The story of how coffee growing and drinking spread around the world is one of the greatest and most romantic in history. It starts in the Horn of Africa, in Ethiopia, where the coffee tree probably originated in the province of Kaffa. There are various fanciful but unlikely stories surrounding the discovery of the properties of roasted coffee beans. One story has it that an Ethiopian goatherd was amazed at the lively behaviour of his goats after chewing red coffee berries. What we know with more certainty is that the succulent outer cherry flesh was eaten by slaves taken from present day Sudan into Yemen and Arabia, through the great port of its day, Mocha, now synonymous with coffee. Coffee was certainly being cultivated in Yemen by the 15th century and probably much earlier than that.
Mocha was also the main port for the one sea route to Mecca, and was the busiest place in the world at the time. But the Arabs had a strict policy not to export any fertile beans, so that coffee could not be cultivated anywhere else. The coffee bean is the seed of the coffee tree, but when stripped of its outer layers it becomes infertile. The race to make off with some live coffee trees or beans was eventually won by the Dutch in 1616, who brought some back to Holland where they were grown in greenhouses.
Initially, the authorities in Yemen actively encouraged coffee drinking as it was considered preferable to the extreme side effects of Kat, a shrub whose buds and leaves were chewed as a stimulant. The first coffeehouses were opened in Mecca and were called ‘kaveh kanes’. They quickly spread throughout the Arab world and became successful places where chess was played, gossip was exchanged, and singing, dancing and music were enjoyed. They were luxuriously decorated and each had an individual character. Nothing quite like the coffeehouse had existed before: a place where society and business could be conducted in comfortable surroundings and where anyone could go, for the price of coffee.
The Arabian coffeehouses soon became centres of political activity and were suppressed. Coffee and coffeehouses were subsequently banned several times over the next few decades, but they kept reappearing. Eventually a solution was found when coffeehouses and coffee were taxed.
COFFEE COMES TO ASIA
The Dutch were also growing coffee at Malabar in India, and in 1699 took some to Batavia in Java, in what is now Indonesia. Within a few years the Dutch colonies had become the main suppliers of coffee to Europe. Today Indonesia is the fourth largest exporter of coffee in the world.
COFFEE COMES TO EUROPE
Venetian traders first brought coffee to Europe in 1615. This was a period when the two other great hot beverages also appeared in Europe. Hot chocolate was the first, brought by the Spanish from the Americas to Spain in 1528; and tea, which was first sold in Europe in 1610.
At first coffee was mainly sold by lemonade vendors and was believed to have medicinal qualities. The first European coffeehouse opened in Venice in 1683, with the most famous, Caffe Florian in Piazza San Marco, opening in 1720. It is still open for business today.
The largest insurance market in the world, Lloyd’s of London, began life as a coffeehouse. It was started in 1688 by Edward Lloyd, who prepared lists of the ships that his customers had insured.
COFFEE COMES TO THE AMERICAS
The first reference to coffee being drunk in North America is from 1668 and, soon after, coffee houses were established in New York, Philadelphia, Boston and other towns. The Boston Tea Party Of 1773 was planned in a coffee house, the Green Dragon. Both the New York Stock Exchange and the Bank of New York started in coffeehouses, in what is today the financial district known as Wall Street.
It was in the 1720s that coffee first came to be cultivated in the Americas, through what is perhaps the most fascinating and romantic story in the history of coffee.
Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu was a French naval officer serving in Martinique who in 1720, went to Paris on leave. With assistance and no little personal charm he acquired a coffee tree which he took with him on the ship back. The plant was kept in a glass case on deck to keep it warm and prevent damage from salt water. The journey was eventful, or at least Mr. Mathieu de Clieu’s journal of the voyage was. Pirates from Tunis threatened the ship, there was a violent storm and the plant had to be tied down. Our hero faced an enemy on board who was jealous and tried to sabotage the plant. There was a violent struggle in which a branch was torn off, but the plant survived this horror.
Then the ship was becalmed and drinking water was rationed. De Clieu had his priorities right and gave most of his allowance of precious water to the coffee plant. It survived, as did he.
Finally, the ship arrived in Martinique and the coffee tree was re-planted at Preebear, where it was surrounded by a thorn hedge and watched over by slaves. It grew, and multiplied, and by 1726 the first harvest was ready. It is recorded that by 1777, there were between 18 and 19 million coffee trees on Martinique, and the model for a new cash crop that could be grown in the New World was in place.
But it was the Dutch who first started the spread of the coffee plant in Central and South America, where today it reigns supreme as the main continental cash crop. Coffee first arrived in the Dutch colony of Surinam in 1718, to be followed by plantations in French Guyana and the first of many in Brazil at Para. In 1730 the British introduced coffee to Jamaica, where today the most famous and expensive coffee in the world is grown in the Blue Mountains. By 1825, South and Central America were on track towards their coffee destiny. That date is also important as it was when coffee was first planted in Hawaii which produces the only US coffee, and one of the finest.
For North Americans, the world’s largest consumers, Seattle is the new spiritual home of coffee. The wettest major city in the USA gave birth in the 1970s to a café or ‘Latte’ culture which swept the USA and has dramatically improved the general quality of the coffee Americans drink. Today, any public place in the USA will have one or more coffee carts, serving a variety of coffees, drinks and snacks.
This new found ‘coffee culture’ has started to spread to the rest of the world. To those countries with great coffee traditions of their own, such as Italy, Germany, and Scandinavia, added new converts to the pleasures of good coffee. Today it is possible to find good coffee in every major city of the world, from London to Sydney to Tokyo; tomorrow the world will drink more and more importantly, better coffee.
COFFEE IS A GLOBAL COMMODITY
The importance of coffee in the world economy cannot be overstated. It is one of the most valuable primary products in world trade, in many years second in value only to oil as a source of foreign exchange to developing countries. Its cultivation, processing, trading, transportation and marketing provide employment for millions of people worldwide. Coffee is crucial to the economies and politics of many developing countries; for many of the world’s Least Developed Countries, exports of coffee account for a substantial part of their foreign exchange earnings in some cases over 80%. Coffee is a traded commodity on major futures and commodity exchanges, most importantly in London and New York.