Out of Africa
The story of how coffee became one of the most popular drinks in the world is shrouded in mystery. It is thought that the coffee tree originated in the province of Kaffa, in the area known today as Ethiopia. There is no real evidence to show exactly when, or how, it was first discovered that a rich and stimulating brew could be made from the bean, but it is thought that before coffee was ever appreciated as a beverage, native tribespeople may have chewed the ripe cherries and beans as food.
There is evidence, however, to suggest that coffee trees were cultivated in monastery gardens 1,000 years ago. According to folklore, a goat herder called Kaldi noticed that even the oldest goats behaved like young kids when they ate certain wild berries. Upon hearing this, the Abbot of the local monastery decided to experiment. He found that a brew of these ‘cherries’ could keep his brother monks awake through long hours of prayer.
A mocha in Mecca
Commercial cultivation followed these early coffee origins, although the first reports of this, from the Yemen, were not recorded until the fifteenth century. By the sixteenth century, coffee was being grown in Persia, Egypt, Syria and Turkey. Its popularity was probably due, in part, to the fact that Muslims, forbidden alcohol by the Koran, found coffee to be an acceptable substitute.
The first coffee houses were opened in Mecca, where coffee drinking was initially encouraged, and quickly spread throughout the Arab world. These, which developed into luxuriously decorated places where music, dancing, chess and gossip could be enjoyed and business was also conducted. With thousands of pilgrims visiting the holy city of Mecca each year from all over the world, word of the ‘Wine of Araby’, as the drink was often called, began to spread far beyond Arabia.
East to West
Despite the fact that trade in coffee, a much-prized commodity, was jealously guarded by the Arabs to the extent that foreigners were not allowed to visit their coffee plantations or take fertile coffee beans out of the country, seed beans and plant cuttings were eventually taken out of Arabia and cultivated in the Dutch colonies in India and Java. The Dutch colonies became the main suppliers of coffee to Europe, with Amsterdam its trading centre.
From sinner to saint
Venetian traders first brought coffee to Europe in 1615. Opponents to coffee were openly cautious and called the beverage the ‘bitter invention of Satan’. The local clergy even condemned it! The controversy was so great that Pope Clement VIII was asked to intervene. Before making a decision however, he decided to taste the beverage for himself. He enjoyed the drink so much that he gave it Papal approval.
30 years later a coffee house or ‘café’ was opened in Venice. The growth of popular coffee houses, which became favourite meeting places for both social and business purposes, spread from the mid-17th century to other European countries including Austria, France, Germany, Holland and England.
In Britain, the first coffee house was opened in Oxford in 1651 and by 1700 there were 3,000 coffee houses in London. Every man of the upper middle classes went to his coffee house daily to learn the latest news. Edward Lloyd’s coffee house (founded in 1668), attracted seafarers and merchants and eventually became Lloyd’s of London, the world-famous insurers. Similarly, Jonathon’s Coffee House became the London Stock Exchange.
Coffee drinking spread to the colonies and was indeed taken to Virginia, USA but it would not have become so popular in America had it not been for the Boston Tea Party. Americans turned their back on Britain and tea and instead adopted coffee as their national beverage.
The last three hundred years have seen coffee make its way around the world, establishing itself in the economies and lifestyles of the main trading nations. Coffee is now one of the most valuable primary commodities in the world, often second in value only to oil as a source of foreign exchange to developing countries. Millions of people around the world earn their living from the coffee industry.
At times in history coffee has been hailed as a medicinal cure-all, and at others condemned as the devil’s brew – in the latter case usually for political or religious reasons, when coffee houses were at their height of popularity as meeting places. However, in the last half-century scientific research has established the latest coffee facts, and information about caffeine (responsible for coffee’s mild stimulant effect) and our health: in moderation coffee consumption is in no way a health risk, and besides being a most pleasurable experience drinking coffee can indeed confer some health benefits. For more information on coffee health click here.
The coffee plunger
Elizabeth Dakin who married a London-based tea and coffee merchant in 1841, thought that the iron used in traditional roasters “imparted noxious qualities” on the delicate flavours of the coffee, and so developed a coffee roaster made of gold, silver or platinum. Once roasted and ground the coffee is ready for brewing. The simplest method in the 19th century was to pour hot water into a pot with coffee grinds. The problem was separating the coffee grinds from the liquid coffee.
Elizabeth Dakin took a standard coffeepot and put a perforated cylinder – similar to a sieve – in the middle, into which she put a plunger on a screw thread. The plunger moved up or down inside the cylinder when the handle at the top was turned.
The coffee was placed in the cylinder and the hot water poured in. After a few minutes the screw was turned, moving the disc down, forcing water through the coffee to complete the brewing process and forcing the grounds to the bottom of the pot, so they could brew no longer. This arrangement not only kept the grinds out of the cup but also enhanced the flavour. While the screw thread mechanism has since been simplified into a simple rod, the concept remains the same today as the one Elizabeth pioneered.