Coffee is everywhere. It’s in cans at the store, in cocktails at the bar, in health products, cake, sauces, and spice rubs. It has conquered the world and it isn’t even close to being done yet.
How did we go from the seeds of a fruit tree in the Ethiopian Highlands to espresso martinis in rooftop bars across the world? It took time, and a few steps in between. But coffee has been capturing hearts and waking up minds for over 1000 years.
Here, we’ll take you on a whistle-stop tour through the evolution of our favorite cherry seeds. This is your roadmap from Africa to pumpkin spice lattes.
This article may contain affiliate/ compensated links. As an Amazon Associate, we earn from qualifying purchases at no additional cost to you. For more information please see our disclaimer here.
OK, before we dive into the good stuff we need to be clear about what coffee actually is as the name is used synonymously to mean different things. So, is it:
- A plant
- A fruit
- A bean
- A drink
- All of the above
If you said all of the above, then here is your gold (black) star:
Coffee really does grow on trees. And coffee plants (flowering trees) can be traced back to the East African country of Ethiopia, where they are native and grow wild.
The plants grow to around 10m tall, have white flowers, and produce cherry-like fruit – the coffee cherry.
The seeds found inside this fruit are the coffee beans that we roast and use to make the drink, coffee, today.
Clear as mud, right?
Either way, coffee’s origin can be traced all the way back to Ethiopia. So, when you drink a cup of Ethiopian coffee, you’re drinking a cup of history.
It wasn’t until the 18th and 19th centuries that different species of coffee plants were identified. By this point, it was already being grown all over the world.
Want to take a deeper dive into how coffee goes from a small tree to a bag on the shelf of your favorite roaster? Follow this guide below:
There are stories from both Ethiopia and Yemen about the first use of coffee cherries to make a delicious drink. Sadly, none of them have any credible evidence to back them up – they were too busy getting caffeinated to preserve accurate records. But the stories are fun, so they’re worth exploring:
History of Coffee in Ethiopia
The most legendary (and probable) story says that coffee was discovered in Ethiopia in 800 AD by a goat herder named Kaldi.
Whilst watching his goats, he noticed that they started acting very strangely when eating from the fruit of a certain tree. They became energized and started “dancing”.
Not wanting to be left out, Kaldi decided to eat the fruit too. And he also became very energetic. (Though it’s unclear if he broke into a dance number.)
Excited by his discovery of a seemingly energy-producing fruit, he took the berries to a monk. But the monk disliked the fruit’s bitter taste and threw the rest into the fire.
This is where the magic happened:
The incredible aroma of the coffee cherries roasting on the fire drew the attention of the other monks. Intrigued, they recovered the beans from the embers, ground them up, and added hot water. And the first cup of coffee was made.
It’s a nice story on the history of coffee. However, the first recording of this story was 800 years after the event supposedly took place. So, it’s most likely just a nice, apocryphal tale.
Alternative Ethiopian Story
Another Ethiopian tale involves the Moroccan Sufi mystic, Ghothul Akbar Nooruddin:
Upon seeing the unusual vitality of the birds in Ethiopia that ate the berries of the coffee tree, he decided to try them himself. He too found that they gave him vitality.
History of Coffee in Yemen
When something is as great as coffee, we understand why others would want to stake their claim. Yemen also has a story about how coffee beans originated on their soil.
However, the first credible evidence of coffee drinking in Yemen (or even knowledge of the coffee tree) wasn’t until the 15th century. At this time, Sufi Imam Muhammad Ibn Said Al Dhabhani imported goods from Ethiopia to Yemen… so it’s much more likely that they got the idea from there.
Coffee was first exported to Yemen by Somali merchants. It came through the ports of Berbera and Zeila, located in what is now known as Somaliland.
The coffee itself was procured in Harar, in the interior of what is now Ethiopia.
Before the British capture of the Yemenese city of Mocha in the 19th century, two-thirds of the coffee in Mocha was imported from Berbera.
Sufis in Yemen used coffee to reach an intoxicated and spiritual state whilst chanting the name of God. And, in lesser doses, to aid concentration.
From Yemen, coffee started to spread through the Middle East. First to Mecca and Medina, then more widely to major cities along the trade routes: Cairo, Baghdad, Damascus, and Constantinople.
It wasn’t just enjoyed at home. Instead, coffee houses began to spring up in centers for Sufism, such as near the University of Azhar in Cairo. They became known as “Schools of the Wise” as visitors drank coffee whilst discussing current news and exchanging ideas.
From there, they spread to Aleppo and eventually to the capital of the Ottoman Empire – Constantinople in 1554.
During this time, coffee houses quickly became the meeting place for people from all walks of life.
By the end of the 16th century, there were over 600 coffee houses in Constantinople serving the now-famous Turkish coffee.
Europe’s first introduction to coffee was on the island of Malta:
Ottoman Turkish slaves were taken by the Knights of St. John during the siege of Malta in 1565. The slaves used coffee beans to make their traditional beverage and many of the knights commented on the quality of the drink. From there, it soon became a favorite drink of Maltese high society with coffee shops following shortly after.
The Merchant city of Venice traded heavily with African and Arab merchants importing silks and spices. But the merchants introduced a new product: coffee. Venice’s elite loved it and happily paid the outrageously high prices charged by the merchants.
This is how coffee came to mainland Europe.
Italy is one of the first countries people associate with coffee. And with good reason:
The first coffee house in Europe, outside of Turkey and Malta, was opened in Venice in 1645.
Coffee was first brought to Venice by merchants in the latter half of the 16th century. In the beginning, uptake was slow as the price of coffee was well beyond what most people could afford.
It also received bad PR as the Catholic church initially opposed the drinking of coffee. Some representatives even deemed it “the Devil’s drink”.
However, in a surprising twist, it was Pope Clement VIII who precipitated the spread of coffee throughout what is now known as Italy. After trying the aromatic drink, he gave his blessing, giving a much-needed boost to the burgeoning coffee industry.
Coffee became available in the UK during the 16th century, mostly imported by the Levant Company.
In 1652, the first UK coffee house was opened in Oxford. Following the tradition of coffee houses being a meeting place for ‘great minds’, the number of scholars in Oxford meant it was seen as an important cornerstone for the spread of coffee culture.
Later that year, the first in London was opened by an eccentric Greek called Pasqua Rosée. Pasqua was the servant of Daniel Edwards – a trader of Turkish goods. Edwards imported the coffee and assisted in setting up the coffee house.
Coffee was also brought to the UK by the British East India Company and the Dutch East India Company.
The popularity of coffee houses soon took off and became meeting places for men (women were excluded) during the Enlightenment to discuss politics and philosophy. As a result, King Charles II attempted to close the coffee houses in 1675 as he feared they were spreading sedition.
Is there anything more romantic than dreaming of a trip to France, sitting in a roadside Paris cafe, cup of coffee in hand, and watching the world go by?
Looking into the timeline of coffee in France, the first coffeehouses were located in Marseilles. Here, traders, who had developed a taste for the beverage in the Ottoman empire, started importing coffee beans.
In 1671, the first coffee house opened, initially catering to traders and travelers who had developed a taste for the drink. But, very quickly, the popularity spread to people from all walks of life.
It wasn’t until 1686 that the first coffee house opened in Paris:
An Ottoman ambassador introduced King Louis XIV to the drink in 1669. From there, it soon became the darling of Parisian high society where it remained solely a drink for the elite for quite some time.
The first café in Paris, Café de Procope, soon became the meeting place for intellectuals including greats such as Voltaire and Rousseau.
According to legend, the first coffee house in Austria opened in Vienna in 1683.
After the Turks were defeated at the Battle of Vienna, coffee beans were taken as part of “the spoils of war”. Legend has it that an enterprising Polish officer named Jerzy Franciszek Kulczyck was gifted these beans by the King and went on to open the first coffee house in the city.
Kulczyck also popularized the addition of milk and sugar to coffee. “Melange” is the typical Viennese coffee that descends from this – it is served with hot, foamed milk and a glass of water.
However, more recent research suggests that Kulczyck wasn’t actually the first. Instead, Armenian spy, Johannes Diodato opened the first Viennese coffee house in 1685.
Regardless of who was first, their popularity quickly spread throughout the city.
A special kind of coffee house culture sprang up in the coffee houses of Vienna. Here, a multicultural collection of scientists, intellectuals, artists, and financiers met and discussed their ideas in depth. For the price of just one coffee, they could stay as long as they wanted to – some even had their post delivered to the coffee houses!
Figures such as Sigmund Freud and Leon Trotsky were inspired by the discourse in Viennese coffee houses. Even today, many coffee shops have plaques for their famous patrons from history.
A Frenchman named Gabriel de Clieu is credited with bringing the first coffee seedlings to the New World. Specifically, to Martinique in the Caribbean in 1720:
The story goes that he was denied permission by the King of France to take cuttings from the coffee plant in the Royal Garden. Undeterred, he climbed the wall and stole some cuttings.
Whilst on the perilous crossing to Martinique, he shared his meager water ration with the seedlings. Though, as the story came from his own account, it’s almost certainly embellished.
The seedlings flourished and, 50 years later, there were almost 19,000 coffee plants on Martinique.
This started a very dark chapter in coffee’s history as the European colonial powers set up coffee plantations using slave labor to farm the crop. The conditions on the French coffee plantations in the Caribbean and South America were horrific for the African slaves and they died in their thousands.
Central & South America
Spanish and Portuguese colonialists started plantations throughout Central and South America where new sub-varietals of Arabica were developed and spread. One such varietal is Bourbon which developed on a small island in the Indian Ocean (now named Reunion). It has since become the main plant variety in Brazil and Mexico.
Brazil now produces more coffee than any other country. But it didn’t take off as a crop until after independence in 1822. Huge areas of Atlantic forest were cleared to plant coffee trees near Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo.
As slavery was not abolished in Brazil until 1888, the plantation owners used slaves to undercut the prices from other areas where anti-slavery laws had been passed.
In 1893, Brazilian coffee plants were introduced to Kenya and Tanzania. This is just after the infamous “scramble for Africa” by European nations.
By this time in coffee’s history, it had completed a worldwide tour. Introduction in the African nations returned the coffee plant close to where it originated in Ethiopia
Coffee Becomes a “Patriotic” Drink in the USA
After The Boston Tea Party in 1773, many Americans took to drinking coffee instead of tea as it was seen as “unpatriotic” to drink the beverage favored by the British.
Coffeehouses sprung up across the Colonies and became important meeting places for Revolutionaries away from the prying ears of the British.
By the end of the 19th century, coffee was found almost everywhere around the world. But the drink itself had barely evolved from the original recipes and brewing methods of the 15th and 16th centuries.
In the early 20th century, that all started to change.
Brewing coffee was a slow process – it took around 5 minutes per cup.
So at the end of the 19th century, inventors across Europe tried to find ways to make the process faster. The reason? Serving more people in a shorter amount of time = more money. (Capitalism or efficiency – you decide.)
As this was the age of steam power, they started experimenting with steam engines.
There are many patents and contraptions from these early days. But the idea usually associated with the birth of the espresso machine was from Angelo Moriondo of Turin, Italy.
Moriondo’s machine essentially bulk-brewed coffee using steam to increase the pressure to 1.5 BAR. Whilst Moriondo might have been a skilled inventor, he wasn’t so skilled at marketing. So, his name is mostly lost to history.
Luigi Bezzera and Desiderio Pavoni both improved on Moriondo’s initial design in the early 20th century. Their machines were steam-powered but used for single servings of coffee. These machines could crank out 1,000 coffees in an hour but the use of steam resulted in a burnt and bitter tasting coffee.
It wasn’t until after WWII that the 2 BAR pressure barrier was broken and espresso, as we think of it today, was created.
Achille Gaggia – you’ve probably heard this guy’s name – created an espresso machine where pressurized water is pushed into a chamber that can be further compressed by a barista-operated lever. This increased the pressure from 2 BAR to 8-10 BAR – the pressure needed to extract what we think of as espresso today. Gaggia espresso machines are still some of the best out there today.
Coffee and Coffee Houses
With the creation of espresso – a short and very strong form of coffee – the variation in coffee drinks exploded. This is when we start to see favorites such as cappuccino, latte, and macchiato appearing.
Coffee houses were hugely popular throughout the world but they didn’t truly dominate our lives and modern society until one particular major player got going…
In the 1960s, coffee went through a transformation: the concept of “specialty coffee” was born.
In 1966, an American-Dutch gentleman named Alfred Peet set up a coffee company in Berkley, California (yup, that’s Peet’s Coffee). His father was a coffee roaster back in Holland so he utilized the techniques perfected by his father. Once opened, his business was good.
A few years later, in 1971, Peet had two friends work with him over the busy Christmas period. He taught them his much-loved roasting and brewing techniques.
But, his friends wanted to open their own coffee houses. And they used Peet’s ideas, beans, and store layout when they opened their first coffee shop in Seattle. Any guesses what it was called?
Yes, this was the birth of Starbucks.
Initially, they only sold coffee beans but soon purchased a roaster, allowing them to serve their own roasted beans.
Howard Schultz Enters Stage Right
Everything changed with the arrival of Howard Shultz as Director of Marketing in 1982. Shultz was a salesman and is to Starbucks what Ray Kroc is to McDonald’s.
Shultz was obsessed with recreating the cafe culture of Italy – a meeting place for society, not just somewhere to grab a cup of joe. The initial owners of Starbucks weren’t interested, they only wanted to sell beans so they purchased their old mentor’s business, Peet’s, in 1984.
Shultz set up his own coffee shops, modeled on the Italian cafes he’d visited in Milan. His focus was on serving quality coffee drinks – and it was a huge success.
In 1987, Shultz purchased Starbucks for $3.8m and combined his Italian cafe concept with the high-quality roasting techniques first pioneered in the US by Peet. Starbucks then spread like wildfire across America, opening thousands of stores with a plan of having a Starbucks in every country in the world.
At the time of writing (December 2023), there are just shy of 36,000 Starbucks stores in more than 80 countries around the globe. And they’re aiming for 45,000 by the end of 2025. So Schultz’s dream may soon be a reality.
You may hate Starbucks but without them, we might not have the coffee culture we have today – a focus on quality, freshly roasted beans rather than convenience. So I guess we all (except maybe Peet) have to be grateful to them for that.
Coffee is now the 2nd largest global commodity, behind oil:
An estimated 400 billion cups of coffee are consumed worldwide each year – quite the journey from a tree in East Africa that made goats dance.
The legacy of coffee is complex. It has been the driver of misery and subjugation for millions in the slave plantations of the Americas.
Even today, those who farm our coffee beans are pushed to the brink by our ever-growing desire for coffee but reluctance to pay the costs associated with this. Plus, there’s the environmental impact of mass deforestation in areas such as the Amazon to make room for more coffee farms.
Coffee was the drink of choice for visionaries like Rousseau, Adam Smith, Marx, and Freud.
Coffee kept soldiers alert during the world wars.
And now, coffee is relied upon by billions to kick-start their day.
Ultimately, the history of coffee is like the history of basically anything else: a cautionary tale that we must learn from so that we might do better.
Climate change and modern slavery are huge challenges facing the modern coffee industry. But with increased focus and awareness on ethically grown coffee and total transparency in the supply chain, we can improve the lives of everyone involved in creating the cups of black gold we consume every day. Even if that means we have to be prepared to pay a little bit more.
- NCAUSA, What is Coffee?, Available at: https://www.ncausa.org/About-Coffee/What-is-Coffee (Accessed December 2023)
- George L. van Driem (2019), The Tale of Tea: A Comprehensive History of Tea from Prehistoric Times to the Present Day, BRILL
- William H. Ukers (2012), All about Coffee: A History of Coffee from the Classic Tribute to the World’s Most Beloved Beverage, Adams Media
- Ben Johnson (2015), ‘English Coffeehouses, Penny Universities‘, Available at: https://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/English-Coffeehouses-Penny-Universities/ (Accessed December 2023)
- Markman Ellis (2011), The Coffee House: A Cultural History, Orion
- Perfect Daily Grind (July 2023), Why is Vienna’s coffee house culture so influential?, Available at: https://perfectdailygrind.com/2023/07/vienna-coffee-house-culture/ (Accessed December 2023)
- Francis W. Gravit (1975), The ‘Année Littéraire’: Fréron’s Display of Miscellanies, Bric-a-Brac and Literature, Diderot Studies, vol. 18, pp. 81–101, JSTOR
- Jefferson to Edmund Rogers (1824), Thomas Jefferson Correspondence, 14th February 1824, Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library, College of William and Mart. Transcription available at: https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/98-01-02-4054 (Accessed December 2023)
- Statista Research Department (September 2023), Number of Starbucks stores worldwide from 2003 to 2022, Available at: https://www.statista.com/statistics/266465/number-of-starbucks-stores-worldwide/ (Accessed November 2023)
- Starbucks (September 2022), Starbucks Enters New Era of Growth Driven by an Unparalleled Reinvention Plan, Available at: https://stories.starbucks.com/press/2022/starbucks-enters-new-era-of-growth-driven-by-an-unparalleled-reinvention-plan/ (Accessed November 2023)
You Might Also Like
As a barista, I was frequently asked ‘what is crema on espresso?’ Here, I explain what it is, why it forms & whether it’s a marker of quality
Discover the best Vietnamese coffee brands currently available in the US for a caffeinated sip that transports you to the streets of Hanoi