A Brief History of Coffee

February 28, 2018

A Brief History of Coffee

In today's society, people are becoming very concerned with where the food on their plate has come from, or where the drink in their glass originates. No one really looks further than the recent past, but history interests us just as much! How did we humans start drinking coffee? How did we come to take the seeds from a plant, learn that roasting them made them taste even better, then learn than grinding them and finally stewing them in hot water would make an exceptional beverage? Well, we here at Tumut Brewing have been turning over proverbial stones on the internet and we think that we’ve found some widely agreed upon answers. Come, grab a coffee and take a seat with us for a few minutes whilst we journey through: A Brief History of Coffee.


How it Started

As always with ancient origin stories, there are a variety of them, and they’re all quite rough around the edges. However, the one which is most widely accepted is probably the best in this case, so we’ll tell that one.

The coffee plant originates from the ancient coffee forests of the Ethiopian plateau and, legend tells it, that back around the 9th Century a goat herder called Kaldi was the first one to recognise the potential of the coffee berry. He realised it after noticing that once his goats had eaten the berries from the coffee tree they were too wide awake to fall asleep at night and jumping around all over the place.

It is said that he shared this strange finding with the local monastery, who made drinks from the berries and found that it too kept them more alert and lively, allowing them to stay awake for evening mass. These monks passed it along to other monks and so began the journey of coffee!

The earliest written record of this history appears in 1671, so maybe take it with a pinch of salt ‘eh!


The Evolution

Word spread and finally coffee reached the fertile crescent and the Arabian peninsula. It was here that coffee cultivation really began in earnest and it was from here that it would get introduced to the rest of the world.

A big turning point in the history of coffee is when people started roasting and brewing the seeds (like we do today) instead of just using fresh coffee berries. This part of history is really fuzzy but it is widely agreed upon that it first happened on the Arabian peninsula probably in Yemen. Indeed it is from here that we have the first account of this practice, and that account originates from the middle of the 15th century.

By the end of the 16th Century, coffee had reached all of the Middle East, Persia, Turkey and Northern Africa. The first coffee beans to leave the Middle East was smuggled out by a man called Sufi Baba Budan. He is famous in Islam and Hinduism for this reason, and many portraits depict him with seven coffee beans strapped to his chest (although some accounts say that he hid the beans in his beard). Before this, all coffee exported from the region was boiled, roasted or baked so that no one could grow their own and were forced to trade with the people who had the coffee monopoly.

Sufi then planted these smuggled seeds at home in Mysore, India, and it is from here that coffee spread to Europe and the rest of the world!


The Growth

The first stop for coffee was Italy. Venice had a thriving trade with North Africa and the Middle East and coffee was among the many goods brought into the Venetian ports. It became widely acceptable after it was tasted and deemed a Christian beverage by Pope Clement VIII, despite petitions to ban the “Muslim drink”.

However, it wasn’t until the middle of the 17th Century that the Dutch East India Company began importing coffee from India on a large scale. Later they planted coffee crops in Indonesia. The British East India Company were also importing coffee from the east and “coffee culture” began in Europe with coffee houses starting to spring up all over the continent. We’re going to do a separate article on the importance of the coffee house in our culture because these social melting pots became the propulsion by which we created the society we exist in today. Trust us, they’re interesting!

A Frenchman Gabriel de Clieu took a coffee plant to a French territory in the Caribbean and it is from this plant that most of the coffee trees in Central and South America descend. From his own account of the voyage, we know that he took the plant that he had received as a gift from Holland from the Jardin Royal des Plantes (Royal Garden of Plants) and took it on the voyage. According to Gabriel Water was scarce and rationed on the journey and he shared his ration with the seedling to keep it alive. Pretty committed man if you ask us!


The Flowering

After coffee had reached all the corners of the world it only took time before all those that could cultivate it started to do so. This is where coffee’s history is a little tainted. It was introduced to Brazil in 1727 and they cleared swaths of rainforest and jungle in order to cultivate coffee. Brazil went from nearly no coffee exports in 1800 to being the worlds largest producer by 1852.

Central America took up the cultivation of coffee in the 19th Century and almost all of their initial cultivation involved the displacement and exploitation of a large amount of the indigenous population.

Coffee didn’t really gain popularity in North America until after the Boston Tea Party in 1773 and the start of the American Revolution, where Americans start boycotting tea and drinking coffee instead. This new American habit was proliferated by Thomas Jefferson in 1824 when he declared coffee as “the favourite drink of the civilised world”.


Since then coffee has continued to grow and it is now ranked as the third most drunk drink in the world! Sitting behind water and tea, and on the podium just in front of our beloved beer. Coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world (behind oil; I guess people need fuel too) and it has helped many countries in the developing world thrive and can be counted as a vital source of income for many economies. This is the first part of our introduction to coffee. In our next post, we’re going to follow a coffee bean from berry to cup and find out exactly how coffee is made.


Image Credit: Public Domain Images - PIXNIO