Know Your Joe: Getting Schooled on the History of Coffee

History Of Coffee

Coffee House, circa 1877

How long have people been appreciating the energizing beauty of coffee? Experts say we’ve been waking ourselves up with the stuff for the last 13 centuries. It all started in Ethiopia, 800 AD, and from there, spread around the world to become one of the most commonly drunk elixirs in the world.

We rounded up the real story of how this humble little berry came to conquer our thirst, with info on the history of coffee from the National Coffee Association and National Geographic.

It Begins: 800 AD Snacktime

According to Ethiopian legend, a goatherder named Kaldi noticed his goats getting unusually active after eating from a certain patch of red berry bushes. He decided to check the food out for himself, and experienced a similar burst of energy. A nearby monk saw what was going on and brought some home to share his brothers, who also discovered the berry’s naturally invigorating effects.

Meanwhile, historians have also found that other Africans around that time were eating concoctions of coffee berries and animal fat when they needed more fuel.

Cultivate This: 1000-1600

News traveled fast from there. Travelers hyped up the magic bean all the way across the Red Sea to south Arabia, where people began purposefully cultivating it. By 1000, someone had come up with the truly brilliant idea to roast the beans, and brew them into a steamy beverage.

Known as “bean broth,” coffee became an important part of the Islamic religious culture, and was drunk for both religious and secular purposes. As Islam spread throughout North Africa, the eastern Mediterranean, and India, so did coffee.

For centuries, people around this far-flung area enjoyed drinking coffee—without being able to cultivate it themselves. That’s because Arabia’s coffee growers figured out how to render the beans they exported infertile by pre-boiling them. According to the stories, that all changed in the 1600s when an Indian pilgrim named Baba Budan strapped fertile seeds to his stomach and smuggled them out of Mecca—and far, far beyond.

Can’t Stop Progress: 1615 to 1727

Once the coffee plant hit the borders, there was no stopping its momentum through India, out past Italy, completely through Europe, and well beyond. Historical records show a Venetian merchant’s account of bringing coffee into Italy in 1615. Soon after, in 1616, the Dutch created the first coffee plant in Europe. And in 1696, they opened up a coffee estate in the then-Dutch colony of Java, from which they sent bigwigs across Europe coffee trees as gifts.

One such recipient, Louis XIV, got his in 1714, and had it planted in Paris. Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu, a young naval officer, stole a sprout of that tree before sailing back to his station in Martinique. Within 50 years, the tiny sprout he planted ended up yielding as many as 18 million trees on the island, thus paving the way for expansion into Latin America.

Brazil Takes the Lead: 1727 to Well, Today

In 1727, Brazil enlisted Lt. Col. Francisco de Melo Palheta to procure coffee seeds from French Guiana. He was successful in his sly plan, which involved a little romantic intrigue with the governor’s wife. From the seedlings he brought back, Brazil soon took its place as the biggest coffee producer in the world.

Since then, their mass productions—and the other 70 or so countries around the world that also produce coffee—have turned coffee from a rarity available only for the elite into the average cuppa joe we’ve come to know and love.

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