Coffee just might be the most storied beverage since water.
The history of coffee and its origins is that of a globetrotter—with travels from Yemen all the way to London. It’s a history of farming, but also science and culture.
Overview of the History & Origin of Coffee
Coffee first sprang up in storytelling in 15th-century Yemen, but most agree the coffee plant is an actual crop of Ethiopia. There are several tales of how coffee was discovered, none of which can be verified thanks to their age and connection to the very fluid oral tradition. But it’s generally accepted that the drink was discovered in Ethiopia and then introduced to Yemeni priests by way of merchants. These priests began consuming the drink regularly once they experienced its mind-altering effects that—unlike a wine or ale—didn’t leave negative after-effects and were stimulating enough to prevent sleep. It was commonly used in religious rituals.
Coffee did not make its way west until the 17th century, marking the spread and monumental marker of coffee history around the world.
History of Coffee Beans
According to legend (one of many), the coffee bean was discovered by a goat herder named Kaldi in Ethiopia. After his goat reacted powerfully to the fruit of the coffee plant, he became curious and tried it himself—realizing the jolting effects. He took some of the beans back for his fellow monks to try, and the rest is history.
As other stories tell it, Sheik Omar, an Arabian monk who had been exiled to the desert, attempted to survive on berries—what he didn’t realize were coffee cherries—and ate them. He found them too bitter, so he attempted to cook them through boiling. In that process, he realized he’d crafted coffee; he took the cherries back to his native Mocha and redeemed himself. The fruit quickly spread in the region.
The bean itself, of course, is the inside of a cherry fruit. In early days, before these beans were roasted and boiled, the fruit was used in tandem with animal fat as a snack. It was also fermented to make a sort of wine. As a crop, the bean was practically exclusive to areas of Arabia and Africa until the 1600s. An Indian pilgrim and merchant eventually introduced the beans to Europe, initiating the coffee trade.
It was not roasted until the 13th century.
History of Coffee Roasting
Coffee roasting—or releasing oils through heat and caramelizing sugars—has its roots in Arabia.
Early forms of roasting used an open fire or baking ovens; coffee drinkers would roast their own beans. Roasting equipment was not developed until the 1800s—in line with the many inventions of the Industrial Revolution. Roasting cylinders were invented later that century, at the doorstep of the 20th century, at which point Carl Salomon devised what is now a standard method of hot gas ventilation that accurately pinpoints the spins per minute it takes for beans to be thrust into the hot air that funnels into the roaster.
The modern roast method is contemporarily called “drum roasting.” An alternative, industrial roasting method is the “hot air” roaster, meant for large batches.
How the Coffee Industry Originated
In the big picture, the industry began from coffee’s discovery, ever since Somali merchants immediately realized coffee’s value as a commodity. However, it didn’t really take off until it spread in parts of Asia and Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. Italians began to develop social habits around the drink, and a loose concept of a coffee house began to take shape. More than 300 coffee houses existed in London by the mid-1600s, which, too, began to pop up in Paris—home to the oldest-surviving coffee shop.
The industry then moved westward to the United States in the 1770s, as a result of the Boston Tea Party. It’s widely agreed that coffee became much more in-demand after tea was no longer an option. The industry evolved in the 18th century during the Civil War and once pre-roasted coffee became available, sold to everyone from cowboys to coal miners. Instant coffee spread coffee popularity again in the postwar era, meanwhile, and Starbucks changed the game in the 1990s as it gained traction with blends and spurred counter-culture coffee movements that now offer single-origins and innovative cold and espresso drinks.
Today, the coffee industry globally is worth at least $100 billion and accounts for approximately 1.6 percent of U.S. GDP.
Famous Coffee Drinkers in History
Perhaps the most famous coffee drinker was Voltaire, who some say drank dozens of coffee per day.
Pope Clement VIII notoriously helped move along the coffee movement in the 16th century by personally trying it and declaring it not a sinful beverage.
Theodore Roosevelt, an avid coffee consumer, famously coined the phrase “Good to the last drop.”
Jack-of-all-trades Benjamin Franklin cited coffee as an exciting intoxicant that is “never followed by sadness, languor, or debility.”
Johann Sebastian Bach was so in love with coffee he wrote a piece about it: The Coffee Cantata.
While coffee itself can stand alone as a beverage, sometimes, it’s nice to have a little accompaniment with it -- like a crunchy biscotti or pizzelle. That said, we hope you’ve enjoyed this little side of history of your favorite morning beverage, hoping you’ve taken in this historical accompaniment alongside your caffeinated libation. Here’s to the next several hundred years of coffee!