Thursday, March 6, 2008

Red Berry, Bitter Brew: A Brief History of Coffee

According to a legend, an Arabian shepherd named Kaldi found his goats dancing joyously around a dark green leafed shrub with bright red cherries in the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. Eventually Kaldi realized that it was the bright red cherries on the shrub that were causing the peculiar euphoria. After trying the cherries himself, he learned of their powerful effect.

Another myth surrounding the discovery of the coffee bean tells of a Muslim dervish who was condemned by his enemies to wander in the desert and eventually die of starvation. While delirious the young man heard a voice instructing him to eat the fruit from a nearby coffee tree. Confused, the dervish tried to soften the beans in water, and when this failed, he simply drank the liquid. Interpreting his survival and renewed energy as a sign of God, he returned to his people spreading the faith and the recipe.

The so-called stimulating properties of coffee were thought by many during these ancient times to give a sort of religious ecstasy, and the drink earned a very mystical sort of reputation, shrouded in secrecy and associated with priests and doctors. So, it is not surprising that two prominent legends emerged to explain the discovery of this magic bean.

Despite the romantic notions of such legends, the fact remains that the coffee plant was born in Africa on the plateaus of central Ethiopian region (Kaffa). In the 6th century, the beans somehow travelled to Yemen and coffee has been cultivated there since. For many centuries to follow the Yemen province of Arabia was the world's primary source of coffee.

According to the National Geographic, coffee as we know it kicked off in Arabia, where roasted beans were first brewed around A.D. 1000. By the 13th century Muslims were drinking the “bean broth” regularly. The prophet Mohammed proclaimed that under the influence of coffee he could “...unhorse forty men and possess forty women.”

The regular cultivation of coffee began sometime in the 15th century. The demand for coffee in the Near East was very high. Upon introduction of the first coffee houses in Cairo and Mecca coffee became a passion rather than just a stimulant.

The beans leaving the Yemeni port of Mocha for trade with Alexandria and Constantinople were highly guarded. In fact, no fertile plants were allowed to leave the country. Arabia made the export beans infertile by parching or boiling them. And yet, wherever Muslims went, coffee went too: North Africa, Eastern Mediterranean and India. It is said that no coffee seed sprouted outside Africa or Arabia until the 1600’s.

Despite the protections and restrictions, Muslim, during their pilgrimages to Mecca, managed to smuggle coffee plants back to their homelands, and coffee crops soon took root in Mysore, India.

Crossing Borders

In the second half of the 16th century coffee crossed the Eastern borders to Europe. The age of huge sailing-vessels plying the Mediterranean Sea, of captains developing thriving trade routes, moving every kind of merchandise throughout known lands, were responsible for introducing coffee into the major ports.

That is how, in around 1570, coffee made its way to Venice along with tobacco. The introduction of coffee into Italy is ascribed to the Paduan Prospero Alpino, a botanist and physician, who brought with him some sacks from the East and, having observed the plant’s characteristics described it in his book "De Planctis Aegyptii et de Medicina Aegiptiorum", printed between 1591 and 1592.

Venice was "the Eastern market"; its port docked European vessels coming from the Arabic and Asian countries. Coffee having made its way there could soon be found in plenty. At the beginning coffee was sold only at chemist’s shops and was very expensive and only the wealthy could afford it.

In 1582, G. Francesco Morosini, high judge of the doges’ city and ambassador of the Venetian Republic to the Sultan, in his report from Constantinople noted that in the East there were numbers of businesses where people were used to gathering over this dark, boiling hot beverage.

Coffee soon became a major object of trade and commerce in Italy. In 1640, the first "coffee shop" opened in Venice. Others followed in many Italian towns, among them Turin, Genoa, Milan, Florence, Rome and Naples. By 1763 Venice held no less than 218 shops.

In Italy coffee collided with the Catholic Church. Some fanatical Christians urged Pope Clemente VII to forbid the faithful to drink the "devil’s beverage" – as they called it. The Pontiff, before giving judgment, asked for a cup of the black, fragrant beverage. Legend says as he drank he cried out: "This beverage is so delicious that it would be a sin to let only misbelievers drink it. Let’s defeat Satan by blessing this beverage, which contains nothing objectionable to a Christian!"

Once the Pope’s blessing had been obtained for coffee its success was assured. By the late 18th century many Italian towns had adopted the same Venetian habit. Served in elegant coffee shops or on rough common tables, the beverage was everywhere.

Espresso, a fairly recent innovation in the way to prepare coffee, originated in 1822 with the invention of the first crude espresso machine in France. The Italians perfected this wonderful machine and were the first to manufacture it. The term "espresso" is derived from the Italian word for express since espresso is made for and served immediately to the customer. The drink has become such an integral part of Italian life and culture that there are presently over 200,000 espresso bars in Italy.

Travelling On

From Venice coffee houses spread quickly across Europe becoming centers for intellectual exchange. Many great minds of Europe used coffee and coffee houses, as a springboard to heightened thought and creativity.

In 1652 the first printed coffee advertisement ran in a London paper. “It will prevent Drowsiness, and make one fit for business, if one have occasion to Watch; and therefore you are not to Drink of it after Supper, unless you intend to be watchful, for it will hinder sleep for 3 or 4 hours…”

Upright English women protested against the foreign drink, claiming, “…the excessive use of that Newfangled, Abominable, Heathenish Liquor called Coffee, which has so Eunucht our Husbands…” Despite the controversy, the dark drink became popular and profitable, and by 1700 London had over two thousand coffeehouses. They were often referred to as "penny universities" (a penny was charged for admission and a cup of coffee).

Edward Lloyd opened a coffee house in 1688. It eventually became Lloyd's of London, the world's best known insurance company. The word “TIPS” was coined in an English coffee house; a sign reading “To Insure Prompt Service” was placed by a cup so patrons desiring prompt service and better seating could throw a coin into a tin.

In America, The Green Dragon opened in Boston in 1697. John Adams, James Otis and Paul Revere met there years later to enjoy coffee and discussion. In 1773 in response to high tea taxes, it became an American's unspoken duty to renounce tea and embrace coffee as the colonial drink of choice.

In 1714, the Dutch gave a coffee plant to the French government as a gift. A few years later, Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu, a French naval officer, decided to transport a seedling across the Atlantic. After surviving a pirate attack and a brutal storm, water supplies grew dangerously low. De Clieu nurtured the plant, protecting it from a jealous shipmate, and sharing his meager water ration with the burgeoning botanical wonder, Coffee Arabica Typica. After the long and perilous journey, the tree took root on the Caribbean Island of Martinique.

From that single plant much of the world’s coffee supply originated; one plant, transplanted to of Martinique, became the predecessor of over 19 million trees on the island within 50 years. It was from this humble beginning that the coffee plant found its way to the rest of the tropical regions of South and Central America.

In 1727 coffee cultivation was started in North Brazil, but the poor climatic conditions gradually shifted the crops, first to Rio de Janeiro and finally (1800-1850) to the States of San Paolo and Minas, where coffee found its ideal environment. The coffee trade developed here, until it became the most important economic resource of Brazil. Imagine, in Brazil alone, over 5 million people are currently employed in the cultivation and harvesting of over 3 billion coffee plants.

By the turn of the century, coffee was successfully cultivated in Brazil, Guatemala, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico. Around 1900 the English, having established coffee plantations in India and El Salvador, began cultivation in East Africa bringing coffee back to the land of its birth.

Coffee is now a giant global industry employing more than 20 million people. This commodity ranks second only to petroleum in terms of dollars traded worldwide. With over 400 billion cups consumed every year, coffee is the world's most popular beverage. Sales of premium specialty coffees in the United States have reached the multibillion-dollar level, and are increasing significantly on an annual basis.

The detailed history of coffee is fascinating, recording lives lost, fortunes made, and valor displayed. To read further about this precious and interesting commodity read Coffee: A Dark History by Antony Wild, or The Devil's Cup: A History of the World According to Coffee by Stewart Lee Allen. Both books can be found on
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