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Magic Beans-  The History of Coffee

13620170_300103160331773_3065572534168637032_nJava.  Cup of Joe.  My reason for living.  These are all euphemisms for that most delicious of things-  a cup of coffee.  But how did coffee become the popular pick me up it is today?

There is a legend that coffee was first discovered by an Ethiopian goat herder named Kaldi around 850.  While out with his flock, he noticed that his goats were eating red cherry-like berries off a plant and afterward they were always frolicking and full of energy.  Kaldi tried the fruit and had a similar reaction.  A local monk observed Kaldi and his goats, and took some of the fruit back to his monastery and shared it with his fellow monks.  After eating the berries, they also spent the night awake and alert.  Whether this legend is true or not, we do know that the Galla tribe of Ethiopia mixed the coffee berry with ghee, a clarified butter, making a candy.  They gave these coffee infused bars to their warriors before battle because they were believed to make them invisible.  In present times, similar bars are still eaten in Kaffa and Sidamo, Ethiopia.

In the 11th century, coffee spread to Yemen from Ethiopia.  At this time, the drink was made from the whole fruit, including the beans and the hull.  The physician and philosopher Avicenna Bukhara writes of the medicinal properties of this drink.  The word in Yemen was “qahwah”, which was a romantic term for wine or sometimes “qahwa”, that which prevents sleep.  It was not until the 13th century that coffee people began to roast the coffee beans, and make a drink we would recognize as coffee.  From there, the drink reached Istanbul, where it was called “kahveh” in Turkish.  The Ottoman Governor of Yemen, Ozdemir Pasha brought it back to the court of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent.  In Istanbul, the coffee became more refined.  The beans were roasted over a fire, finely ground then slowly cooked with water.  Then spices like clove, cardamom, cinnamon and anise were added.  

Coffee  became very popular in Muslim society for its stimulant powers, making it perfect for staying awake during long prayer sessions.  It also became an important part of palace cuisine.  There was a Chief Coffee Maker, who prepared coffee for the Sultan and was renowned for his ability to keep secrets and give counsel.  Many Chief Coffee Makers rose to the position of Grand Vizier.  What became fashionable at court, soon spread to the homes of the nobility down to the common people of Istanbul.  Coffeehouses opened, first in the district of Tahtakale then all over Istanbul, and became an integral portion of city life.  They became social hotspots as people stopped in to read, play games and discuss literature and poetry.  Coffee is so important that it is legal for a wife to divorce her husband if he does not provide her with her daily quota.  However, there was a coffee backlash.  In 1511, the Governor of Mecca outlaws the beverage and coffeehouses as far away as Istanbul are shut down.  People riot and unrest spreads across the Ottoman empire until the Sultan of Cairo declare it sacred and the Governor of Mecca beheaded.  Do not come between a man and his morning coffee!

Coffee makes its way west and appears in Venice in 1570.  It is sold in lemonade stands to the very wealthy for medicinal purposes.  Then coffeehouses like in Istanbul began popping up all over Italy.  It was there Monsieur de la Roque, the French ambassador, first had a taste.  Declaring it a “magical beverage”, he imported it to Marseilles and then on to Paris.  In Paris, the ambassador from Sultan Mehmet IV, Hossohbet Nuktedan Suleyman Aga further popularizes it.  Guests flocked to his home for witty conversation over steaming cups of coffee.  Paris’s first real coffee house, Cafe de Procope, opened in 1686.  The literati of the age, such as Rousseau, Diderot and Voltaire, could all be found sipping a cup there.  Coffeehouses began opening on every street in Paris.  Vienna and London followed suit and coffeehouses were soon a familiar site in both cities.  In London, they were called “penny universities”, where patrons could get an impromptu lesson in art, law, literature, philosophy and politics for the entrance fee of a penny.  These coffee houses were considered a hotbed of controversial thought and revolution.  Tea did not become popular until the late 18th century.  Before that, coffee was what the Brits drank.

Far from being enraptured with its deliciousness, the Dutch smelled profit in the coffee bean.  Prior to 1600, all coffee beans coming from the East were parched and boiled, rendering them infertile.  Therefore, no new coffee crops could be planted anywhere else.  In 1600, Baba Budan, an Indian pilgrim, left Mecca with fertile beans fastened to a strap across his abdomen.  From these smuggled beans, the European coffee trade was born.  The Dutch began planting coffee in their colonies of Sri Lanka, Ceylon and Java.  Throughout the 17th century, the new sources of coffee beans fueled the creation of coffeehouses in almost all major European cities.

During the American Revolution, it became patriotic to switch from English supplied tea, making it much more popular.  The Civil War and other conflicts also boosted coffee consumption as the soldiers used it much like the Ethiopian warriors in the 11th century.  The caffeine kept them awake and made them feel good.  Americans quickly became enthralled to the delicious beverage.  Theodore Roosevelt was said to have drunk a gallon of coffee a day, and have coined the Maxwell House slogan “Good to the last drop”.  

So the next time you pick up your Starbucks, thank a goat herder named Kaldi


Sources available on request