Where Did Coffee Come From?
The genesis of coffee is steeped in myth and legend. One of the legends
involves a goat herder of ancient Ethiopia. As a responsible observer
of goat phenomenon, he was startled to note that his herd was wired.
It seems that his goats were consuming large quantities of berries
from a dark-leafed wild shrub. Supposedly, as a result, they would
get up on their hind legs and dance. That some were heard discussing
politics or reciting poetry, however, is probably not true. But they
did stop sleeping.
The concerned goat herder reported his alarm to the local mufti. Being more academic than the goat herder, the brother took a few hundred pounds of the berries back to his monastery for religious and scientific purposes. Although boiling the beans became the preferred method of extracting the caffeine from the bean, another method still popular in Ethiopia is to eat a patty or ball of ground coffee beans and animal fat.
Another legend has it that the Prophet Mohammed had forbidden his followers to consume beverages of alcohol. It was most appropriate, then, that he should lead his people to a suitable substitute. This was accomplished when Mohammed lay ill on his sick bed and the Archangel Gabriel came to him with a cup of hot, steaming, dark roast. The Prophet took a sip and was immediately restored to health and vitality.
Having given due respect to the Arabic origins of the coffee bean, there are those who credit the first coffee reports to Homer in the Odyssey. Homer describes an instance where Helena, daughter of Zeus, mixes a drink in a bowl "which had the power of robbing grief and anger of their sting and banishing all painful memories." Presumably, the Gods sat around Mount Olympus sipping espresso.
Arabs were responsible for the spread of coffee. It made the journey across the Red Sea to Yemen where it prospered. From the small port at Mocha, coffee traveled to Mecca, Medina, and Cairo. As the power of Arabia declined, the "Arab" bean became a hot property in the Ottoman Empire. Turks controlled the trade in coffee throughout most of the 15th and 16th century. The first known coffee house was in Damascus in 1530, in Aleppo soon after and in Istanbul by 1554.
Arabian plantation owners and traders made great efforts to protect their lucrative monopoly. Cultivated land was guarded to prevent the theft of young trees. Before they could be sold, all coffee beans had to be parboiled to prevent germination. As coffee security increased, so did the efforts of opportunists. Reports of coffee being smuggled across the Alps start around 1600.
As the empires of Spain and Portugal declined in the latter half of the 16th century, the world saw the rise of the Dutch, French, and English. Each of these cultures became involved in the scramble for the lucrative coffee trade.
During the 17th century in Constantinople, coffee became a staple for the masses rather than just a luxury for the rich. When a couple married, the man promised to, among other things, provide his wife with coffee “until death do us part.” If he failed to bring home the beans, she could sue for divorce. The Dutch began cultivating large plantations in Sri Lanka from plants started in Amsterdam. By the end of the century they were growing coffee in Java, and it soon spread to Sumatra, Bali, and Timor. The Dutch are credited with bringing coffee to the New World.
With big profits to be made from the coffee trade, the French were next to jump on the bandwagon. Plantations were established in Haiti in 1715, and on the island of Bourbon, east of Madagascar, in 1716. The British brought coffee to Jamaica in 1730. Within seventy years coffee would be growing in Cuba, Brazil, Guatemala, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Colombia, and Mexico.
Coffee Houses: A Tradition of Politics, Poetry and Good Strong Coffee!
Throughout history, coffeehouses have been centers of political and philosophical activity. When coffee became an integral part of Islamic culture with Muslim expansion in the 11th and 16th centuries, some pious Muslims began to see secular use of coffee as a dangerous, even blasphemous habit. The development of coffeehouses was decried, for they were seen as hothouses for unsavory political ideas. In 1511, the governor of the City of Mecca banned coffee. But the Sultan of Egypt was a coffee lover and soon overruled the governor.
Wherever it spread, coffee was met with interest and controversy. Caught in the middle of 17th century political battles, the Pope’s blessing silenced coffee critics in Europe’s Catholic countries. The first European coffee house opened in England in 1637. Within 30 years, coffeehouses had replaced taverns as the island’s social, commercial and political melting pots.
At the height of their popularity, more than 2,000 coffeehouses flourished in England. Although women could own these establishments, they could not sit or sip in them. This spurred the 1674 “Women’s Petition Against Coffee” which expressed resentment at the long hours men spent in the coffeehouse. Women found the sympathetic ear of King Charles II, who considered coffeehouses “seminaries for sedition” and issued a proclamation shutting them down. But threats of serious rebellion forced the King to rescind his order two days before it was to take effect.
In Germany, coffeehouses brought about a different state of affairs for women. As the industrial revolution brought German farmers into the towns, their wives were freed from the ordinary routine of agricultural life. With more free time, they came into contact with other townspeople, gathering over coffee to talk about Goethe or Beethoven, as well as the latest births, marriages and scandals. Uneasy husbands derisively termed these get-together's “Kaffeeklatsches” (literally, “coffee-gossip”), but for the women involved, they served as important opportunities to think and speak freely — often for the first time.
Coffeehouses continued to be popular gathering places throughout England, Italy, Germany and France. During their heyday, they were dynamic sites for democratic political discussion and commerce. They were often called “penny universities” because for the penny price of a cup of coffee, you could listen to learned intellectuals expound on their areas of expertise. The Cafe Procope in Paris, which opened in 1689, served such philosophers as Rousseau and Voltaire (who supposedly consumed 40 cups of coffee each day) and the future emperor of France, young Napoleon Bonaparte.
Tea was the beverage of choice for most American colonists until the Boston Tea Party in 1773. Coffeehouses fashioned after European models became meeting places for revolutionary activities against King George of England and his tea tax. The boycott and fight for political freedom established coffee as the traditional democratic drink of Americans.
The current coffeehouse renaissance started in the 1950’s with the Beatniks. In the 1960’s and 1970’s in new York, San Francisco and Seattle, they provided a backdrop for the revival of folk music, and in particular, the protest music that spurred the civil rights, anti-war and women’s movements.
Today’s coffeehouses are less political settings than refuges from the stress of everyday life, where people can meet and talk, read, listen to music or poetry, or simply watch the world go by as they sip one of the estimated 45 million cups of coffee brewed each day in the United States.
© 2006 Humboldt Bay Coffee Company, All rights reserved