For centuries, coffee has played a far more important role in the world than most people realize. Of course, it’s one of the most popular beverages in disparate cultures around the globe. Coffee is also a valued commodity and a central element in the economies of many countries; indeed, as the primary agricultural export in dozens of regions across the Equatorial Belt, coffee provides a living for millions of people involved in its cultivation, processing and distribution. Furthermore, coffee has a history rich with intrigue and amusing stories (dancing goats, anyone?) and a cultural tradition that ranges from the Ottoman Empire to modern American coffee houses. Coffee has launched financial dynasties, fomented revolutions and started nearly as many mornings as the sunrise. To fully understand the allure of coffee, you have to look at it through a variety of lenses.
One could argue that the allure of coffee is rooted in its chemistry, an amalgam of elements that provide the flavors and aromas it possesses and the physiological effects it causes. Scientists have identified more than 1,500 chemicals and over 1,000 aroma compounds in your average cup of coffee. This complex brew may be responsible for a wide range of health benefits, including:
The effects of coffee on health, though, have little to do with the historical appeal of coffee. After all, until quite recently, most scientists believed that coffee was probably more bad for you than good. Among the harmful effects ascribed to coffee were the following:
Some of these bad effects have been debunked – we know that coffee doesn’t stunt growth, for example. In many of the other cases, scientists have found that the issue is far more complicated than previously believed. Case in point: an excess of caffeine will certainly cause jitteriness, but the definition of “excess” varies widely from one person to the next.
Learn more about coffee chemistry: Chemistry in Every Cup (Royal Society of Chemistry)
Learn more about coffee and health: What Is It About Coffee? (Harvard Health Letter January 2012)
The chemicals alluded to above – and their countless interactions during roasting and brewing – are responsible for the taste, aroma and other qualities by which we judge a cup of coffee. Coffee tasters have catalogued hundreds of distinct aromas and flavors in coffee. Each cup of coffee you drink is unique, the result of a process begun in the nutrient-rich soil in which coffee beans are grown and accomplished only after meticulous processing and roasting when the ground coffee is combined with hot water. Along the way, the flavor and aroma of coffee are affected by hundreds of factors, including:
Each one of these factors can profoundly affect one’s sensory experience of coffee for better or worse. Specialty roasters seek out coffees that are grown and processed to the highest standards and apply their knowledge and experience to determine the optimal roast level (and blend, if applicable) for each coffee they sell.
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When you consider its epic journey from cherry to beverage, you have to wonder how coffee was ever discovered, and who made the discovery. That information is, unfortunately, lost to history, though there are stories that may or may not be true. The most popular of these involves an Ethiopian goat herder by the name of Kaldi, who lived – at least according to legend – during the 9th century. One day, he noticed his goats dancing around energetically after eating bright red berries from a flowering bush. Legend doesn’t go into much detail about precisely what Kaldi did with his observation, but we do know that in those earliest days coffee was more like tea: a concoction made by steeping dried leaves and dried berries from the Coffea Arabica bush in hot water.
Coffee made its way from Ethiopia and the Sudan into Yemen and Arabia, most likely carried by slaves. It was in Yemen that farmers began to cultivate coffee trees, and the cultivation and sale of coffee beans from Yemen, through the port of Mocha, was well-established by the 1500s.
In an early attempt to control the price of coffee and maintain a monopoly over its production, the Arabs prohibited the export of fertile coffee beans. In 1616, however, a Dutch trader circumvented the ban by bringing live coffee plants home with him to be grown in greenhouses. The Dutch experimented with coffee cultivation, and before the end of the 17th century they were growing coffee at Malabar in India and at Batavia in Java. Within a few years, the Dutch colonies became the main source of coffee for Europeans, who had developed a taste for the beverage after Venetian traders brought it home in 1615.
Over the course of the 17th and 18th centuries, Dutch and French explorers and traders carried coffee trees to their respective colonies throughout the world. The spread of coffee cultivation was accompanied by the development – sometimes spontaneous and sometimes through laborious selection – of new coffee varieties that were better equipped to thrive in the diverse climates they encountered.
Among the most notable developments during those centuries was the discovery of Bourbon coffee, which is the progenitor to some of today’s most beloved coffees. It was cultivated on the French island of Bourbon, now called Réunion. The Dutch had presented live Coffea Arabica trees to the French royal family as a gift. Missionaries then carried seedlings to Bourbon, where they planted them. Most historians believe that Bourbon coffee is a natural mutation of the original Arabica stock, though a few suggest it may be a natural cross-breed between Arabica and Typica that had been brought to Bourbon by Yemeni traders. In either case, Bourbon proved hardier than the native Arabica and produced 20% to 30% more fruit per tree. It was subsequently taken to South American colonies by the Dutch and eventually spread throughout Brazil and a number of other South and Central American countries.
By 1830, total world coffee production already amounted to about 2.5 million bags per year.
The widespread popularity of coffee is inextricably linked to the history and popularity of the coffee house. The first coffee houses appeared in Yemen in the 13th century and spread throughout the Arab world. These coffee houses were comfortable places where patrons played chess, drank coffee and engaged in discourse – and that discourse inevitably became political. Over the course of several decades, coffee houses were actively promoted or suppressed by those in power, until eventually a tax was imposed on both coffee and coffee houses.
In Europe, coffee was at first sold as a medicinal beverage, but people quickly acquired a taste for it. The first European coffee house opened in 1683 in Venice, and the most famous, Caffe Florian, opened in 1720 in Piazza San Marco and is still serving customers today.
In Vienna, coffee house culture is so ingrained and revered that the Austrian National Agency for the Intangible Cultural Heritage, a UNESCO project, features “Viennese Coffee House Culture” as an entry in its inventory. The agency describes the coffee house as “a place where time and space are consumed, but only coffee is on the bill.”
The history of coffee and coffee houses in Vienna is one in keeping with the romance and intrigue of that Old World city. According to legend, Jerzy Kulczycki, a young officer in the Polish Army, had spent time in the Ottoman Empire and infiltrated the Turkish camp that was holding Vienna under siege. His information was invaluable in helping the Polish army rout the Turks and liberate Vienna. In their search of the Turkish encampment, the soldiers found several bags of dark beans that they mistook for camel food and intended to discard, but Kulczycki recognized them for what they were. When the Polish king asked him what he would take as a reward, the clever officer asked for the bags of beans. Many histories credit Kulczycki for establishing the first coffee house in Vienna. Others give the honor to Johannes Theodat, who opened the first Greek coffee house in Vienna in 1685. The new drink proved to be popular, and coffee houses thrived for nearly three centuries.
In London, coffee houses became centers of commerce where businessmen and traders met to negotiate contracts. The most famous insurance company in the world, Lloyds of London, began life in a coffee house in 1688; its founder, Edward Lloyd, kept meticulous lists of the ships and shipments that his customers insured. London coffee houses were commonly known as ‘penny universities,” places where, for the cost of a cup of coffee, a young man could receive a world-class education simply by listening to and engaging in discourse with more learned men.
Lloyds is not the only financial institution to have started in a coffee house. In the New World, coffee houses were quickly established in New York, Philadelphia and Boston, as well as in other towns. In New York, traders gathered in coffee houses on the street now known as Wall Street to negotiate contracts and complete financial transactions. The Bank of New York and the New York Stock Exchange both sprang from interactions that began in those coffee houses. In Boston, coffee houses were the hubs of business and intellect – and revolution. The Boston Tea Party, for example, was planned in the Green Dragon, a Boston coffee house.
The popularity of coffee houses has waxed and waned over the intervening centuries, but the popularity of coffee has remained constant. Surges in the popularity of coffee houses as social gathering places have often coincided with significant cultural events, such as the Beat poetry movement in the 1950s, folk music in the 1960s and the open houses and poetry slams of the 1990s and 2000s.
Among all commodities, coffee is second only to crude oil in terms of trade by volume on the world market. It is cultivated in more than 70 countries, and in many of them coffee accounts for more than 50% of the earnings from foreign exchange. It is traded in higher volumes than cotton, wheat, corn or sugar and provides income for millions of people and families.
In recent years, a great deal of attention has been paid to the wages earned by coffee growers and pickers. The Fair Trade movement was created to ensure that farmers received at least enough pay for their crops to cover the cost of growing them. While Fair Trade certification is available for many agricultural and handcrafted products, coffee is and has been a key focus of Fair Trade since its inception.
Our accolades article goes into detail about each certification.
Fair Trade is, however, only one of the mechanisms by which the coffee world has begun to address the issue of compensation for coffee producers. Many specialty roasters have worked to establish direct working relationships with farm holders, coffee estates, coffee cooperatives and others who grow or process coffee. Commonly referred to as Direct Trade, or directly traded coffee, these relationships benefit the roaster/importer, the coffee farmer and the farming community. In addition, specialty roasters and importers have established foundations and charities to help improve social and physical conditions for those living in coffee-growing communities.
This brief history barely scratches the surface of the history and complexity of coffee, its cultivation and its place in the world, but it should be enough to get you started. Feel free to explore other content on our site to learn more about coffee history, botany, terminology and more.
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