The Story of Coffee

Coffee cup and coffee beans from Unsplash
Share this:

“Coffee, because adulting is hard”

There was once a goat-herder called Kaldi, who lived in the Ethiopian plateau in the ninth century. Kaldi started noticing the high energy of his goats after they had eaten some berries. They got so invigorated that they would not sleep at night. Kaldi related this to the abbot of his local monastery. That gentleman had the fantastic idea of boiling the berries and making a drink, imbibing which kept him alert throughout the long hours of evening prayer. The benefits of these amazing berries spread to other monasteries and from there to Arabia. So the legend goes.

Reddish coffee berries on tree

Coffee berries

In another story, a Moroccan Sufi mystic observed birds eating berries from a tree and noticed their unusual vitality. He tried them and found that they made him equally alert.

Or perhaps it was the above-mentioned mystic’s disciple Omar, whose home was in Mocha (modern day Yemen) from where he was in exile, living in the desert. Mocha is also where we get the name for the drink! He tried some berries to alleviate his hunger and found them bitter, so he boiled them and drank the beverage, which invigorated him and allowed him to stay awake through the night. When new spread of this miracle drink Omar was allowed to return to Mocha and was thenceforth considered a saint.

bedouin drinking coffee, aleppo syria

Bedouin drinking coffee, Aleppo, Syria

Whether any of these stories is true, what is beyond a doubt is that from Ethiopia and then Yemen the miracle drink – coffee – spread first throughout Arabia and then the globe. Perhaps more than any other beverage, coffee has been right at the centre of world history ever since the consumption of that first cup.

Muslim pilgrims from across the globe on their way to Mecca boosted its reputation and it became known as the ‘wine of Araby’. Yemeni merchants brought home the coffee plants from Ethiopia and coffee cultivation properly began on the Arabian Peninsula with the early plantations in Yemen by the 15th century. Yemeni Sufis used it to sharpen their concentration for their night-time devotions. Muslims consumed it during Ramadan to stay awake and pray during the night. By the 16th century, it had found aficionados in Persia, Egypt, Syria and Turkey, not only consumed in homes but also in public coffee houses known as qahveh khaneh.

Coffee house scene, Cairo, Egypt 18th century

Coffee house scene, Cairo, Egypt 18th century

The story continues with Baba Budan. Before him, countries purchased coffee from Yemen, which guarded the beans and seedlings. Baba Budan was a Sufi saint from India, travelling to Mecca in 1670. He smuggled some beans into India on his way back and thus began South Indian coffee cultivation, which continues to this day.

Side note: Qahvah was the original term for wine in Yemen and coffee also began to be called that. It later became kahveh in Turkish, Koffie in Dutch and finally coffee in English. Initially, the berry was boiled or fermented to make the drink. It was not until the 13th century that beans started to be roasted

Its popularity was unequal to any other drink and coffee houses frequented by everyone of note become bustling social and intellectual hubs. The Muslim world did not always accept the beverage however. It was banned (considered haram or sinful) in Mecca in the early 16th century because the Governor associated it with revolution and sedition. The Ottoman Sultan finally lifted the ban 13 years later. In 1532, there was a similar ban in Egypt.

The stories of the dark bean travelled to Europe. After the Siege of Malta in 1565, captured Turkish slaves presumably used to make coffee as their traditional beverage, popularising it in Malta. Coffee houses started to open in the country.

Design for a Painted Porcelain Plate Cafe Coffee from the Service des Objets de Dessert (Dessert Service). Smithsonian

Design for a Painted Porcelain Plate Cafe Coffee from the Service des Objets de Dessert (Dessert Service). Smithsonian

In 1570, coffee arrived in Venice due to trade with North Africa, initially regarded with suspicion and fear, some calling it the “bitter invention of Satan”.  Even the clergy condemned its use, until Pope Clement VIII tasted it in 1615 and gave his approval because he found it so satisfying. Despite the mistrust, coffee houses started popping up not only as places to find the beverage but also as social and communication centres, just as they had been in the Muslim world.

Another legend relates how coffee was introduced into Vienna, Austria, as spoils of war after the defeat of the Ottoman Turks at the Battle of Vienna in 1683. A Polish officer received coffee beans left behind by the Turks, opened a coffee house and popularized the drink – as well as the custom of adding milk and sugar.

Cafe Pruckel with its 1950s interior

Cafe Pruckel with its 1950s interior

Einspaenner coffee: A Viennese specialty

Einspaenner coffee: A Viennese specialty







From here, coffee found its way into England, France, Germany and Holland. And the social revolution followed it. In England, coffee houses came to be known as ‘penny universities’ because for a penny you could get a refreshing beverage and engage in intellectual conversation. Up to this time, the popular breakfast beverages were beer and wine. Coffee soon replaced them because the consumers found themselves alert and energized in the morning. The intellectuals, artists and academics of the time found coffee houses a source of current thinking and news and by 1675, there were more than 3,000 coffee houses throughout the country.

17th century coffeehouse, England. Bodleian Library, Oxford University

17th century coffeehouse, England. Bodleian Library, Oxford University

Newspaper cartoon: Discussing the War in Paris in 1870

Discussing the War in Paris in 1870

Women's Petition against coffee 1674

Women’s Petition Against Coffee 1674

But women were excluded and in 1674 there was a Women’s Petition Against Coffee.

The Dutch obtained live coffee trees in 1616 from Mocha, Yemen and planted them in the Botanical gardens, where they thrived. These bushes produced what came to be known as Coffea Arabica. Coffea Robusta is from central and western sub-Saharan Africa. The Dutch started cultivating coffee in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in 1658 and then moved the plantations to Java, Indonesia, monopolising the productive and growing global trade of coffee.

They brought the drink to New Amsterdam (later New York) but tea remained the drink of choice in the New World until the Boston Tea Party in 1773.

Man planting coffee

Man planting coffee

A young naval officer took a seedling from King Louis XIV’s plant in the Paris Botanical gardens (given to the King by the Mayor of Amsterdam) and brought it to Martinique in 1723, where he planted them and they thrived. That seedling is credited with the spread of over 18 million coffee trees on the island of Martinique in the next 50 years. That’s not it. That same seedling was the parent of all coffee trees in the Caribbean, Central and South America. Brazilian coffee started growing in 1727 and took off after its independence in 1825.

Humans are mobile and as they travelled, whether as tourists, conquerors or colonists, they carried coffee seeds all over the world. Coffee was planted all over the world and economies were established on coffees trade. By the 18th century, it became the most profitable export crop.

Today, coffee is the most traded good after oil. Brazil is the greatest producer of coffee in the world, producing almost one-third of global coffee. Many coffee-making apparatuses were invented along the way. Mass production and sale of coffee began in 1871, started by John Arbukle and Maxwell house popularised instant coffee in 1886. In the 1900’s the Brazilian government asked Nestle to figure out how to utilize the country’s coffee waste. And presto! We got freeze-dried coffee called Nescafe, the world’s leading brand today.

Woman pouring coffee in black and white Arbuckle coffee advertisement

Woman pouring coffee in black and white Arbuckle coffee advertisement

Man drinking coffee in a Maxwell House Advertisement 1921

Maxwell House Advertisement 1921

The 1960s saw another coffee revolution and in the 1970s Starbucks opened, initially only selling coffee beans. Coffee plantations have an impact on the environment because it requires the clearing of large swathes of land and extensive water use. Now, fair-trade and organic coffee are becoming popular as a result.

Being a part of social, cultural and intellectual change, there is no doubt coffee took over the world. There is nothing quite like it and that’s one addiction worth the trouble.

The selected Optin Cat form doesn't exist.



I am a Chartered Environmentalist from the Royal Society for the Environment, UK and co-owner of DoLocal Digital Marketing Agency Ltd, with a Master of Environmental Management from Yale University, an MBA in Finance, and a Bachelor of Science in Physics and Mathematics. I am passionate about science, history and environment and love to create content on these topics.