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Coffee home - Coffee history - The rich history of coffee and its religious brew

The rich history of coffee and its religious brew



The rich history of coffee and its religious brew
We often find ourselves taking a moment to reflect over a cup of coffee, but how often do we pause to consider the rich history of our daily brew? As with many rituals we scarcely pause for thought. Where did coffee originate, and when and how did it first come to our shores? What is the scale of the global coffee trade, and how are we affected by it? Do we consume or crave our morning coffee? Does coffee affect the productivity of our grey matter, and does it enhance memory or intellectual productivity? Are we revitalised by its rich, dark aroma or fatigued by it? Does coffee aid our health and productivity or harm it?

The history and development of the coffee industry is intriguing, from its chance discovery to its rapid expansion through trade and empire. Whilst the Western history of coffee is only some four hundred years old, in the East coffee was widely consumed as a beverage possibly as long ago as 800 BC. Indeed Homer and countless Arabian legends tell the story of a mysterious black and bitter beverage with powers of stimulation, and at the turn of the first Millennium the physician Avicenna was known to have administered coffee as a medicine.

The discovery of every popular stimulant cultivates mythology, and there is the quaint legend of a Yemeni shepherd named Kaldi who was said to have first noted the stimulant properties of coffee as he tended his sheep. It is claimed that he noticed that the sheep became hyperactive after eating the red "cherries" from a certain plant when they changed pastures. Inquisitive he tried a few himself, and soon became as hyperactive as his herd. A passing monk heard his story and boiled the berries, from which he distilled a bitter beverage capable of dispersing sleep and weariness.

Another legend is said to have given us the name "mocha". An Arabian named Omar had been banished to the desert with his followers to die of starvation. In his desperation he boiled and ate the fruit from an unknown plant which it is said saved them. Their survival was taken as a religious sign by the residents of the nearby town of Mocha, after which the plant and its beverage are named.

From its very introduction coffee's invigorating powers have understandably linked it with religion, and each tradition claims its own unique affiliation with the plant. Islamic legend ascribes the discovery of coffee to the devout Sheikh Omar, who is said to have found coffee growing wild whilst living as a recluse in Mocha, a famous coffee producing region of the Yemen. He is said to have boiled some of the berries and discovered the stimulating effect of the resulting brew upon administering it to locals stricken with a mysterious ailment, thereby curing them. The Sheikh went on to cure the King of Mocha's daughter with coffee. The wonderous medicine soon found its way to Mecca where the first coffee houses are claimed to have arisen. Although these ‘Kaveh Kanes' were originally religious meeting places, they soon became popular places of social gathering.

The Arabic word for coffee ‘kahwah' is also a word for wine, as the pulp of the coffee bean was often fermented to make a potent liquor. Although the Koran outlaws intoxicating beverages, it was successfully argued that coffee was more a stimulant than an intoxicant and the liquor remained. However coffee was discovered, the fact remains that the coffee plant originated from the Ethiopian region of Kaffa. The Ethiopian Galla tribe are known to have widely used coffee as a foodstuff, but not as a drink. It is believed that the monks of Ethiopia may have chewed on the berries as a stimulant for centuries before it was first brewed as a hot drink. Galla huntsmen would wrap coffee beans in animal fat as their only source of nutrition whilst on raiding parties.

The use of coffee as a stimulant may thus have originated in Africa around 575 A.D. where the beans were so important they were even used as money. From Eastern Africa the use of coffee spread to the Yemen, Arabia and Egypt where it entered popular daily life and culture. Exactly where and when coffee was first cultivated is still disputed, but most authorities believe that it was first grown in Arabia near the Red Sea around 675 AD.




The Turks were perhaps the first country to drink coffee as an infusion, often adding spices such as clove, cinnamon, cardamom and anise to the brew. However Arabian texts dating from around 900 AD refer to an Ethiopian drink known as ‘buna', similar to the Ethiopian word for brewed coffee. It was however to be many centuries before coffee was introduced to countries outside the Arab world, whose inhabitants believed it to be a precious commodity and guarded its secret jealously.

So central did coffee become in the Turkish way of life, that Turkish law made it legal for a woman to divorce her husband if he fail to provide her with her daily quota of coffee. In fact the export of the plant from the Moslem world was strictly forbidden, and the actual spread of coffee, initially to the East, was started illegally. Arab traders are credited with first introducing coffee to Sri Lanka as early as 1505, and an Arab by the name of Baba Budan allegedly smuggled beans to some mountains near Mysore in South-Western India on his return from a pilgrimage to Mecca in the 17th century. There he started a small plantation where the descendants of those original plants are still to be found still growing fruitfully today.

By 1453 coffee had reached Constantinople with the expansion of the Ottoman Empire, and the world's first coffee shop, Kiva Han, opened there in 1475. The first coffee houses of Constantinople were opened in 1554, and their advent provoked religiously inspired riots. Perhaps it was only the profitability of taxing the nascent coffee trade that allowed it to establish its roots securely in other nations. By the late 16th Century the first tradesmen had introduced the eastern elixir into European culture, and this became a lucrative business for Venetian traders by 1615.



Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries coffee houses proliferated throughout Europe, establishing a social habit that has persisted for over 400 years. Although most of the coffee exported to European markets came from the ports of Alexandria and Smyrna, the scale of the demand for coffee and the size of the export taxes imposed at these ports led European traders to try cultivating coffee in other countries. With the explosion in the popularity of coffee houses the European powers were soon competing against each other throughout the 17th Century to establish coffee plantations in their respective colonies. In 1658 the Dutch began the large scale cultivation of Mocha in Sri Lanka, and by 1699 they had successfully transplanted cuttings to Java, and by 1718 to Surinam.

The history of the introduction of the coffee plant to the Americas began in 1714 when the French succeeded in bringing a live cutting of a coffee tree to the island of Martinique in the West Indies. From its successful introduction there coffee was taken to South America, and was first grown in North Brazil around 1727. However the coffee plant failed to thrive in the poor climate of Northern Brazil, and this caused cultivation to move first to Rio de Janeiro, and then to San Paolo and Minas, where the coffee plant found its ideal habitat. Coffee growing began to develop in earnest until it became the most important economic resource of Brazil, accounting for 97% of world coffee production at the beginning of the 20th Century, all from that first cutting in Martinique. It wasn't until 1878 that the coffee tree finally returned to its ancestral home, when the British ironically established the first plantations of Kenya's future coffee industry on the door step of Ethiopia.

Coffee begins its story in the United States almost four hundred years ago, when Captain John Smith helped to found the ill-fated colony of Virginia at Jamestown. However by 1668 coffee had replaced beer as New York's City's favourite breakfast drink, and "The Boston Tea Party" of 1773 made drinking coffee a patriotic statement. The consumption of coffee continued to grow aided by such American industrial innovations as the packing roast coffee in vacuum tins and the invention of instant soluble coffee at the beginning of the 20th Century, and also by the invention of freeze dried coffee by Nestle in 1938 as a solution to surplus world coffee production. The advent of Prohibition in 1920 saw coffee sales boom, and by 1940 the US had become the world's primary importer of coffee, accounting for 70% of the global harvest. The entry of the United States into the Second World War even led to widespread panic hoarding of coffee which forced its rationing.

No recreational drink, with the obvious exception of alcohol, has caused quite as much religious exception and fervour as the introduction of coffee. In 1454 the Mufti of Aden visited Ethiopia and was reportedly impressed with the drink, which cured him of some affliction. His approval soon made it a popular beverage amongst the tribes of the Yemen who adopted it in religious ceremonies and introduced it to Mecca. It was introduced widely throughout Islam and became almost synonymous with the Muslim world, ironically in much the same way as coffee is identified with the American way of life today, so much so that in 1615 upon its introduction to Venice certain clerics suggested that it should be excommunicated as the "Devil's work". However coffee was popularised by Pope Clement VIII who is said to have enjoyed it so much that rather than banishing it he baptized it, reportedly exclaiming that "coffee is so delicious it would be a pity to let the infidels (Moslems) have exclusive use of it."

From its very introduction coffee's invigorating powers have understandably linked it with religion, and each tradition claims its own unique affiliation with the plant. Islamic legend ascribes the discovery of coffee to the devout Sheikh Omar, who is said to have found coffee growing wild whilst living as a recluse in Mocha, a famous coffee producing region of the Yemen. He is said to have boiled some of the berries and discovered the stimulating effect of the resulting brew upon administering it to locals stricken with a mysterious ailment, thereby curing them. The Sheikh went on to cure the King of Mocha's daughter with coffee. The wonderous medicine soon found its way to Mecca where the first coffee houses are claimed to have arisen. Although these ‘Kaveh Kanes' were originally religious meeting places, they soon became popular places of social gathering.

The Arabic word for coffee ‘kahwah' is also a word for wine, as the pulp of the coffee bean was often fermented to make a potent liquor. Although the Koran outlaws intoxicating beverages, it was successfully argued that coffee was more a stimulant than an intoxicant and the liquor remained.

Not all Islamic clerics were content with the widespread introduction of coffee to their religious culture however, and religious divisions over coffee in the Islamic world finally came to a head in Mecca. In 1511 the then governor Khair Beg saw coffee being drunk in a mosque as a preparation for a night vigil. In a fit of religious rage he drove the worshippers from the mosque and ordered all coffee houses in Mecca to be closed.



The drinking of coffee was further condemned by two Persian doctors who resented the popularity of coffee as a local cure amongst melancholic patients, patients who might otherwise have visited their physicians. However the ‘mufti' of Mecca argued for coffee. Finally the debate was resolved when the Sultan of Cairo intervened and reprimanded Khair Beg for unilaterally banning a drink which was widely enjoyed in Cairo without even consulting with his superior, and the very next year had him put to death on charges of embezzlement. Thus the coffee culture survived in Mecca.



Coffee home - Coffee history - The rich history of coffee and its religious brew

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