We all see coffee sold in stores, cafes and on the go; dark roasts, light roasts, espresso, whole beans, and ground – but where did it all come from?
Like its flavor and aroma, the history of coffee is rich and potent. In present day Ethiopia the coffee shrub, Coffee Arabica, grew wild. The fable of its discovery is a farmer observed animals eating the red fruit off a tree. Perhaps the animals may have been attracted to the tree because of the white sweet smelling flowers that bloom when the coffee berries are ripening. Regardless, the farmer noticed the frolicking goats and vivacious behaviors among birds. Eventually, farmers began harvesting it for human consumption.
The beginning of coffee as a commodity developed slowly. It is known in the thirteenth century, that a technique was developed for roasting coffee beans; and by the fifteenth century the first coffeehouses opened in Mecca, located in present day Saudi Arabia. At that time, production of coffee was restricted to the Arabian empire, because Arabs would not allow unsterilized beans or plants to leave their ports. For two hundred years they maintained this monopoly, which resulted in coffee only being grown in Arabia and Africa.
Coffee’s initial spread was the work of an Indian pilgrim, Baba Budan, who brought the beans to Europe in the seventeenth century. However, coffee’s success in Europe is attributed to Venetian traders who acquired beans in 1615. The following year, Dutch growers in Ceylon, Sri Lanka established the first European coffee holdings; followed by Malabar in India, and Java in present day Indonesia. By the end of the century Dutch colonies were the main suppliers of coffee in Europe.
In the new world, coffee was introduced by Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu, an officer in the French Navy. As recorded in his own journal, he acquired a coffee tree in Paris in 1720. It was placed in a glass case on deck to keep the tree warm and protect it from salt water. During a violent storm the plant had to be tied down, and when drinking water was rationed, de Clieu guaranteed that the tree drank first. The ship arrived in Martinique and the tree was planted. It grew and multiplied. By 1726, de Clieu’s tree produced the first harvest. In 1777, just 50 years after that initial harvest, there were between 18 and 19 million coffee trees on Martinique. Coffee’s existence in Central and South America rapidly expanded in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The 20th century revealed an ever increasing demand for coffee in the U.S. By 1946, the U.S reached an annual per capita consumption of 19.8 pounds. Coffee had become a hallmark within American culture.
In the twenty-first century, more than fifty countries produce over one-hundred varietals of coffee beans. Its significance in the world economy provides jobs for millions of people. For producing countries, coffee ranks second to oil as a source of earnings in foreign exchange. Today there are great opportunities for grass roots level ‘micro-roasters’ who source their beans responsibly and seek to provide their customers with an extraordinary cup of coffee.