From elixir of philosophers to outlawed “invention of satan,” coffee’s history is as rich, complex, and full of unexpected twists as one of our finest roasts.
Coffee’s global voyage began in the lush highlands of Ethiopia, the original motherland of the Coffea Arabica plant. The earliest known writing on the coffee plant, dating to the 10th century, characterizes it as a medicine—prepared as an infusion of coffee cherries in hot water.
It was not until 500 years later, as coffee made its way to Yemen in the 15th century, that the beverage evolved from a tea-like remedy to the black, aromatic beverage we know today. It may have been first roasted and ground by Sufi monks in Yemen to help them stay alert during late- night prayer.
Rise of the “wine of Araby”
From Yemen’s port of Mocha, coffee began to di use throughout the Arab world, remaining closely tied to Sufi culture at first. It emerged in Mecca, a major nexus of pilgrims and trade, as well as Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad and beyond. In the Muslim world, this “wine of Araby” gained traction as an alternative to alcohol, which was forbidden by Muslim spiritual tradition.
In the 16th century, coffee spread like wildfire through the rapidly- expanding Ottoman empire, which wrapped around the Mediterranean sea from North Africa through Syria and Turkey. Coffee houses, lively centers of intellectual life, became increasingly popular in major cultural centers like Cairo and Istanbul.
Arrival in Europe
Coffee reached Europe by multiple means: by land, traversing the massive Ottoman empire, and by sea, reaching Venice through trade with North African ports. Venice became an early locus of coffee trade, giving rise to the first European coffee house in the mid-16th century.
The novel, energizing drink was met with both wild enthusiasm and deep suspicion, accused by some as being the “bitter invention of Satan.” Pope Clement VIII intervened to taste coffee himself, giving it official papal approval in the early 17th century.
European coffee houses began to open their doors in Vienna, London, Hamburg and Paris in the mid-17th century. Known for lively dialogue, these centers of cultural life and revolutionary thought would go on to attract philosophers, poets, and revolutionaries alike, including Diderot, Rousseau, and Voltaire (who allegedly drank 40-50 cups of coffee per day!).
Journey to the
Europeans enjoyed coffee so much, different countries raced to cultivate their own beans, trying and failing to cultivate coffee on mainland Europe. The Dutch became the first European power to successfully cultivate coffee on the island colony of Java in Indonesia in the 18th century.
Coffee plants first arrived in the New World circa 1720. Hopeful of rivaling the Dutch and cultivating coffee for his home country, French naval officer Gabriel de Clieu crossed the Atlantic with a fragile Arabica seedling, tending to it with his own limited supply of drinking water (or so the story goes). This single plant — which soon gave rise to crops throughout the French colonies of Martinique, Guadeloupe, and Saint Domingue — may be the sole ancestor of most Latin American coffee plants today.
From the shores of Martinique, coffee plants made their way across Latin America and arrived in Colombia. But it was not until 1919 that coffee cultivation began to gain popularity in Colombia, thanks to a period of political stability, and an increase in international coffee prices during the First World War.
Despite the challenges posed by limited infrastructure and mountainous geography, the exportation of Colombian coffee quickly took off. The export steadily gained popularity in the U.S., due to its richer aroma and greater acidity (as compared to Brazilian coffee). These distinctive attributes are derived from Colombia’s high-altitude cultivation and careful processing of the product.
By the mid-20th century, coffee had become the country’s primary export and largest source of employment. Although the industry today is not what it was at its peak, Colombian coffee still provides livelihoods for more than 500,000 families, and employs (directly or indirectly) one in three rural workers.
Who could have foreseen that one small, fragile seedling — arriving 300 years ago on the shores of Martinique by way of Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa — would go on to change the course of Colombia’s history, forever transforming regional economies, agricultural tradition, and groggy mornings?
Get our Notas de Café booklet along with your fresh coffee.