As I sat in uffish thought over my keyboard this morning, sipping coffee and thinking over interesting things to write about, I looked into my cup, observed its rich, deep color, took in its earthy, savory aroma, enjoyed that wisp of steam that wafted past my nose, and blithely decided on the topic. Everyone, myself included, has asked, “I wonder who first entertained the idea of roasting a certain kind of beans, crushing them up into a powder, steeping the result of that in hot water—and then drinking it?”
So I started snooping around.
As far as anyone can tell, the earliest intentional use of the coffee bean can be traced back to before 1000 A.D. The Oromo, or Galla people of eastern Africa (think Ethiopia), made a kind of energy bar out of ground coffee beans and animal fat. Sound gross? Some of our modern day “health food” has the exact same stuff in it. And the Oromo hadn’t come up with partially hydrogenated vegetable oil in those days, either.
By 1000 A.D., Arab traders had domesticated coffee plants, ground up and drank coffee as we know it, boiling it into a drink they called qahwa. Eventually, it made its way to Constantinople, modern-day Istanbul, where the first coffee shop, Kiva Han, was established in 1475. I wonder if there were any jokes floating around the Ottoman Empire about having a Kiva Han on every corner of its capital? Probably not. They were notoriously not-in-the-mood-for-it before their first cup.
I have a few friends who nonchalantly say, “I never really developed a taste for coffee. Don’t care for it.” Personally, I don’t think they have ever tasted real coffee. That’s fine. I’ll have theirs.
Kingdoms and governments have toppled over this deep, delicious nectar!
In 1511, the governor of Mecca declared coffee illegal. Then, the Sultan declared coffee sacred and followed up by proclaiming the governor a criminal. And had him executed. I lived in Turkey for many years and studied some Arabic history. Sultans were always doing stuff like that. I don’t know what they were drinking in Mecca in 1511, but if it was anything approaching modern Turkish coffee, the Sultan’s case was almost arguable.
In or around 1600 A.D., coffee made its way to the port of Venice, and thus to the Western world. The papal advisors tried to get the Pope to condemn coffee as an infidel drink and declare it a threat to the world. Instead, the Pope actually baptized coffee and declared it fit for Christian consumption. My man. I am a Christian, and I did not make any of this up. You couldn’t. I think his Eminence had perhaps experienced his first shot of espresso.
In 1607, John Smith introduced coffee to the colonies (in other words, U.S.) long before it made it to England. The British were, as they still are, hung up on their tea. That fine point sets up a great little vignette in American history further down the line in 1773, as the colonists were strongly encouraged to drink coffee after the Boston Tea Party. Seeing a definite trend here.
Italy, England, France and Austria followed suit during the mid- to late-1600s with their taste for coffee, and shops began to sprout up in sufficient numbers to sustain the industry.
In the early 1700s, the magic elixir gained its now famous foothold on the South American continent when some high-level espionage included the smuggling of coffee seeds and cuttings. Some people really took that cuppa Joe seriously.
In 1900, Hills Bros. came out with vacuum-sealed, roasted ground coffee. This was unfortunate for the up-to-then ubiquitous coffee shops and mills. The beginning of “you can just pick up a can of it at the store” coffee. I’m stifling a tear.
1906 marks the first mass-produced “instant” coffee. Time for another execution, in my opinion. George Constant Louis Washington, a Belgian-born American inventor, concocted the dreadful stuff, just three years after the Wright brothers lifted off the ground at Kitty Hawk. Mankind was actually flying with handmade wings, and that guy had to go and do that.
In 1920, the Volstead Act, better known as the National Prohibition Act, outlawed any and all alcohol sales in the U.S. In hindsight, it is no surprise that coffee sales skyrocketed upward, and by the time the U.S. entered WWII, we were far and away the biggest importers of coffee in the entire world, commanding a whopping 70 percent of the world crop.
Now, we are not even in the top 10. The countries that buy more coffee than Americans are the cold northern countries of Western Europe. Shock. If I lived somewhere called “Iceland” you can bet the farm I’d be chugging some Joe, and I wouldn’t make it exclusive to the morning hours.
I would like to thank and encourage you to visit historyofcoffee.net for some of these details and other intriguing facts about coffee. I had a great time researching this story. The opinions, as always, come free with the magazine. Cheers!