The Origin of Coffee: Full timeline (From Yemen to Starbucks)

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Coffee is the second most consumed drink after water. The world drinks around 2 billion cups of coffee every day. Many people consider coffee an irreplaceable part of their morning routine. And many see getting a coffee cup as the best way to catch up with friends. But, where did coffee originate? How was it discovered and how did it take over the world?

While there is evidence that the coffee plant originated in Ethiopia, we do not know who decided to use the coffee bean, roast it and make a beverage with it. All we have is the legend of Kaldi and the goats.

700s – Kaldi and the dancing goats

The legend tells that Kaldi was an Ethiopian goat herder living in the 8th century. Every day before sunset he would play his flute to call his goats. But, one time he played the flute and the goats did not come. He went to look for his goats and found them acting in the most strange way: they were jumping and dancing around. Kaldi saw that the goats were chewing on some red berries so, out of curiosity, he decided to try them too. Not long after that, he joined the goats in their dancing.

After this incredible finding, Kaldi shared his knowledge about these magical berries with one of the monks. But the monk rejected them and threw the berries into the fire. A few moments later, all the monks felt the most wonderful roasty smell. They found it was coming from the burnt beans so they took the beans, ground them and boiled them with water. And this was the first coffee drink!

The story of Kaldi was first told by a European writer in the late 1600s and no one knows if it is actually true or more of a legend. What we do know is that one way or another the Ethiopians discovered the stimulating effects of the coffee fruit. But, they were not the first ones to make a drink with the beans or at least there is no evidence of this.

The earliest record of coffee being grown and used to make a drink comes from Yemen. There, a drink made out of coffee was consumed by the Sufi monks in the mid 15th century. From Yemen, it reached Mecca and later the rest of the Middle East.

In the beginning, coffee had a religious significance. It was used to help with fasting during Ramadan and to help people stay awake during prayers.

As alcohol is prohibited in Islamic culture, coffee became the social drink of choice. The first coffee houses were established in Mecca where men would gather to consume coffee and socialize. Yet, not everyone was happy with the spread of coffee.

1500’s – The first coffee ban

In the early 1500’s, coffee was banned in Mecca. Many believed that the Coran rule that forbids poisoning should apply to coffee the same way it applies to alcohol. Coffee was later banned in Cairo too. However, due to popular demand both these bans were quickly lifted.

Early 1600s – Coffee expands into Europe

Coffee trade in Europe started in Venice in the early 1600s. Not everyone in Christian Europe was happy with coffee. Many priests called coffee ‘Satan’s drink’ because of its origin and association with the Muslims. In 1615, the authorities escalated a request to ban coffee all the way to the Vatican and Pope Clement VIII had to intervene. He took a sip of coffee and was delighted. According to the stories he said “This devil’s drink is delicious. We should cheat the devil by baptizing it.” And that is how coffee got the papal approval.

After that, coffee’s popularity grew in the European continent. The first coffee house opened in Venice in 1645. Later, London opened a coffee house in 1652. And soon there were hundreds of coffee houses across Europe. During the 17th and 18th centuries, coffee shops became centers of intellectual gatherings. People would go to coffee houses to discuss new ideas including ideas that went against the beliefs of political leaders. In 1675, Charles II attempted to close coffee houses across England to keep people from conspiring against his government. He quickly had to retract his order due to public disapproval.

Late 1600s – End of Yemen’s coffee monopoly

While coffee’s popularity was growing, the industry was an Arab monopoly at this point. If a country wanted coffee, they had to purchase it from Yemen. The Arabs knew coffee was a unique resource and they guarded it very carefully. Yemen would make sure that only roasted coffee beans were leaving the country. This way they prevented other countries from starting their own coffee plantations.

Soon enough, European countries became interested in growing their own coffee plants. In 1616, the Dutch succeeded in smuggling coffee plants from Yemen. They took the plant back to the Netherlands and tried to grow it. Unfortunately, it was hard for the coffee plant to grow in that region and they could not scale their coffee plantations. Their luck improved later when the Dutch defeated the Portuguese and captured Sri Lanka and some regions of India. They brought the coffee plants to these tropical regions and they thrived. In 1696, the Dutch shipped a coffee plant to Java in Indonesia where they were able to scale their coffee production.

But the Dutch were not the only ones that successfully took coffee seeds from Yemen. In 1670, Baba Budan, a Sufi saint from India, went on a pilgrimage to Mecca. On the way back, he came across coffee as it was being served in Mocha, the port city of Yemen. Baba Budan loved the drink so much that he smuggled some green coffee seeds back to India. Then, he planted the seeds in the courtyard of his hermitage in Karnataka. This was the beginning of the coffee industry in India.

Early 1700s – Coffee is brought to the Americas

Nowadays, coffee is widely grown in Central and South America, but how did the coffee plant cross the Atlantic? This achievement is attributed to Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu, an officer in the French Navy. In 1720, Louis XIV tasked Gabriel with bringing a coffee plant to Martinique Island. The story tells that he encountered a storm on his way to the island. They were running low on water but he shared his water supply with the coffee plant to keep it alive. The plant made it to Martinique island alive. From there, different sailors started to bring the coffee tree to nearby regions. That is how coffee was introduced in regions such as Jamaica, Cuba, Brazil and Colombia. 

1773 – Boston tea party

Coffee had been consumed in North America since the 17th century but it only gained popularity after the Boston tea party in 1773. The American colonists were angry at the British government for imposing increasing taxes. They protested by dumping 342 chests of tea into the sea.

After that, tea became a sign of royal tyranny and Americans started to drink coffee as a political statement.

1800s – Brazil becomes the leading coffee producer

Brazil is currently the top coffee producer in the world. They grow around one-third of the world’s coffee. But how did Brazil turn into this coffee empire? It started with Francisco de Melo Palheta who planted the first coffee plant in the region of Para in Brazil.

In 1727, Palheta was sent to French Guiana on a diplomatic mission. According to myth, he seduced the French Governor’s wife who secretly gave Francisco a handful of coffee seeds. Initially, he planted the coffee plant for domestic consumption. Eventually, the crop started to be grown in more and more farms.

Coffee production started to boom in Brazil between 1820 and 1830. By 1840, Brazil was already producing forty percent of the world’s coffee.

Coffee production in Brazil used to be very dependent on slave labor. This is one of the reasons why Brazil was the last country in South America to abolish slavery in 1888.

1818 – First percolator and new technology advancements

A percolator is considered old technology now and being honest it does not produce the best tasting coffee. But, the percolator was the first form of coffee technology that made brewing coffee at home accessible.

The creation of the first percolator is often credited to Hanson Goodrich, who patented the coffee maker in 1889. Although this was the first patent, Goodrich based his design on earlier versions of the percolator that were around as early as 1810.

Why was the percolator such an important stepping stone in the history of coffee? Well, before the percolator there was no such thing as coffee makers. People were brewing their coffee by boiling the coffee grounds in a pot of water and then pouring off the liquid, similar to cowboy coffee. The percolator improved the coffee brewing experience by making coffee free of any leftover grinds.

Other innovations followed soon. In 1864, Jabez Burns invented the first commercial coffee roaster. Prior to this invention, people were roasting coffee using pans. Then, in 1890 instant coffee was invented and patented by David Strang of New Zealand. Although many may consider instant coffee disrespectful to the coffee bean, it was a huge achievement at that time.

1901- First espresso machine

While coffee history goes back centuries, espresso is a relatively new invention that revolutionized the coffee industry. The espresso machine was looking for a solution to brew coffee faster. To extract coffee faster, we need to grind finer. The problem is that when you grind the beans too fine gravity alone cannot push the water through the grounds. This is where the idea of using pressure to help brew the coffee originated. The original patent for a coffee machine that uses pressure to brew goes back to 1885, created by Angelo Moriondo of Turin. But he never commercialized this patent.

Later, in 1901 Luigi Bezzera created the first commercial espresso machine. In 1903, Desiderio Pavoni purchased the patent for Luigi’s original espresso machine. In 1905, he started to produce espresso machines, founding “La Pavoni” company. You can still find “La Pavoni” espresso machines nowadays. Espresso quickly became popular in Italy and the rest of Europe and later in the United States. The first espresso machine used steam to create pressure which meant that the water was really close to boiling temperature. This resulted in over extracted coffee that had a burnt flavor. In 1948, the first piston espresso machine was introduced. This machine improved the extraction process and espresso no longer had that burnt taste.

1971- First Starbucks

It is impossible to talk about the history of coffee without talking about Starbucks. The second wave of coffee and the origin of coffee culture as we know it is attributed to Starbucks.

The story of Starbucks starts with the creation of a different coffee shop. In 1966, Alfred Peet opened Peet’s Coffee in Berkeley. He was a Dutch-American whose father roasted coffee. Alfred shared his coffee knowledge with some friends and with Peet’s blessing they opened their own coffee shop in Seattle in 1971. They named it Starbucks.

But, back in the 70s you could not order a vanilla latte at Starbucks. It was solely a coffee bean store. In 1982, Howard Schultz joined Starbucks as the Marketing Director. He had seen the coffee scene in Italy and tried to convince the owners to start selling coffee beverages. But, they did not follow along. Eventually, Schultz left Starbuck to start his own coffee business called Il Giornale. But Schultz came back. In 1987, he purchased Starbucks for $3.8 million.

Schultz combined his knowledge in coffee roasting with his experience with the Italian coffee concept and started offering coffee beverages at Starbucks. Shortly after that, Starbucks expanded to Chicago and Vancouver and then to California, D.C. and New York. By 1996, Starbucks opened their first store in Japan. In the last 2 decades, Starbucks continued to offer thousands of stores and became the coffee empire we all know.

Coffee history timeline

Before 1400s — Legend of Kaldi and the dancing goats

1400s — Coffee was grown in Yemen and became popular in the region

1500s — Coffee was banned in Mecca and other cities

1600s — Coffee expands into Europe

1615 — Pope Clement VIII declares coffee is not the work of Satan.

1616 — The Dutch snuggled a coffee plant from Yemen and planted it in the Netherlands 

1650 — More than 300 coffee shops open in London.

1670 — Baba Budan smuggled coffee beans from the Mocha port into India

1700s — Coffee is brought to Martinique island

1773 — Boston tea party: coffee becomes America’s national drink

1800s — Brazil becomes the leading coffee producer

1864 — Jabez Burns invented the first commercial coffee roaster

1889 — Hanson Goodrich patented the first percolator

1890 —  Instant coffee was invented and patented by David Strang

1901 — Luigi Bezzera created the first commercial espresso machine

1971 — The first Starbucks opened in Seattle

1987 — Howard Schultz purchased Starbuck for $3.8 million and started the Italian coffee shop concept

Coffee today

There is no doubt that coffee has come a long way since Kaldi and the goats and the Sufi monks. And the industry is still growing today. Currently, more than 400 billion cups of coffee are consumed every year with the US being the biggest consumer. American coffee drinkers consume on average 3.1 cups a day.

Now more than ever people drink coffee not just for the caffeine kick. More recent trends in the coffee industry include the increased consumption of specialty coffee and the focus on fair trade.

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