The History of Coffee

No matter what historians claimed, BC really stood for ‘Before Coffee’.― Cherise Sinclair

The first reference to coffee as we know it today was in the early 15th century when the Arab mystic al-Dhabhani saw Ethiopians drinking ‘qahwa’, now the Arab word for coffee. The Ethiopians, however, call coffee ‘buna’, which also means bean.

As coffee gained popularity throughout the Arab world, it began to be used less as a religious drink and more as a social stimulant. In 1511, Khair-Beg, the governor of Mecca, ruled that coffee was like wine and hence banned by the Koran. He ordered the city’s coffee houses to be closed, only to have the ban overturned by his boss, the Sultan of Cairo.

Despite its growing popularity, coffee production was slow to pick up; it was only after the Ottomans occupied Yemen in 1536 that they began to extensively cultivate the crop in the country. The Ottomans exported the coffee from the port of Mocha, and it became known as ‘mocha’.

When the first English sailor reached the port in 1606, he wrote that there were over thirty-five merchant ships, some from as far away as India, waiting to load the precious green beans.

Some of the coffee was shipped to Alexandria in Egypt and then on to Venice. Still, mostly it stayed within the Ottoman empire, reaching Damascus and Istanbul by the middle of the century. By then, coffee was no longer considered just a religious drink, but also a social one. By the end of the 16th century, there were over 600 coffee shops operating in Istanbul.

The way of brewing coffee changed as it travelled. Arabic coffee (qahwa) is a light-coloured liquid made by lightly toasting the beans, crushing them with various spices such as cardamom, and then boiling them in water. Turkish coffee (kahve) is made with more darkly roasted beans and brought to the boil at least twice but without spices.

For a time, the Ottomans successfully prevented coffee cultivation from spreading outside the area of Mocha; they refused to let berries leave the country unless they were first boiled in water to prevent their germination. However, exports had grown to such a level that it was impossible to stop some un-boiled beans from getting through. As Muslim pilgrims returned to their homes, they took coffee beans with them.

One such pilgrim, Buba Budan, is credited in 1600 with smuggling out some beans by taping seven of them to his stomach. He took them back to India and planted the beans next to his hut at Chickmaglur in the mountains of Mysore. Buba Budan is now (rightly) revered as a saint, but it was not until 1840 that the English began the commercial cultivation of coffee in India; the plantations extend now from the extreme north of Mysore down to Tuticorin.

In 1614, Dutch traders brought a coffee plant from Mocha to Amsterdam, and by mid-century, they had taken plants to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Dutch Malaba (now Cochin), where they started small plantations. From there, in 1696, the Dutch took cuttings from the plants to their colonial island of Java. A flood washed away the early seedlings, but the Dutch tried again three years later, this time successfully. In 1706, the first Java coffee had reached Amsterdam; some coffee plants were grown successfully in Amsterdam’s botanical gardens.

During the 17th century, ‘Mocha’ and ‘Java’ became synonyms for coffee; they are still so today.

© Commodity Conversations ®

This is a short extract from my book Crop to Cup – Conversations over Coffee now available on Amazon.

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