The Secret History of How Coffee Took Over the World

Fun Coffee Facts

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Fun Coffee Facts
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History in a Cup

How coffee became the preferred morning pick-me-up for most of humanity — as well as a most sought-after global commodity — is one of modern history's greatest success stories, littered with controversies and colorful legends. Here are facts you probably don't know, from coffee's initial chance discovery to its modern ubiquity.

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Real Coffee Origins
Bartosz Hadyniak/istockphoto

The Legends of Coffee's Discovery

There are competing legends from Yemen and Ethiopia about the discovery of coffee. According to one, in the ninth century A.D., a goat herder named Kaldi discovered coffee berries in the forests of Ethiopia, where he observed his goats become energetic and sleepless after eating the trees' fruit. He took the berries to a local monastery, where the abbot intuitively roasted and dissolved their ground husks in hot water, and voilà — the first cup of coffee.

An alternate version tells of a Sufi mystic named Ghothul Akbar Nooruddin Abu al-Hasan al-Shadhili, who noticed some hyperenergetic birds flying over his village in Yemen, then tasted the (presumably predigested) berries they left in their wake. Yet another alleges that mystic's disciple, a sheikh and hermetic medicine man named Omar, discovered the berries, then tried chewing and roasting them before boiling them in water.

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Strange Non-Brews

Early Methods of Coffee Consumption

Before roasted and brewed coffee became commonplace, other methods of preparation included fermenting the fruit as pulp into a winelike beverage, as well as mixing it with animal fat into early prototypes of modern protein bars, with an added boost of caffeine.

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A Prayer for Tasty Roasts

Coffee for Prayer and Trade in the 13th Century

Modern roasted coffee first became a known commodity in 13th-century Arabia, where Muslim Sufi communities prized its stimulant effects for long prayer sessions. Drying the beans to make them infertile and shelf-stable made them easy to transport and trade, giving the area a brief monopoly on coffee commerce.

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desert ruins yemen

From Mocha to the First Coffeehouses

Muslim pilgrims to the Holy Land helped spread coffee from Arabia Felix, or present-day Yemen, to Mecca by 1414. From the Yemeni port of Mocha, it spread in the 1500s to Cairo and other large cities in Egypt, where the first coffeehouses opened around the religious Azhar university.

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Past Bean Wisdom

Cultivating Culture Over a Cup

As coffee grew in popularity throughout the Middle East and East Africa, it wasn't just being brewed and consumed at home, but more often in businesses called qahveh khaneh, or coffeehouses. Colloquially known as "schools of the wise," coffeehouses became known for fostering stimulating conversation. They were places for learning about the state of the world and enjoying everything from music and dance to chess and debate – an implicit threat to religious gathering places.

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Sultan Selim I of Turkey
Hulton Archive/Stringer/Getty Images

Forbidden Beans in the Early 16th Century

Coffee has been demonized and criminalized repeatedly throughout its history, originally by various Muslim religious authorities. In 1511, coffee was banned by jurists and scholars led by Meccan governor Khair Beg, who feared that coffee's stimulating effects and role in public discourse would breed opposition to his rule. Ironically, Beg was deposed and executed in 1524 by order of the Ottoman Turkish Sultan Selim I, who rescinded the coffee ban by fatwa.

Ottoman Sultan Murad IV
Ottoman Sultan Murad IV by Belli değil (CC BY)

Coffee Consumption Ruled Punishable by Death

Another early coffee ban occurred in Cairo in 1532, with coffeehouses and warehouses ransacked by authorities. Despite many leaders' efforts, not one coffee ban stuck for very long, even when Ottoman Sultan Murad IV made consumption of coffee, along with alcohol and tobacco, punishable by death during his period of absolute rule from 1632 to 1640.

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English, Dutch and Danish factories at Mocha

Europeans Begin to Brew

According to traditional lore, not one coffee plant existed outside Arabia and Africa until the early 1600s, when an Indian pilgrim named Baba Budan left Mecca with a handful of beans strapped across his abdomen. Coffee spread to Europe, meanwhile, in the same period via trade routes from the Ottoman Empire and the port of Mocha, with the English and Dutch East India Trading companies circumventing export restrictions to bring the beans home.

The Catholic Church Condemns Coffee
The Catholic Church Condemns Coffee by Anonymous (CC BY)

The Catholic Church Condemns Coffee

Some Catholic clergy leaders reacted to coffee not unlike their Muslim counterparts, condemning it as the "bitter invention of Satan" from its arrival to Venice in 1615. The uproar grew so great that eventually Pope Clement VIII intervened by tasting the controversial beverage himself. He gave coffee his papal blessing and quipped that it should be baptized, ensuring its largely unfettered growth throughout Europe.

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Java, Sumatra and the other islands of the Dutch East Indies
Wikimedia Commons

The Dutch Bring Coffee Production to Java

The Dutch became the first colonial nation to take coffee growing into their own hands — or, at least, their colonial subjects' hands — by opening the first European-owned estate in India in 1616. They eventually abandoned their early prototype in Sri Lanka in favor of a plantation on the island of Java, in present-day Indonesia.

A Caffeinated Revolution in France
A Caffeinated Revolution in France by Illustrated London News (CC BY)

Coffeehouses Portend a Caffeinated Revolution

Europe's first coffeehouses sprang up in Venice in 1629 and spread quickly throughout villages and metropolitan areas in Italy and France, where sidewalk coffeehouses became a Parisian trademark. Their rebellious connotation continued, with English monarch Charles II calling them "places where the disaffected met, and spread scandalous reports concerning the conduct of His Majesty and his Ministers."

Sure enough, in France a century later, radicals such as Marat, Danton, and Robespierre conspired in Parisian coffeehouses before and during the tumultuous French Revolution.

Edward Lloyd's Coffee house,
Wikimedia Commons

Coffee Becomes Big Business in England

England's first coffeehouses took off in Oxford in the early 1650s. By 1675, there were more than 3,000 across the nation, many operating as overnight bed and breakfasts. Some survived and evolved into international business, including global insurance company Lloyd's of London, which began as Edward Lloyd's Coffee House.

The Women’s Petition Against Coffee
Wikimedia Commons

Coffee Is Blamed for England’s Absentee Husbands

Throughout England and mainland Europe, with the exception of Germany, coffeehouses were a man's domain; the only women permitted were prostitutes. As a result, coffeehouses assumed much of the blame from women's groups for husbands' infidelity and distraction from their duties at home. According to the 1674 publication "The Women’s Petition Against Coffee," they were "turning Turk" for "a little base, black, thick, nasty, bitter, stinking nauseous puddle water."

In the face of allegations that coffee made men "unfruitful as the deserts whence that unhappy berry is said to be brought," the 1674 "Men's Answer to the Women's Petition Against Coffee" retorted that beer made men impotent, while coffee "added a spiritual ascendency to the sperm."

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Big Coffee Thoughts

Paris' Oldest Coffeehouse Fuels the Enlightenment

One of the most storied coffeehouses in history is Café Procope, now Paris' oldest continuously operated cafe, which opened in a reformed bathhouse in 1686. In the 18th century, during the French Enlightenment, it became a popular meeting place for philosophers and inventors such as Rousseau, Diderot, and Voltaire — who was said to drink 40 cups of coffee per day — as well as American statesmen including Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.

American Caffeine Fix
American Caffeine Fix by European Coffee History Engraving (CC BY)

Coffee Cultivation Spreads to the Americas

The first coffee seedling planted in the Americas was carried by ship from the Royal Botanical Garden in Paris to Martinique around 1723 by a young naval officer named Gabriel de Clieu. This one coffee plant is credited with the growth of more than 18 million offspring on the island over the next 50 years, beginning the crop's fruitful yet fraught Caribbean and Central American history.

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Brazilian Beans

Brazil's Coffee Industry Sprouts From a Few Seedlings

The coffee industry in Brazil, now the world's No. 1 coffee producer, began with a few seedlings poached from French Guyana by Francisco de Mello Palheta. When the French governor refused the Portuguese military member's initial request to share, legend has it Palheta was able to captivate the governor's wife using his good looks and received her bouquet upon leaving, with what would become Brazil's first coffee seeds buried inside.

Split Beans

The French Push Colonial Coffee Production to Its Breaking Point

The French started growing coffee on their territory of Saint-Domingue in 1734 using African slave labor, and by 1788, the Caribbean island was responsible for half the world's supply. The harsh working conditions of the coffee and sugarcane plantations combined with the French legislature's inaction on slavery or civil rights appeals eventually culminated in the Haitian Revolution, fought from 1791 until 1803. Saint-Domingue, now Haiti, ceased to be a major coffee producer following its declaration of independence in 1804.

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A Tropical Caffeine Boost

Coffee Production Expands Throughout Central America and Mexico

Coffee cultivation spread like wildfire through the New World's tropical locales in the late 18th and 19th centuries, reaching Costa Rica in 1779, Mexico in 1790, El Salvador in 1840, and Guatemala in 1850. Global exports of the region's roasted coffee got an additional boost in 1914 with the opening of the Panama Canal, enabling easy access to coffee plantations along the Pacific for the first time.

Beer Loses to Morning Joe

Coffee Replaces Beer as Europe’s Breakfast Beverage

One of the odder accusations lobbed at coffee from a modern perspective was that it would hurt society by making people drink less alcohol. At the time, beer and wine were the default breakfast beverages throughout Europe, and coffee presented an appealing alternative that would help people begin their day alert and energized.

One Prussian king didn't take kindly to this cultural shift. In 1777, Frederick the Great issued a manifesto proclaiming beer's superiority to coffee, reportedly complaining of the "money that goes out of the country in consequence." To encourage domestic beer sales and raising children on beer soup, just like His Majesty, Frederick imposed a number of restrictions on coffee and hired 400 disabled soldiers as "sniffers" to track down unlicensed roasters. The restrictions were lifted after his death in 1786.

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Strange Swedish Roast
Strange Swedish Roast by Nationalmuseum (CC BY)

Sweden Bans Coffee and Concocts a Strange Experiment

Another ill-fated attempt to eradicate the menace of coffee drinking began under Swedish ruler Gustav III in the late 1700s. In 1746, a royal edict levied hefty taxes on coffee and tea drinking and punished nonpayment. A full-on ban later that year produced a thriving black market, while Gustav conceived of an experiment to justify his grudge against the caffeinated beverages. Two identical twins had their death sentences commuted to life imprisonment on the condition that one of them drink three pots of coffee and the other three pots of tea every day from then on. The king was assassinated in 1792 before he could see his experiment's final results — the tea drinker died first.

Freedom Brews in America
Freedom Brews in America by Nathaniel Currier (CC BY)

Drinking Coffee Becomes Patriotic After the Boston Tea Party

Though coffeehouses had been introduced, tea remained the beverage of choice throughout Britain's American colonies until the Boston Tea Party of 1773. Planned in a Boston coffeehouse called the Green Dragon, the act of protest against the Crown's tea tax drove large swaths of patriotic colonists, including John Adams, to start their mornings with coffee instead of tea, a shift in preference that endures today.

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Tontine Coffee House
Wikimedia Commons

Coffee Gives Rise to the New York Stock Exchange

It wasn't just philosophical books and radical revolutions that sprung from coffeehouses' hub of ideas. In the United States, the New York Stock Exchange started out trading in the now-closed Tontine Coffee House from 1792 to 1817. Similarly, after months of discussion, the Bank of New York (now BNY Mellon) was decisively established to serve the city's shipping industry at a St. George's Square coffeehouse in June 1784.

Coffee vs. Whiskey
Coffee vs. Whiskey by Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection (CC BY)

The Civil War Divides Coffee and Whiskey Drinkers

Coffee and sugar rations replaced alcohol for American soldiers under President Andrew Jackson's 1832 Army General Order No. 100, setting the stage for it to play a decisive role in another major American conflict. During the Civil War, the Union's trade blockade meant the rebelling Confederate Army couldn't get their troops as much caffeine, so in 1861, they reverted to whiskey rations. Many in the South, however, devised creative ways to simulate coffee's stimulant effects or smuggled ground beans from the North.

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Puerto Rico's Caffeinated Kick
Wikimedia Commons

A Hurricane Uproots Puerto Rico's Thriving Coffee Industry

Puerto Rico is another Caribbean island that became a major coffee market under Spanish colonial rule. When the commodity's price rose in response to Haiti's and other slave rebellions, Puerto Rico's industry thrived and became the Americas' fourth-largest throughout the 19th century. Those days came to an abrupt end in 1899, when a hurricane uprooted the crops and devastated most haciendas, or estates. Under U.S. rule in the 20th century, the island's coffee drinking continued apace while production never quite caught up, so today Puerto Rico imports 72% of its domestically consumed coffee. 

Related: Things You Didn't Know About Puerto Rico

Modern Africa's New Blend

Coffee Production Blossoms in Modern Africa

Although coffee might have originated in Ethiopia, production across the African continent didn't really take off until well into the 20th century. The downfall of Europe's colonial regimes in the wake of World War II gave native African farmers control of their land and access to a global economy for the first time, driving coffee production in nations such as Ivory Coast and Kenya. Meanwhile, many farmers in Burundi chose to uproot the crops of their oppressors in favor of new ones after gaining independence in the 1960s, only for coffee farming to emerge as a popular income source after further upheaval in the '90s.

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Peet's Coffee
Peet's Coffee by Ipoellet (CC BY-SA)

Peet's Brew Inspires the Gourmet Coffee Craze

A folk music revival and influx of espresso-sipping Italian immigrants during the Beat Generation era of the '50s and '60s helped bring coffeehouses to the forefront of American metropolitan life and generate renewed interest in high-quality specialty brews. Alfred Peet is known as the grandfather of the gourmet coffee craze for founding Peet's Coffee and Tea in Berkeley in 1966, which grew from one Bay Area retail outlet to a chain of more than 150 stores across 10 states.

Starbucks for the Win
Korea Has a Cuppa

Korea Becomes a Major Coffee Contender

Lest you think the coffee industry had already finished expanding by the 21st century, in the past two decades South Korea has become one of the world's fastest-growing coffee markets, and the capital city of Seoul now boasts the world's highest concentration of cafes. The five-year period from 2006 to 2011 saw a 900% spike in the number of coffee shops and an 1,800% rise in overall sales across the nation.

Today's Fresh Coffee

The World's Obsession With Coffee Shows No Signs of Slowing

Thanks to coffee, caffeine is the world's most widely consumed drug. Coffee is grown in more than 70 countries, although just four — Brazil, Vietnam, Colombia, and Indonesia — account for 60% of the world's supply, which totals about 10 million tons of beans each year. None of the Arab countries where coffee originated rank among the most significant producers. 

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