Coffee Through The Ages

Coffee through the Ages – A Brief History

The three social beverages: coffee, tea and chocolate

The three social beverages: coffee, tea and chocolate

Coffee has been the subject of considerable controversy, lore and legend, having both admirers and detractors through the ages.  It has been declared sacred by sultans, outlawed by kings pardoned by popes and parodied by Johann Sebastian Bach in his satiric opera Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht (Be still, stop chattering) also known as the Coffee Cantata, about a woman addicted to coffee.  Lloyd’s of London, the best known insurance company in the world, started out as a coffeehouse (Lloyd’s) frequented by merchants and maritime insurance agents.  The French Revolution was brewed in the coffeehouses of Paris and it is said that the American Revolution steeped in the Green Dragon Tavern in Boston where the Boston Tea Party was reportedly planned.  Coffee became the patriotic American beverage after the Boston Tea Party, though some would tell you this development was a result of New England thrift more than patriotism, since coffee was much less expensive than tea at the time.  The Tontine Coffee House in New York was the location of the establishment of the New York Stock Exchange.  Since their very inception, coffeehouses have served as an informal club for regular customers and as a center of social interaction providing a place to talk and debate, read, write, negotiate, foment, fulminate, entertain and even teach, or just pass the time.

The origin of coffee as a beverage is lost in antiquity, though there are several legends of the origin of the drink. One account involves a Yemenite Sufi mystic who noticed some very happy birds eating coffee berries.  Another cites a goat-herd, Kaldi (hence coffee) who discovered coffee while searching for his goats.  Noticing the effect of the bright red berries he found his goats eating, Kaldi tried them himself.  Delighted by the result, he took the berries to a nearby monastery but they were not appreciated and were thrown in the fire by the monks.  Due to the aroma of the resulting smoke the roasted beans were quickly raked from the embers and doused in water, yielding the world’s first cup of coffee.

ArbreDeCaffeBy the middle of the fifteenth century coffee was well established as a beverage though it was banned from the holy city of Mecca in 1511 because it was believed to stimulate radical thinking and ribaldry.  Meanwhile Islamic monks in the Sufi monasteries of Yemen were enthusiastically drinking “qawha” (hot water and roasted coffee beans) to enhance alertness, increase their energy and prepare them for the demands of the Sufi mysteries and the dances of the Whirling Dervishes.  In 1453 the Turks made it legal for a woman to divorce her husband if he failed to provide her with her daily quota of coffee.  By the 16th century, coffee had reached the rest of the Middle East, Persia and northern Africa. German physician and botanist Leonhard Rauwolf was the first European to describe coffee, or “chaube”, in 1573 during his travels through the Ottoman Empire.  He and other writers noticed coffee’s energizing effects and thought it an herbal remedy against all manner of distemper, from digestive disorders to plague.

When coffee first appeared in Rome, Christian priests deduced that Satan must have invented coffee as a substitute for wine, which Muslims were not allowed to drink, and asked Pope Clement VIII to declare coffee the “bitter invention of Satan.”  Clement apparently needed his fix too, because he refused to ban coffee without first trying it himself.  He evidently enjoyed it greatly as he is said to have remarked, “This devil’s drink is so good we should cheat the devil by baptizing it.”

Venetian merchants who conducted a lively trade with the Ottoman Empire quickly introduced coffee as an exotic luxury to the Venetian upper class, and the first European coffee house in Europe was opened in Venice in 1645.  These were often loud, hectic and sometimes uncouth places where you needed an edge to get good service, so the custom of tipping waiters evolved.  Needless to say coffee caught on (after all it was exotic) especially after Pope Clement VIII approved it for Catholic consumption.

Since coffee was an easily transported luxury product and had received the Papal seal of approval a bubble was created as Europeans raced to control the trade.  A Dutchman named Pieter van der Broecke obtained some of the closely guarded coffee bushes from Mocha, Yemen in 1616, making the Dutch the first to obtain coffee stock and positioning them to control the emerging market, though it would be 40 years before the idea would jell. In the meantime the Dutch were hammered in the Tulip Mania of 1637 and losses of that event were painfully fresh.  The coffee bubble didn’t get off the ground until 1656 with efforts to corner the market, which were unsuccessful and caused another panic, but the Dutch did emerge with control of the coffee trade.

The beans that van der Broecke stole from Mocha took root at the Botanical Gardens in Amsterdam and happily produced copious coffee berries and numerous healthy coffee bushes named Coffea Arabica for forty years.  Then in 1658 the Dutch begin coffee cultivation in Ceylon with stock from these bushes, then to Java. They eventually abandoned the Ceylon cultivation to focus on their Javanese plantations because they didn’t want to oversupply the market and drop the price.  Within a few years the Dutch colonies (Java in Asia, Suriname in the Americas) had become the main suppliers of coffee to Europe.  And the Dutch were in the catbird seat, until seedlings were eventually stolen from them.

The word “coffee” entered the English language in 1598 via Dutch koffie, borrowed from Turkish kahve, in turn borrowed from Arabic qahwa, a truncation of qahhwat al-bun ‘wine of the bean’. A possible origin of the name is the Kingdom of Kaffa in Ethiopia, where the coffee plant originated; its name there is bunn or bunna. The first English coffeehouse opened in Oxford in 1650. The Oxford coffeehouses became “penny universities”, offering a locus of learning that was less formal than structured institutions. These penny universities occupied a significant position in Oxford academic life, as they were frequented by scholars and virtuosi to congregate, debate, and share knowledge.

17th Century London Coffee House

17th Century London Coffee House

Many of London’s early coffeehouses had names such as “The Turk’s Head” and the image of a Turk was used to represent the coffee beverage.
In 1674 the “Women’s Petition Against Coffee” claimed that coffee was turning British men into “useless corpses” and proposed a ban for those under 60.  In 1675 Charles II attempted to ban coffeehouses to suppress them and the activities therein.  He thought them seats of treason where people conspired against him; “places where the disaffected met, and spread scandalous reports concerning the conduct of His Majesty and his Ministers”.  But by 1675 there were over 3,000 coffee houses in England and the public would not be intimidated; instead they flocked to the houses of sedition.  It was rough period for the monarchy.

It is widely held that the first Viennese café opened after the Turks were defeated at the Battle of Vienna.  Vienna had been besieged for nearly two months by Grand Vizier Mustafa’s army. The Viennese were anxious to communicate with the Polish king Jan III Sobieskiy and the Polish-Habsburg Army, rumored to be approaching from behind the Turkish lines.  A Pole in service to Viennese who spoke Turkish and Arabic volunteered for the hazardous duty.  Jerzy Franciszek Kulczycki dressed as a Turk and crossed the lines, returning with news that the Poles would shortly be in position to lift the Turkish siege. The Turks were routed September 12th 1683 and in their haste left everything behind, including camels and bags of beans that were thought by the victors to be camel feed, which they prepared to burn.  Kulczycki, having traveled in Arabia, recognized the beans as coffee, bought them for a pittance and opened the first coffeehouse in Vienna called “Zur blauen Flasche” (“The Blue Bottle”) with the hoard shortly after the end of the Turkish Siege.

This romantically compelling legend is entirely untrue.

Scene of the first coffee house in Vienna, established by Johannes Deodat in 1685 in his home.

Scene of the first coffee house in Vienna, established by Johannes Deodat in 1685 in his home.

It is historically documented that the first Viennese coffee house was founded on 17th January 1685, when Johannes Deodat, an Armenian who was granted the right to publically serve coffee.  He opened a shop in the house in which he lived, at Haarmarkt, decidedly not “The Blue Bottle”.

In 1723 France’s King Louis XV sent three coffee plants to his colony, Martinique.  The one surviving plant ended up in Jamaica in 1728 and was the foundation stock for the famous Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee.

King Frederick II of Prussia became concerned about the effect of coffee on his fighting men’s effectiveness, and also by-the-way a drain on the national economy as coffee had to be imported. Beer on the other hand was a home-grown product and a good source of tax revenue.  So in 1785 he established a special intelligence unit, known as the Kaffee Schnufflers (coffee sniffers), to track down and suppress coffee houses.  But since Frederick loved coffee himself he lost heart and the attempt failed.