. The Dutch finally got their seedlings in the latter part of the seventeenth century. Their first endeavors to plant them in India flopped, yet they were fruitful with their endeavors in Batavia, on the island of Java in what is presently Indonesia.
The plants flourished and soon the Dutch had a successful and profitable coffee trade. They at that point extended the development of coffee plantations to the other islands of Indonesia, where coffee beans are still produced today.
As coffee permeated the society of Europe, it rapidly became the breakfast drink of choice. Incredibly, prior to this, in many European countries, beer and wine were still drunk at the breakfast table due to the water being unsanitary and possibly deadly. Being tipsy during the workday was obviously not great for the economy or production figures, so coffee inadvertently had given European countries a more productive workforce.
Coffee shops proliferated in London throughout the 17th Century, but despite this, tea was still the beverage of choice for most English citizens. King George III had placed a large tax on tea which caused the colonists in America to revolt giving rise to the infamous “Boston Tea Party”. Bad sentiment towards the English and their tea-drinking ways further cemented coffee as the drink of choice in the Americas, something which is still evident today.
Coffee was drunk during the American civil war, and when soldiers returned to the US from World War I, they were so addicted to their newfound coffee habit from military rations that coffee houses grew by 450% in the US.
More recently, in the 1990s particularly, there was a notable boom in the proliferation of coffee shops across the globe. This coincided with a period of urban gentrification in parts of the USA and having a coffee shop as the main location for a very popular American sitcom. The growth of Starbucks could also be credited as the starting point of the coffee shop boom, between 1994 and 2005 it had gone from 425 to 10421 stores.
New York City’s Jay Smooth said: “Starbucks got [people] used to paying an inflated price for good coffee, which in turn created a market for places to sustain that habit after noticing Starbucks is not good coffee.”
So now we arrive at the situation we find ourselves in today, with coffee shops present and highly visible in almost every city in the Western world, in airports, in hospitals, at train stations and bus stations and many other places. Offering a fantastic range of coffees at relatively high prices, but their popularity shows no sign of waning any time soon.