It has been over four centuries since coffee arrived in Europe. This energizing drink has been appreciated over time, both for its properties and its social character. People love to share a coffee while discussing, and this has been the case for a long time. And it’s probably this aspect, related to sharing and exchange, that has sometimes made it controversial…
These small beans, so insignificant to us today, have long been at the center of controversies, bans, and even revolts throughout history, both in their country of origin and in France. It is only through a long historical and geographical journey that coffee has become the drink we know today.
How did these coffee “cherries” from Ethiopia spread throughout the world to become one of the most consumed products in the world? How did simple coffee beans manage to endanger kings and emperors throughout history, from the Arab world to Europe?
The Discovery Of Coffee
Legend has it that it was an Abyssinian shepherd (currently Ethiopia) who discovered coffee. Seeing that his goats were more restless than usual after ingesting the fruits of a shrub, he decided to try consuming them himself. He was the first to note the energizing effect of caffeine contained in the cherries of the arabica coffee plants.
He then shared his discovery with the nearby Sufi community. They made a decoction of it in water, which they quickly appreciated because it allowed them not to fall asleep during prayer.
Despite the beauty of legends, science tends to rationalize the facts to bring out the truth. Thus, a biological study has highlighted the origin of coffee. The arabica coffee plant is indeed native to Ethiopia, where it has actually been consumed since prehistoric times by the ancestors of the peoples of this region of the world. Excavations have shown that coffee preparations were part of their diet (beverages as well as preparations of dishes).
As for the first written record regarding coffee, it dates back to the 9th century in a medical book, which was later cited by Avicenna, a Persian physician and philosopher, in his “Canon of Medicine” written in the 11th century. He described the effects of coffee and caffeine on the body, particularly on the digestive system.
In the following centuries, coffee crossed the borders of the Eastern countries, thanks in particular to pilgrims traveling to Mecca. They carried the precious beans with them, giving them energy for their long journey. The spread then went to Yemen and the rest of the Arab world, making the plant more and more popular and appreciated.
The Beginnings Of Coffee Cultivation
Scientific research attests that it was in Yemen that the cultivation of coffee trees began. During the time of Suleiman the Magnificent, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire who ruled over much of the Mediterranean basin and Central Europe, the domestication and cultivation of coffee began.
Mastering the production of the plant as well as the roasting of the beans, the Ottoman people consumed coffee regularly. As the Sultan conquered different lands during the 15th century, the consumption began to spread to the annexed countries, making this beverage increasingly popular, far beyond the borders of Ethiopia and Yemen.
It was in Mocha that the largest part of the trade was conducted at the time. It was in this port that most of the coffee intended for commerce was transported to other countries.
THE CONTROVERSIAL DRINK OF COFFEE
It was in the 16th century that the first coffee shops started to appear in Egypt and the region around Mecca. People came there to drink the famous beverage, chat, exchange ideas, all surrounded by people from all social classes. It was also at that time that, for the first time in history, a leader questioned the right to consume coffee. As the Quran says, any intoxicating substance is prohibited from consumption. It was the Sultan of Cairo who lifted this prohibition with the help of medical arguments and stating that coffee consumption was perfectly in line with the laws laid down by Allah himself!
A similar episode occurred when coffee shops opened in Syria, attracting scientists, scholars, and thinkers of the time. Despite the prohibitions, the controversial drink continued to be drunk and enjoyed by more and more consumers throughout the Arab world.
Under the guise of non-compliance with religious laws, authorities actually feared the emergence of bubbles of dissent in cafes, raised by the thinkers of the time. Ideas and modes of thought were exchanged, sometimes questioning established power… The energizing preparation exacerbated scholars, leading them to share their doubts and giving birth to new schools of thought. As often, new things frighten authorities! The coffee bean therefore represented on its own the defiance of authority and the possibility of questioning the very order of society or the religion in place.
Nevertheless, at that time, more and more drink shops offering coffee began to be found in Baghdad, Istanbul, Damascus, as well as in many cities throughout the Arab world. Nothing stopped its expansion and distribution, not even religious and political authorities.
The Arrival Of Coffee In Europe
Italian merchants specialized in the spice trade between the Orient and Europe were the first to introduce coffee to Europe. It was at the beginning of the 17th century that the first coffee beans were brought to Italy. Only a few years later, the famous drink began to spread, first among monks and merchants, then among the people. The entourage of the pope of the time, Clement VIII, advised him to ban coffee by declaring it a drink of infidels. Coming from Muslim countries, the cardinals surrounding the Holy Father frowned upon the fact that this drink was being introduced from the other side of the Mediterranean. However, the pope did nothing about it. After tasting it, he declared that it would have been a shame to leave the pleasure of this drink to the infidels alone!
Dutch merchants also allowed the famous beans to travel. At the time, Ottoman traders boiled the coffee beans so that they could not be germinated. However, Pieter Van der Broecke, captain of a Dutch merchant ship, managed to obtain a few intact seeds. These are the seeds that were used to introduce plantations in Europe, Asia, and the Caribbean!
Meanwhile, in the mid-17th century, coffeehouses began to open in England. Once again, intellectuals and free thinkers gathered there to exchange and converse. This was enough for the prosecutor of King Charles II to declare the mandatory closure of these places, where liberal ideas and pamphlets were widely shared among the protesters of the time. Faced with the rebellion of the people, the ban was quickly lifted, and only 50 years later, England had nearly 2,000 cafes spread throughout the British territory.
In France, it was in Marseille that coffee was introduced to the territory. Imported from Egypt at the initiative of a Marseille merchant in 1644, consumption quickly became popular enough for the first French coffee shop to open in the city in 1671. It was only in 1669 that the precious roasted beans arrived in Paris with the visit of Solimane Aga, emissary of the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. In addition to the fact that the attempt to bring France and Turkey closer together was a fiasco, Solimane allowed King Louis XIV to taste the drink that was gradually spreading in the European courts.
Did you know? It was in France where percolation was first used to prepare coffee. Until then, only infusion allowed for the preparation of coffee beans.
In 1715, the mayor of Amsterdam gave a few coffee trees to Louis XIV during the signing of the “coffee treaty.” The king entrusted them to the gardeners of the Jardin du Roi, who took great care of them. Years later, during the reign of Louis XV, some plants were introduced to Reunion Island and Bourbon, thus allowing France to become self-sufficient by owning its own plantations. Coffee trees were later introduced in Martinique and Guadeloupe to ensure the necessary production for the French kingdom.
In the meantime, Austria and Germany also succumbed to the pleasure of coffee. Establishments offering the now-famous drink emerged from the end of the 17th century. Viennese tasted coffee thanks to the discovery of a stock of green cherries left behind after the defeat of the Turkish army. A Pole took advantage of this windfall and opened the first Viennese establishment.
The logical outcome of this expansion was to bring coffee across the Atlantic to America.
The Introduction Of Coffee To The Rest Of The World
First, coffee reached North America in 1689. Although the country was largely populated by English immigrants who favored tea, it quickly became the national drink. The Boston Tea Party episode, during which English tea stocks were dumped by North American residents, marked a real split with the British Crown, which derived undeniable economic benefits from taxes collected through tea exports. Coffee then replaced English tea.
Over time, to meet European demand, coffee was introduced in South America, especially in Brazil and Colombia, where its cultivation represented a significant part of land revenues. Unfortunately, production was ensured through slavery, benefiting only the owners of immense plantations worked by slaves.
At the same time, coffee trees were taken to India, a British colony, to ensure the establishment of sufficient plantations to meet the consumption needs of the British Empire. Unfortunately, all the plantations suffered from a disease and had to be replaced with tea, which was more resistant to local conditions.
The Dutch crown established its coffee plantations in its colonies in Indonesia.
Today, coffee production comes from countries whose latitude allows for coffee cultivation. This is called the “coffee belt.” Coffee is found in Central America (Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, etc.), South America (Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, etc.), Africa (Ethiopia, Ivory Coast, etc.), and Asia (Vietnam, Indonesia, etc.). Given the necessary conditions for plantation conservation, the coffea plant is generally grown in countries with tropical flora. Although robusta and arabica do not require the same configurations to grow, it is still necessary for temperatures to be favorable for plants of both species to grow properly.
Although the Arabica variety has long dominated the entire global consumption, the Robusta has come to change consumers’ habits, allowing them to choose between a strong and caffeine-rich coffee (Robusta) and a more aromatic and less bitter coffee (Arabica). Many brands offer blends to attenuate the effect of one or accentuate the bitterness of the other.
Few plants have been able to modify human habits on a global scale throughout history to such an extent. Coffee is now consumed on all continents as a common consumer product.