Narrowing down the date of when coffee was discovered, and by whom, is a fluid and inexact science. Depending on where you find the information, the results vary almost by as many different ways as you can order coffee at your favorite cafe.
Therefore, we have to be content with with non-specific estimates. Stories of the “origin of coffee” stretch anywhere between the 1st and 13th century. That’s a vast time span of possible coffee birthdays. So let’s just say, for all intents and purposes, that coffee was discovered officially forever ago.
Unlike the birthdate, most historical experts do agree on the birthplace of coffee, and point to Ethiopia (then called Abyssinia) as having the honors.
To be more specific, the area of Abyssinia called Kaffa. We can start with the etymology there.
850 AD (maybe)
16th - 17th Century
The word “coffee” seems to have been derived from the name “Kaffa” from Ethiopia, which is where all this history starts.
Once the drink became popular and spread across the globe, each language took the term “Kaffa” from Ethiopia, “qahwa” in Arabic, or “kahve” from Turkey, and gave it there own linguistic twist.
The English version seems to be most like a combination of French term “café” and Italian term “caffe.” And speaking of cafes, these places took on the name of the drink they brew and serve. Customers and merchants like to keep things simple, after all.
While it’s hard to be sure about much of coffee’s mysterious beginnings, it is likely that the first time anyone decided to consume the berries it wouldn’t have resembled anything like the hot morning beverage that we are all familiar with today.
One of the more popular origin stories of coffee takes place in Ethiopia (then called Abyssinia).
The story goes something like this: A nomadic goatherd named Kaldi discovered his goats joyously prancing about and acting quite unlike their normal cantankerous selves one day.
Wondering what had gotten into them, literally, Kaldi investigated and discovered they had been ingesting the red berries of one of the unfamiliar local plants.
Like any good pet owner on a mission, Kaldi decided to eat the berries too. They probably tasted terrible, but soon after, man and beast alike, unknowingly caffeinated, danced the night away with renewed energy and vigor.
Word spread, as it does when strange things happen, to the nearest village and monastery where monks took the matter into their own hands. They decried the mysterious berries as work of the devil and threw them into the fire, where the contraband roasted and emitted and entrancing aroma.
Later, having come to the enlightened opinion that the mysterious berries were helpful to keep the monks awake and focused throughout the day, they amended their decision. Coffee was then promoted from fruit of the devil to mana from heaven and the rest, as they say, is history.
Is there any truth to this cute dancing goat story? Probably not, other than that skilled researchers believe that the original coffee plants were likely to have come from Ethiopia. To be labeled as the birthplace of coffee should be sufficiently legendary in itself.
This Arabian legend takes place around the 13th century. The story goes that Omar the Dervish was a priest and a healer who was exiled from his hometown of Mocha after some transgression that may or may not have been warranted.
Living in a desert cave in Ousab in Arabia, and facing starvation, he came upon an unfamiliar plant with edible looking berries. Deciding he had nothing to lose, he ate them. They didn’t kill him.
Encouraged, he built a fire and boiled the beans in water, hoping they would soften and become more palatable. The beans were still inedible, but not wanting to waste anything, he drank the water from the pot. Soon after, Omar was renewed with energy.
So amazed was Omar, that he began cultivating the mysterious plant and treating patients with his magic potion. They left the cave buzzing with vigor and thanks. Soon, news spread, and when word of Omar’s miraculous concoction got back to the elders in Mocha, they tried it themselves and discovered the drink helped them to stay awake for evening prayers.
They invited Omar home, all was forgiven on both sides, and they drank coffee together in peace and happiness forever after.
This is merely another charming myth and not meant to be taken seriously. What we can take seriously from this story is that coffee did make the geographical leap from Ethiopia to the Arab Peninsula. Coffee was on its way to taking over the world.
Since Yemen is only a stone’s throw away from Ethiopia, just across the Red Sea, it would be natural for word to spread about this invigorating discovery rather quickly to Arab countries.
Arabians enjoyed the drink immensely, and by the 15th century the Yemens were cultivating numerous coffee plantations.
Initially, coffee was used primarily for medicinal purposes, prescribed through healers or monks. As is indicated by the Omar the Dervish legend, it was administered to heal various ailments and Sufi monks found it helpful as a mental stimulant. Eventually, coffee became something to be enjoyed everyday by anyone with or without aches and pains or religious responsibilities.
The coffee plant, which is actually a shrub or a small tree, is sensually beautiful with waxy emerald colored leaves, sweet smelling flowers, and coffee “cherries” which like most fruit, start green and then ripens red.
When Kaldi, Omar, or whoever first took a chance to consume the plant, they probably tried it in its most natural state: raw and right off the bush.They chewed the leaves and gnawed on the berries, and then brewed them both into something like a weak tea.
Yemens followed the same simple recipe, at least at first, but as they became more familiar with the plant, they also became more creative in preparing it. The time for roasting and grinding coffee beans has finally come, as well as other preparations, such as fermenting the beans into wine.
Soon social rituals became synonymous with coffee and private coffee houses, called kaveh kanes (derived from kahve, meaning “arabian wine.”). Coffee houses became places for intellectual debate, gossip, and sometimes a place for trouble.
Historians credit two Syrian merchants for introducing coffee to the markets of Constantinople (now Istanbul) in 1555. Within a decade there were over 500 coffee shops in the same marketplace and surrounding areas.
Coffee became so popular with the upper class that they employed the world’s first baristas, so to speak, called kahveci usta, to make and serve coffee to the Sultans and their guests.
Coffee was not only important to royals. It was a very valuable trading commodity of merchants, socialites built coffee houses in its honor, and it was even incorporated into matters of matrimony.
Women would prove their worthiness as a wife by preparing a good cup of coffee for her potential husband. On the other hand, wives were legally allowed to divorce their husbands if he did not provide her with the proper amount of coffee rations.
As the popularity of coffee grew and became not only a favorite drink, but a social pastime of the masses, it became vulnerable to suspicious law makers. When clerics saw a decline in mosque attendance and an increase in rowdy coffee houses of ill repute, coffee became the culprit.
City officials declared coffee an addictive substance that not only altered a person’s faculties, but coffee houses were scrutinized for catering to those inclined to political dissent. Coffee was therefore ruled not only immoral, but potentially treasonous. Coffee hour in Turkey was over. At least publicly. But the coffee loving Turks were not having it. Even under the threat of corporal punishment, coffee drinking either went underground or caused the most devoted coffee drinkers to outright rebel.
The ban was eventually lifted, and everyone was free to enjoy their coffee openly again. Turkish coffee is one of the oldest coffee brewing methods still in use today.
It is made in an ornate Cezve Turkish coffee pot and results in a strong, unfiltered coffee drink served in small demitasse like cups. For fun, a hostess can offer to “read” the pattern of the leftover dried coffee grounds in the cup to tell her guests their fortune.
Coffee became a major export through the Yemen port of Mocha, in which coffee took on the namesake of its port. Traders introduced the “Arabian drink” to Europe by way of Venice around 1573. It was not an instant success.
Little was known about coffee, other than by botanists and physicians who used it in small doses for medicinal purposes. Priests wanted to ban it immediately claiming it to be an Islamic threat to Christianity.
It may have been well on its way to regulation purgatory, until, reportedly, Pope Clement VIII tried it and said, “Why, this Satan’s drink is so delicious that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it. We shall fool Satan by baptizing it and making it a truly Christian beverage.”
Coffee had passed customs, charmed the clergy, and was now about to revolutionize a new continent.
After coffee had received the Catholic Church’s blessing, coffeehouses called caffès or cafés, appropriately named after the drink they served, spread through Italy and the rest of Europe.
Though espresso didn’t make it’s historical debut until the 1884, Italian coffee has always been a strong and potent brew, and much like their Arab counterparts, cafés became places for people to gather to discuss politics or gossip or simply watch the world go by while sipping a hot delicious beverage.
While a few well-traveled English citizens had already been drinking coffee, mostly as a novelty or for medicinal purposes, since it crossed into Europe in the early 1600s. Coffee houses didn’t become common in England until the middle of the century when the East India Company sold ten tons of “coho seede” at a London auction.
Two years later they sold twenty tons. Coffee had made a favourable impression on England.
The first English coffee house, named The Angel, was set up near Oxford University and attracted an intellectual and curious clientele. Other coffee houses followed and collectively become known as “Penny Universities,” where, for the price of penny, one could buy a cup of coffee and engage in vigorous intellectual and philosophical debate.
Though early coffee houses mainly catered to a certain elite type of person, later houses were more diverse and welcomed people from all walks of life, so long as they were male.
In 1674, The Womens Petition Against Coffee organized to formally complain that coffee was ruining their men and their marriages. They claimed that their husbands spent all their free time getting drunk at the taverns and then sobering up at the coffee houses.
Furthermore, coffee had adverse romantic side-effects; they believed that it made their husbands sterile and impotent. The Women’s Petition made claims that If coffee continued to be sold and consumed, it would cause a decline in England’s birth rate.
Despite a few hiccups, coffee never was successfully banned in the United Kingdom. However, it did fall out of favor by the early 1700s when the British turned to another hot beverage that was easier to make and better suited to women, children, and men alike.
Tea has been a British staple ever since and until only recently has coffee started to make a comeback there. No kidding, Michael and Therese can vouch for me here.
After the ambitious Turkish Empire unsuccessfully tried to capture Vienna in 1683, their retreating army left behind some interesting loot for the war torn Viennese to rejoice and puzzle over.
Among the items were oxen, camels, sheep, grain, food, gold, and about 500 pounds of coffee. The Viennese soldiers were unfamiliar with the coffee beans and mistook them for camel feed. Herein begins an interesting story that may be more fiction than fact, but is nevertheless a charming legend.
As the story goes, a Viennese spy named Franz Georg Kolschitsky caught word of the mysterious camel feed. Since he had spent a lot of time in Turkey during the war, he knew all about coffee and offered to take the “camel feed” off the soldiers’ hands for a price.
Then, in a turn of events that would make any capitalist proud, he began brewing, serving, and selling the coffee in the “Turkish Style” to his fellow countryfolk who enthusiastically embraced the new drink.
Kolschitzky is credited as introducing coffee to Vienna and being the first Viennese coffee house proprietor. He was honored with a statue memorializing his culinary contribution in 1885.
By the end of the 1800s Vienna coffee houses became a unique culture all of their own. Young writers and literary figures known as Young Vienna or Jung Wien began establishing themselves in several coffee houses around the city, finding the large and welcoming venues a perfect place to meet, compose, and share their work. The art of coffee and culture was becoming refined.
Card games, music, and billiards were often played there, and a glass of water was served with every cup of coffee to encourage patrons to stay hydrated and caffeinated for as long as they liked.
In 1644, a physician and traveler named Pierre de la Roque is credited for bringing coffee beans back from a trip to Constantinople to his native France, but it took awhile for it to become en vogue on the streets.
Compared to other European countries, the French came relatively late into the coffee game, but like other countries, they didn’t quite know what to think of the hot drink at first. So the French did what they do best.
They tweaked the existing coffee preparation as they knew it and made it better than ever. Instead of boiling the coffee in the Turkish style, which they considered to be too harsh tasting, they infused the coffee by placing the grounds in a linen bag and then dropping it into hot water, much like steeping tea.
The result was a milder, less scorched tasting cup of coffee. And then they added sugar. And they added cream. Harsh and stringent black coffee had been transformed into a smooth and sweet drink. Suddenly, café au lait was all the rage in Paris, enjoyed by aristocrats and bourgeoise alike by the early 1700s.
But why stop there? In 1800 Jean-Baptiste de Belloy, the Archbishop of Paris, was not happy with the infusion method because the water was often tainted with strange flavors from the linen bag as well as the coffee.
Instead, he developed a simple percolating system in which boiling water is forced up through a thin metal tube to spill out over coffee grounds. Percolators are still used today using the same method.
But the real coffee making revolution would happen in 1855 at the Paris Exhibition. An inventor named Edouard Loysel de Santais exhibited a hydrostatic percolator. This machine could produce large volumes of coffee, tea, or beer in a short time using extraction pressure.
While it doesn’t sound very exciting, this invention would later become the foundation for Italian espresso machines to change the way the world thought of coffee forever.
Coffee debuted en mass in Germany and Prussia around 1670, and pretty much followed the same roller-coaster pattern as everywhere else in Europe. At first coffee was met with skepticism and suspicion with physicians decrying it as a culprit of sterility and stillbirths.
Despite the dire warnings, coffee critics eventually quieted down, and coffee houses began popping up in all the most fashionable districts of Germany’s major cities such as Berlin, Hamburg, Bremen, and Hanover.
Of course leaders became suspicious once the drink become too popular too quickly. Frederick the Great, who preferred his subjects drink beer instead, lead a campaign against coffee to regulate it from everyone except the German nobility.
He subjected coffee to heavy taxes, and strict roasting permits that benefited the upper class. Therefore, coffee became an elite delicacy to be enjoyed in exclusive coffee houses where men could indulge in political discussion, idle gossip, or both, over kaffee served in beautiful porcelain cups with saucers.
Just as in other parts of Europe, coffee houses in Germany were typically “men only” establishments. Not to be outdone, German women made their own coffee club called a kaffeeklatsch, in which women would go to one another's houses to drink coffee and have their own discussions.
Kaffeeklatsch started as a derogatory term, but has since been softened to mean any informal gathering where coffee is served. Women embracing coffee softened coffee’s reputation and eventually everyone came to their senses and deregulated it.
Germany eventually learned the same lesson that the rest of Europe had to learn when it came to coffee. Despite everyone’s best efforts, coffee would endure and was here to stay.
With Yemen coffee plantations being such a major source of income for the country, naturally they wanted to protect their lucrative resource. They made restrictions that that their coffee could only be exported after it was roasted or otherwise infertile to plant elsewhere. However, people can be creative.
A Sufi named Baba Budan is credited with first growing coffee plants in India. In the 1600’s he went on a pilgrimage to Mecca and, as legend has it, became so impressed with coffee while there, that he devised a way to smuggle the live seeds back home.
Stories vary about how he managed it: he taped seven seeds to his stomach; he hid them in his beard; he wrapped them in his belt. In any case, not only did he successfully get them back home, but he figured out how to cultivated the plants and make them grow in the entirely different environment of the mountainous region of Mysore, India.
It’s hard to say how much truth there is to this legend. Coffee was becoming so popular in the 1600’s that countries from all over the world, particularly the Dutch, were already trying to cultivate it in their colony of Malabar and take a piece of the profit pie for themselves.
Regardless of how it got there, or by whom, coffee plantations slowly but surely began spreading throughout India.
The plant had to go through an adaptation process to thrive in its new shady and high-altitude environment, so the flavor profile changed as well.
Indian coffee is generally lower in acidity, sweeter, and milder than the Yemen or Ethiopian original and is often blended with chicory root.
South Indian filter coffee is a traditional drink made by adding one or two tablespoons of the coffee-chicory filtered brew to boiling milk and then tossing the mixture back and forth between a tumbler and dabara. The result is a frothy, milky coffee drink served in a tumbler.
In a long culinary history where tea has traditionally held reign as the favored hot beverage of choice, coffee is a somewhat recent novelty in Japan. The Dutch, with their ubiquitous trading routes, introduced coffee to the Japanese island of Deijima, the only port in Japan open to foreign trade in the 17th century.
However, the Japanese weren’t really interested in coffee at the time— they did have tea, after all— and so the only ones drinking it were the Dutch who delivered it. Still, it popped up here and there, mostly for medicinal purposes, as the occasional illicit stimulant, or in the form of infused sugar balls.
In 1888, the first coffee house opened, which attracted a sophisticated clientele of artists and writers similar to the high-brow social salons of Europe’s coffee houses. However it only had modest success and closed in five years.
Although there were several coffee roasters in operation, it wasn’t until after World War II, when Japan reopened for importing on a larger scale, that the Japanese embraced coffee as something more than a curiosity.
A hybrid of a tea drinking shop and a coffee house called a Kissaten became very popular for people to come in and drink coffee or tea, have a light meal, and listen to music while talking with friends.
Today, Japan holds their own with other coffee-drinking countries with Starbucks and high end coffee shops open and serving customers all day long on every major street.
While Japan is only the 39th largest consumer per capita of coffee, they rank as the 3rd or 4th (depending on which report your read) largest importing nation of coffee in the world, only behind the United States and Germany. Tea might finally be in danger of slipping from most favourite hot beverage in Japan.
Oh java! During the coffee explosion in the 1600s, the Dutch had been anxious to cultivate their own coffee plants. They experimented in their Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Malabar colonies, but with only limited success.
In 1699 they tried their luck in Java, Indonesia. After several failed attempts they finally hit pay dirt with thriving mature coffee plants ready for business in 1711. The Dutch had finally succeeded in cultivating their own coffee plants.
Once the plantations were established, they quickly became competitive in the world market, surpassing even Mocha in the European coffee market. The Dutch coffee trade became so successful, and earned mass amounts of money so quickly, that greed and despotism ran amok in their coffee producing colonies.
The practice of “forced cultivation” was implemented that demanded natives set aside one-fifth of their land to rent to the government to grow crops. If the villager didn’t own land, they were required to spend one-fifth of a year, or sixty-six days working crops.
If the villager’s crops failed, they were indebted to the government. It was a sweet system for the Dutch colonists who profited and a nightmare for the native Indonesians who often had to work much more than sixty-six days to pay off debts, or had to give up more than one-fifth of their land and had little to plant for themselves.
Middle men tax collectors working on commission were sent to collect, enforce, and ultimately extort the farmers for whatever they had left. It was a system of corruption and dissatisfaction which finally and thankfully succumbed in 1870.
Today, Indonesia is the 4th largest coffee exporting country. Approximately 90 percent of the plantations are owned by small-scale farmers who own their own plantations.
When Saigon fell to the French in 1859, colonists introduced coffee to the area in small plantations, although it was mainly consumed for their own purposes and not used as a money making endeavor. At least not yet.
The climate turned out to be ideal for coffee cultivation and propagation and production slowly but surely increased, but it didn’t reach its zenith until the mid-20th century (minus the Vietnam War years, where coffee growth understandably took a backseat to other matters).
Instant coffee, using freeze-dried methods, became a great success with the Coronel Coffee Plant in 1969 which produced something along the lines of 80 tons of coffee per year. At the end of the Vietnam War, the Viet Cong confiscated the plant, renamed it Vinacafé and started exporting products to the Soviet Union.
Today, Vietnam is the second largest coffee producing country in the world (Brazil is the first), contributing almost 2 million metric tons of coffee per year, most of it of the Robusta variety.
The coffee production of Vietnam has become so large that it has possibly oversaturated the market and lowered the value. Coffee quality tends to suffer as the state run Department of Agriculture often favors quantity of crops over quality. Freeze dried instant coffee is a clever way to overcome this problem.
With the unique Asian and French culinary fusion of the country, Vietnam has made delicious contributions to coffee artistry. The most widely known style is Vietnamese Iced Coffee (ca phe sua da), made with sweetened condensed milk, a practice that supposedly started when the French couldn’t find fresh milk to add to their coffee.
Other delicacies worth a try are yogurt coffee (sua chua ca phe) with toppings like mango or rice, and egg coffee (ca phe trung) where an egg yolk is whipped with condensed milk.
As a British colony, coffee made its mark in the United States shortly after England took a liking to it. Boston opened the colonies’ first coffee house in 1689, however the American version of the social salons resembled more of an ale-swigging tavern than a penny university.
As British subjects, the Americans drank tea that was supplied to them through the British East India Company. While the British-American relationship was always a bit complicated, it came to a head in 1773 when King George raised taxes on exports to America, to which the colonies fervently protested.
England heard America’s cries of “no taxation without representation” and reversed the taxes on everything. Except for tea. Americans responded with their version a “tea party” and dumped the next tea shipment, 342 chests total, into the Boston Harbor. Tea time in America was over, and honestly has never fully recovered since.
Coffee, however, became a welcome and even patriotic commodity, and the Dutch East India Company was happy to supply it. The American Revolution, which quite possibly was dreamt up in The Green Dragon coffee house in Boston, started two years later.
Coffee in America has undergone a revolution of its own since the Boston Tea Party. When the colonists bought a bag of coffee in the late 1700s it was mostly likely bag of green beans, which they had to then roast, grind, and brew themselves; a few tablespoons of ground coffee thrown a pot of water and then boiled by the hearth.
It wasn’t until the Civil War era, around the 1860s that coffee started being sold pre-roasted. After the World Wars, instant coffee was all the rage until the 1970s when a coffee house in Seattle opened shop and re-defined the art of coffee all over the world.
As much as American’s love and obsess over coffee, they don’t drink nearly as much of it as they think they do. In fact, they only come in 16th in the Which Country Drinks the Most Coffee per Person contest. So who does drink the most?
Look north. Netherlands, Finland, and Sweden take the top three spots of swilling the most coffee on the planet, with the Netherlands leading the pack at 2.414 cups per person per day.
And which country exports the most coffee? Brazil, Vietnam, and Columbia. Brazil sells 15.9% of the worlds coffee market, taking in $4.9 billion dollars in 2016.
Coffee has made quite a journey from when Kaldi and his curious goats first discovered it. It has gone from a novel curiosity, to consternation and banishment, and finally to acceptance. It has been accused of being everything from “Satan’s Brew,” to the cause of England’s marital problems, to being a bit player in a revolutionary war.
Today, coffee is a worldwide favorite, and as of the last few decades, has been something of an artisan hobby for many people who want to learn and educate themselves on this amazing bean.
Resources & Further Reading
Pendergrast, Mark. Uncommon Grounds: the History of Coffee and How It Transformed the World. Basic Books, 1999.
Racineaux, Sebastien and Tran, Chung-Leng. Coffee Isn’t Rocket Science: A Quick and Easy Guide to Buying, Brewing, Serving, Roasting and Tasting Coffee. Black Dog & Leventhal. 2018.
Wild, Antony. Coffee: a Dark History. W.W. Norton, 2005.