Coffee History: 10 Most Important Events You Should Know

There’s nothing like a delicious cup of coffee to get you started in the morning. But have you ever stopped to wonder how the drink we know and love was first invented?

Or what happened to give us the range of different flavors and brewing methods we enjoy today? As committed coffee lovers, we want to share with you 10 fascinating facts about coffee history.

We guarantee learning more about your favorite drink will make you appreciate it even more!

1. The origin of coffee is shrouded in mystery – but might involve goats

The origin of coffee is shrouded in mystery – but might involve goats
Image: Lucky Belly

Despite playing such a major role in our lives today, you might be surprised to discover that no-one really knows who invented coffee.

One popular legend is that it originated in Ethiopia over a thousand years ago, when a goatherd named Kaldi noticed that eating the beans of a certain tree seemed to give his goats more energy. In fact, it gave them so much energy that they were described as “dancing” (1)!

Kaldi reported his observations to the abbot of a nearby monastery, who used the beans to prepare a drink.

The abbot found that drinking it kept him alert through the long hours of monastic prayer, and shared his amazing discovery with the other monks.

Soon news of the energy-giving drink had spread far and wide, paving the way for coffee to become a beverage enjoyed the world over.

The first written reference to the story of Kaldi did not appear until 1671, so sadly it is probably untrue.

2. The first coffee houses were in Arabia

Whilst the origin of coffee drinking may have been in Ethiopia, the first evidence of coffee houses comes in the fifteenth century in Yemen.

A century later, coffee shop culture was in full swing, with coffee houses known as qahveh khaneh appearing all over Persia, Egypt, Syria, and Turkey.

Alongside drinking, coffee house patrons talked, played chess and listened to music.

The coffee houses were considered so important as places to exchange information that they gained the nickname “Schools of the Wise” (2).

With pilgrims coming from all over the world to the holy city of Mecca, news of coffee spread still further.

Indeed, its association with Mecca was so strong that it became known as the “wine of Islam”.

3. Smugglers helped spread the cultivation of coffee around the world

Smugglers helped spread the cultivation of coffee around the world
Image: Lucky Belly

In 1536, the Ottoman Turks occupied Yemen and found the export of Yemeni coffee beans a lucrative source of income.

Both the British and Dutch East India Companies were major purchasers, but the majority of coffee went north to the rest of the Arabian peninsula (3).

Seeking to protect their monopoly, the Turks banned the export of any coffee beans capable of germination. Of course, with any rules, there are people who try to break them…

The first coffee smuggler was reputed to be Baba Budan, a pilgrim from India.

He is said to have strapped seven coffee beans from Mecca to his belly, sneaking them out of Yemen and cultivating them in Mysore in India.

Today, around a third of the coffee grown in India is believed to come from trees that are direct descendants of those grown by Baba Buda (4).

Others soon followed his example. In 1616 the Dutch transported a tree from the Yemeni port of Aden to Holland.

Beans from that tree led in turn to the cultivation of coffee in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and around eighty years later another Dutchman transplanted trees from the Malabar coast of India to Java (5).

4. Mocha coffee takes its name from a port in Yemen

The name of Mocha has little to do with the chocolatey drink you can buy today. Instead, it comes from the port of Al-Makha in Yemen.

It was from here that the distinctively-flavored Yemeni coffee was shipped around the world (6).

The port’s convenient connection to the Indonesian island of Java also resulted in one of the world’s oldest and most well-known coffee blends, Mocha Java.

Al-Makha’s importance as a center of coffee trading continued from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries.

However, as other countries gradually increased their coffee production, Yemen’s grip on the trade loosened and Al-Makha’s dominance slowly faded.

5. King George III helped make America a nation of coffee drinkers

King George III helped make America a nation of coffee drinkers
Image: Lucky Belly

The history of coffee in America begins with Captain John Smith, the founder of the colony of Jamestown, Virginia.

Smith introduced coffee there in 1607, but the settlers preferred the tea they were used to and it was slow to take-off.

Elsewhere in America, Dorothy Jones entered coffee history in 1670, when she became the first person to receive a license to sell coffee in Boston.

The license was the first written reference to coffee in Massachusetts (7).

It wasn’t until the American Revolution that coffee finally displaced tea as the American beverage of choice.

King George III’s Stamp Act of 1767 had imposed a heavy tax on American tea imports and in 1773 the colonists revolted.

The result was the Boston Tea Party, which saw Bostonians dump the tea cargos of the British East India Company into the harbor.

From then on, drinking coffee became every American’s patriotic duty.

Today, Americans top the index of coffee consumption worldwide, drinking a staggering 450 million cups a day.

6. Pope Clement VIII gave coffee his seal of approval

As the drink of Muslims, coffee was treated with suspicion when it first arrived in Christian Europe.

Its appearance in Venice in 1615 was denounced by the local clergy, with many people calling it the “bitter invention of Satan”.

So controversial was the new drink that advisors to Pope Clement VIII urged him to ban it.

This he refused to do until he had tried it for himself. The story goes that on tasting it the Pope said, “This devil’s drink is delicious. We should cheat the devil by baptizing it.” (8)

It is claimed that the Pope chose to bless the coffee bean because he considered it better for people than alcoholic drinks.

Whatever the reason, it gave the green light to Catholics the world over to enjoy a cup of coffee with a clear conscience.

7. Coffee drinking has been banned at least six times through the centuries

Not everyone looked as kindly on coffee drinking as Clement VIII.

In 1511 coffee was banned in Mecca. Khair-Beg, the young governor, believed that satirical verses about him were being written in coffee shops and had them shut down.

The action caused heated debate. Many worshipers had been drinking coffee in preparation for late-night prayer vigils, whilst some believed that the effects of caffeine brought them closer to God.

The ban did not end well for Khair-Beg. The Sultan of Cairo declared that no ban could take place without his consent and the governor was arrested and executed (9).

Coffee houses were banned again in Turkey in 1656, when the Ottoman Grand Vizier Köprülü declared them hotbeds of sedition.

Riots ensued and the laws were repealed, but the Grand Vizier did not give up.

He imposed heavy taxes on the coffee houses – if people were going to use them to plot against him, they would at least have to pay for the privilege!

Charles II had similar concerns. In 1675 he issued a proclamation banning coffee houses, claiming they attracted “Idle and disaffected persons”, distracting them from work and spreading scandalous gossip against the King.

Pressure from the King’s coffee-loving Ministers eventually persuaded him to rescind the proclamation just two days before it had been due to take effect.

Other banning attempts were made in Constantinople, Germany, Sweden, and Prussia – but in each case, coffee-lovers eventually won out (10).

8. The first Starbucks opened in Seattle in 1971

The first Starbucks opened in Seattle in 1971
Image: Lucky Belly

Perhaps the most instantly recognizable symbol of coffee culture USA, as of 2010 Starbucks was the world’s top coffee retailer (11).

The first store opened on 31 March 1971 in Seattle and took its name from a character in the Hermann Melville novel Moby-Dick.

The appointment of Howard Schultz as director of retail operations eleven years later was a key milestone in the company’s history.

Schultz traveled to Italy in 1983 and was impressed by the culture of coffee there.

On his return, he persuaded the Starbucks founders to test out the coffee house concept in downtown Seattle.

It was here that the first Starbucks caffè latte was served.

The successful experiment was to form the basis for Schultz to start his own company in 1985, Il Giornale, offering brewed coffee and espresso beverages made from Starbucks coffee beans.

Two years later, Il Giornale bought out Starbucks and changed its name to Starbucks Corporation (12).

Today, Starbucks has over 22,000 stores in more than 40 countries. And there’s more than a latte on offer –you can choose from over 87,000 drink combinations.

9. A nineteenth-century plant disease almost eradicated Sumatran coffee

The island of Sumatra in Indonesia is home to some of the world’s most distinctive coffees – but its plantations were once almost completely wiped out.

At the end of the nineteenth century, a leaf rust epidemic hit the coffee crops and destroyed whole plantations.

Farmers reliant on coffee for their livelihoods were forced to turn to other crops such as rubber and tea.

Fortunately for the long-term survival of Sumatran coffee, the Robusta coffee bean came to the rescue.

More resistant to disease, Robusta today makes up more than three-quarters of the coffee exported from Indonesia. Much of it comes from the southern end of Sumatra (13).

The best Sumatra coffee ranks amongst the top gourmet coffees in the whole world.

The premium Mandheling, Ankola, and Lintong coffees are all grown in Sumatra, and the country is also home to Kopi Luwak, the world’s most expensive coffee produced with beans excreted by civet cats.

10. The first instant coffee was invented in Britain

The first instant coffee was invented in Britain
Image: Lucky Belly

While we may not know who created coffee as a drink, the history of instant coffee is a lot clearer.

In 1771 a “coffee compound” was produced in Britain and a patent was granted by the British government.

In America, the search for a similar product was driven by the necessities of war.

Military commanders were keen to find a portable way to give their troops a caffeine fix, and an early form of instant coffee was offered in cake form to soldiers during the Civil War.

In 1881, a soluble version of instant coffee was invented and patented by Alphonse Allais of France.

Nine years later, instant coffee emerged in New Zealand when David Strang developed his own brand Strang’s Coffee, created using his patented “dry hot-air” process.

It was not until 1910, however, that instant coffee became a commercial success. George Washington, an American inventor of Belgian descent, developed his own instant coffee process building on the work of a Japanese-American chemist named Satori Kato.

War again played its part, with the First World War increasing the popularity of the product when it was included in soldiers’ rations.

But instant coffee still had its problems. Its flavor remained inferior and it dissolved poorly in water.

The breakthrough came in 1937 when Max Morgenthaler, a scientist at the Swiss company Nestlé, invented a new process involving drying equal amounts of coffee extract and soluble carbohydrates.

The product was called Nescafe and its improved flavor made it an instant hit.

So now you’re an expert in coffee history!

We hope you’ve enjoyed our tour through the history of coffee.

We’ve loved sharing these fascinating, surprising and downright weird coffee facts. In our opinion, knowing more about our favorite drink makes it taste even better.

We’d love to hear your comments – and if you’ve enjoyed this article, please share it and spread the coffee wisdom!

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