10 Surprising Facts on the History of Coffee

Our favorite morning brew was discovered in the most bizarre ways. How did it become so essential? Here are some curious facts on the history of coffee.

Oct 17, 2022By Vedran Bileta, MA in Late Antique, Byzantine, and Early Modern History, BA in History
history of coffee mocha port


Every day you wake up and start your morning ritual: News, breakfast, and a cup of that precious beverage – coffee. There is something special in its bitter flavor and potent aroma, and you are not the only one who appreciates this revitalizing drink. It is estimated that around 2.25 billion cups of coffee are consumed each day across the entire world! Coffee is an essential part of life. But when and where exactly did this caffeinated phenomenon begin? And how did coffee conquer the globe? From its humble beginnings in Ethiopia to religious challenges from Islam and Christianity to Europe’s obsession with the Orient, here is a brief history of coffee.


1. The History of Coffee Begins with a Goat

dancing goat coffee aroma
Legend has it the history of coffee began with a goat


As with many other stories, the history of coffee begins a long time ago, in the heart of Africa. A popular Ethiopian legend tells us of a remarkable discovery that would eventually change the world. Around the 9th century, a goat herder called Kaldi frantically searched the Ethiopian highlands for his beloved goats. He found them frolicking in the bushes, jumping wildly, and yelling. It did not take long for him to realize that the goats were eating small red berries. He took a handful of the berries and visited the nearby monastery to ask for advice. The monks, however, did not share Kaldi’s excitement. Instead, they proclaimed the red berries a devil’s creation and threw them into the fire. The story could have ended there, but as the seeds within roasted in the fire, the potent aroma caught the monks’ attention. They gathered the roasted beans from the ashes, ground them, and tossed them into hot water. They tried the brew, and the rest is history.


Or is it? The story of Kaldi, his frolicking goats, and the skeptical monks is probably a legend. Yet, we know that Ethiopia holds a special place in the history of human civilization. Ethiopia is home to the first evidence of humankind, one of several ancient African cultures, and one of the oldest Christian churches in the world. It is also probably one of the first places coffee was consumed — not as a brew but as food. Like Kaldi’s beloved goats, Ethiopians discovered coffee by chewing the berries. However, it did not take long for the coffee to become a staple of Ethiopian culture and daily life, which it remains up to today.


2. Yemen’s Ancient Port and Transport Hub Was Called Mocha

mocha port yemen
An engraving showing the Port of Mocha (Yemen), during the second half of the 17th century


The next step in the history of coffee takes us eastwards across the Red Sea to Yemen, where coffee — known as qahwa — was enjoyed for the first time in its liquid form. While Arab tribes had probably been making wine with coffee cherries before now, the earliest historical evidence of coffee as a beverage comes from the 15th century. Sufi mystics used the revitalizing beverage to stay awake for their nightly religious rituals. Yemen is also the first place where the coffee was roasted and served the same way we do today.

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3. The Wine of Arabia: Unlike Alcohol, Coffee Was Omitted from the Quran

loo sultana pompadour history of coffee
Madame Pompadour as Sultana, by Charles Andre van Loo, 1747, via the Pera Museum


Mocha, Yemen’s ancient port city on the Red Sea coast, became a hub from which coffee was dispatched all around the Islamic world. The popularity of coffee among Muslims was boosted by its omission from the Quran. Another stimulant, alcohol, was expressly forbidden. Thus, it is not surprising that, initially, coffee was known as the Wine of Arabia.


4. The First Coffee House Opened in 1555

wine of arabia is coffee
The Coffee House, by Carl Werner, 1870, watercolor, via. Sotheby’s


By the mid-16th century, coffee was rapidly spreading across the Arabian Peninsula, North-East Africa, and Egypt. In part coffee’s expansion was facilitated by the Ottoman conquest of Arabia, which brought coffee to every corner of the vast Empire, including its capital Istanbul. In 1555, the first coffee house opened its doors in what was then one of the largest and most important cities in the world.


However, not everyone was pleased by the taste of this aromatic beverage. Coffee houses were places where patrons would meet for discussions, listen to poetry, and play games like chess or backgammon. This caused alarm among some Muslim clerics who feared that coffee houses would endanger mosques and replace them as meeting places. Furthermore, the clerics believed that coffee would seduce the minds of the faithful, intoxicate them, and prevent them from thinking clearly. In addition, the authorities feared that coffee houses could become places for instigating public disorder or revolt. Yet, numerous attempts to ban coffee and coffee culture — including Sultan Murad IV’s death penalty for coffee drinking (!) — ultimately failed, with coffee houses becoming a staple of Islamic culture in the Ottoman Empire.


5. Pope Clement VIII Wanted to Baptize Coffee

pope clement viii coffee
Right: Portrait of Pope Clement III, by Antonio Scalvati, 1596-1605


Like other exotic commodities from the East, coffee arrived in Christian Europe on Venetian trade galleys. In 1615, one could find street vendors selling coffee on the streets of Venice. Once again, coffee came under attack, this time from both religious and secular authorities. The Catholic Church considered coffee a “Muslim drink” and a potential competitor for wine as used in the Eucharist. The heated debate was resolved only by the personal intervention of Pope Clement VIII. Upon tasting the beverage, he reportedly declared: Why, this Satan’s drink is so delicious that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it.” The Pope enjoyed the cup so much that he wanted to baptize coffee.


The baptism never happened, but the Papal’s blessing increased coffee’s popularity. By the late 17th century, coffee houses were all over Italy. Another big boost came following the Ottoman failure to take Vienna in 1683. Among the spoils of war found in the Turkish camp were huge quantities of coffee beans used by the victors in the newly opened coffee houses in Vienna and the rest of Europe. After Habsburg’s Austria, coffee took the continent by storm, becoming a vital part of Turqueria, Europe’s obsession with Oriental fashion and trends.


6. From Taverns to Coffee Houses: The Global History of Coffee 

ship export coffe table bay 1762
The Noord-Nieuwland in Table Bay, 1762, via the VOC Foundation


Unlike taverns, coffee houses were well-lit places with their own libraries and music. In short, they were the places where European intellectuals would hang out. Some of the world’s brightest ideas sprang from the debates accompanied by a cup of coffee. Not everyone liked the rapidly growing coffee culture. In 1675, the English King Charles II tried to ban coffee houses, labeling them places of sedition. The Revolution was still fresh in the king’s mind. While the ban never went into effect, another exotic commodity – tea – gradually replaced coffee as a favorite drink in the British Isles.


7. The Dutch Established Plantations on the Island of Java

coffee plantation in java
A coffee plantation on the Island of Java


While coffee experienced a setback in England, the rest of Europe loved the bitter drink so much that they decided to break the Ottoman Empire’s monopoly once and for all. On the decks of the ships of the powerful colonizing nations, coffee was ready to conquer the world. The first of those who took coffee to the other side of the globe were the Dutch, whose East Indian company established large coffee plantations in Indonesia, with the island of Java becoming one of the main trading hubs. Already in 1711, the first exports of Indonesian coffee reached Europe.


Across the Atlantic, the French began their own coffee businesses in the Caribbean and Mexico. While in South America, the Spanish and Portuguese colonizers laid the seeds for the future coffee superpowers of Colombia, Peru, and Brazil. By the 1800s, Europeans controlled the entire global coffee trade.


8. Revolution in a Cup Thanks to the Boston Tea Party

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The Boston Tea Party helped popularize coffee in the United States


The rapidly growing popularity of coffee has its dark side. To satisfy increasing demand, European colonial powers imported slaves from Africa to toil on the plantations in the Caribbean, Asia, and the Americas. Yet, the history of coffee also had its positive side, playing an important role in the birth of modern democracy. The famous Boston Tea Party of 1773, which sparked the American Revolution, caused a switch from tea to coffee. Drinking coffee became something of a patriotic duty for the nascent American nation. In fact, the demand for coffee increased so much that dealers had to hoard their scarce supplies and raise prices exorbitantly. After the war of 1812, coffee solidified its position as a favorite American brew.


9. Soldiers Relied on Caffeine to Boost their Energy

american soldiers salvation army hut
American servicemen enjoying coffee at a Salvation Army hut in New York, 1918


Remember Charles II and his attempt to ban coffee in England? The monarch’s fears seem to have been justified, as the revolutions that engulfed Europe in 1848 began at the meetings held in coffee houses, from Budapest to Berlin, from Paris to Palermo. These revolutions and other conflicts, such as the American Civil War, also helped increase coffee consumption, as soldiers relied on caffeine to boost their energy.


10. Coffee Goes to Space on the Apollo 11 (1969)

cristoforreti nasa history of coffee
Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti drinking an espresso on ISS, 2015. NASA, an important moment in the history of coffee, via coffeeordie.com


By the late 1800s, coffee had become a worldwide commodity, available to royalty and elites, but also to the common folk. The coffee house was a staple of every city, a place for discussion, contemplation, or just a leisurely drink. Coffee also helped to fuel the Industrial Revolution. Workers in unrelenting new factories toiled day and night thanks to coffee, or more precisely, the caffeine in it. Coffee was now ready to enter people’s homes. Ironically, the arrival of coffee into households was facilitated by the two calamities that struck the world in the 20th century. During the Great War, instant coffee gave the troops a much-needed boost, while in the Second World War, American soldiers loved their brew so much that the G.I.s gave it a special name — “a cuppa Joe.”


With coffee omnipresent in every corner of the Earth, entering every aspect of people’s lives, there was one last place to go. The Final Frontier. While not considered a mandatory supplement for astronauts, the aromatic drink participated in the “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” In 1969, all the crew of Apollo 11 drank coffee before landing on the Moon. Nowadays, the astronauts orbiting Earth on the International Space Station have state-of-the-art vacuum-sealed pouches and zero-gravity cups to enjoy their favorite hot beverage while boldly going. And from 2015 onward space coffee is now prepared in a unique device — the ISSpresso coffee machine located on the International Space Station.


The History of Coffee and its Future

gogh cafe night painting with starbucks
Terrace of a café at night (Place du Forum), by Vincent van Gogh, 1888, via the Kröller-Müller Museum; with a photograph of a Starbucks Coffee shop


Coffee has come a long way from its humble beginnings in the highlands of Ethiopia to a hi-tech space drink. But the journey is not over yet. After all, coffee still plays a major role in the global economy. As such, the coffee industry has a great impact both on humans and planet Earth. For centuries coffee production was powered by slaves. It was also one of the drivers of inequality, with big international corporations profiting from poorly paid local workers. During the Cold War, coffee played a part in instigating wars in Latin America that further weakened already unstable countries and their economies. Lastly, large coffee plantations cause environmental harm, endangering local flora and fauna. The price of your daily cup, as it seems, is a steep one.


specialty coffees
The rich variety of specialty coffees available today


Thankfully, there is a change happening at this very moment. Already in the 1990s, a new movement arose in the United States. Some roasters began preparing coffee by hand, sourcing beans from smaller plantations owned by local farmers, and most importantly, supporting the farms that do not endanger the environment. This was accompanied by the education of customers on the origins of the beans in their coffee cups. This evolved into what is now known as specialty coffee. In just a few decades, it turned into a worldwide phenomenon, taking coffee into an environmentally and socially aware future.

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By Vedran BiletaMA in Late Antique, Byzantine, and Early Modern History, BA in HistoryVedran is a doctoral researcher, based in Budapest. His main interest is Ancient History, in particular the Late Roman period. When not spending time with the military elites of the Late Roman West, he is sharing his passion for history with those willing to listen. In his free time, Vedran is wargaming and discussing Star Trek.