A Trail of Coffee Beans – A Short History of Coffee

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By Krystal D’Costa
Anthropologist

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So guess who gave us the English word coffee? I’ll give you a hint: they were integral to the founding of the New Amsterdam colony. That’s right: our friends, the Dutch. The word coffee dates to the late 16th-century, and is derived from the Dutch word koffie. But both the word and the product are much older than this, although the Dutch are a big reason coffee found its way to America. We talked on Monday about how coffee was marketed into our lives, and I mentioned that its value was linked to its origin. But where does coffee come from? Where did it originate and how did it get here, to the bags and cans of roast on the shelves of supermarkets to the coffee shops around the world? Today we’ll take a quick look at global travels of the bean and on Friday we’ll consider the role of coffee in current times.

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Illustration of a Coffea arabica plant. Source: Wikipedia

Though the first documented use of coffee as we know it happened in Yemen, all the stories on the origin of coffee occur in Africa. The earliest stories tell of a Ethiopian goatherd who noticed his flock was more animated than usual after eating some bright red berries. In one version of the story, he takes the berries to a holy man who forbids using them because of their stimulating properties. He throws them into the fire, but the intoxicating aroma that results causes him to reconsider. He mixes the scorched remains with water, and the world has a cup of coffee for the first time. Another version tells of a monk who sees the animated goatherd and his flock and picks the berries for his brothers, who spend their evening “uncannily alert to divine inspiration.” The plant itself is native to Ethiopia, the Sudan, and Kenya. And while one source suggests botanical evidence to support the Ethiopian origin, others dispute the strength of the genetic evidence stating that the remains of ancestral genes do not provide enough information to definitively link the plant to specific place on the African continent.  Additionally, the legend of the goatherd itself does not appear until the 17th-century, which suggests a more recent awareness of coffee Africa for some.
So it is the Arab world that is credited with giving us the drink of coffee. While an African origin for the word coffee is acknowledged, the Arabian etymology is more frequently accepted:

This word was created via Turkish kahve, the Turkish pronunciation Arabic qahwa, a truncation of qahhwat al-bun or wine of the bean. One possible origin of the name is the Kingdom of Kaffa in Ethiopia, where the coffee plant originated; its name there is bunn or bunna.

A National Geographic feature tells us that the beans were first brewed in the 11th-century, and were pretty widespread in the Muslim community by the 13th-century. Worshipers prized its stimulating properties because it allowed them to continue their devotions later, and coffee houses, which would become social and political centers, began to spring up:
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Coffeehouse in Palestine, 1900.  Source: Wikipedia

Coffee was not only drunk in homes but also in the many public coffee houses—called qahveh khaneh—which began to appear in cities across the Near East. The popularity of the coffee houses was unequaled and people frequented them for all kinds of social activity. Not only did they drink coffee and engage in conversation, but they also listened to music, watched performers, played chess and kept current on the news of the day.  In fact, they quickly became such an important center for the exchange of information that the coffee houses were often referred to as “Schools of the Wise.”

It was perhaps too stimulating for some leaders, who banned coffee partly in an attempt to curb the political fervor that it could inspire on occasion at the coffee house (some of which went on to become powerful institutions in the Western world: e.g., The New York Stock Exchange, The Bank of New York, and Lloyd’s of London began life as coffee houses). However, coffee had enthusiastic supporters (as it does now) who called for the ban to be overturned.
The Arabs controlled the distribution of coffee until about the 16th-century because they boiled the beans so that they were infertile. So even though travelers to the Arab world and pilgrims journeying from Mecca spread the bean far, it could only be cultivated in the Arabian peninsula and parts of Africa. Until an Indian pilgrim came along, that is, who reportedly smuggled some “green” beans into India in the 1600s by strapping them to his belly.
You have to think about the state of India in the 1600s to understand fully how it is that smuggling in some beans opened coffee cultivation to the world. India was not a free-state at this time; the British had already established a foothold—and France, Portugal, and other European powers had established trading posts there, including our friends the Dutch. The International Coffee Organization tells us that in the 1600s, the Dutch were growing coffee on the Indian island of Malabar, and by the end of the century, they had displaced Venice as Europe’s source for coffee.
The Dutch were responsible for the spread of coffee throughout the Americas—they brought coffee to New Amsterdam in the 1600s. And years later, it would play a part in our revolutionary stirrings:

The first literary reference to coffee being drunk in North America is from 1668 and, soon after, coffee houses were established in New York, Philadelphia, Boston and other towns.  The Boston Tea Party Of 1773 was planned in a coffee house, the Green Dragon.

Once they established their role of distributors, the Dutch started giving away sprouts:

In 1714, the Mayor of Amsterdam presented a gift of a young coffee plant to King Louis XIV of France. The King ordered it to be planted in the Royal Botanical Garden in Paris. In 1723, a young naval officer, Gabriel de Clieu obtained a seedling from the King’s plant.

This is the route by which coffee spread to the Caribbean. After a harrowing voyage where de Clieu faced jealous passengers, pirates, storms, and a drought, he was finally able to plant his seedling on Martinique where it grew to maturity under the the careful watch of armed guards. This seedling allegedly parented almost 20,000 coffee trees.
Brazil, the largest player in the coffee market today, entered the scene in the 1700s when a colonel “acquired” some seeds from French Guiana. While colonial powers battled for control of this new commodity, slave labor kept production rolling in the now numerous coffee plantations until slavery was abolished. Though Brazil currently leads production, other countries have thrown their hats into the ring, including Colombia, Mexico, and Vietnam. Frost in the 1970s nearly crippled the Brazilian coffee industry, and their traditionally higher prices (for a supposedly better quality bean) have irritated consumers and opened the door for other competitors.

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Map of coffee growing areas in the world. Yellow regions are top producers. Source: National Geographic

One of the main ways coffee is graded is origin. This has a lot to do with the texture and flavor of the beans. And while patronage may come down to personal preference, some of the hype around origin is linked to the the idea of authenticity. Who can claim coffee? Who can wield it? And consequently speak with some authority on its properties and control the supply? Ethiopia, the country linked to the original legends of discovery, actually has the smallest output which is partly due to the socio-political history of the African continent overall. The Fair Trade movement has taken steps to correct this.
The next time you pick up your mocha frap with an extra shot of espresso, or that can of “breakfast blend,” consider for a moment where the beans have come from, and how they traveled there. And the role coffee has in connecting people around the globe.

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