June 16th, 2020

7 mins read

A Brief History of Coffee

In the modern world, coffee is a necessity. Not only is it a lifeline for students struggling to finish their late-night papers and professionals fighting to stay awake through dry meetings, but coffee is one of the largest trade industries in the world, valued at $20 billion. An estimated 500 billion cups are consumed every year, 146 billion of which are consumed by the United States alone. But our venti triple lattes with eight pumps of vanilla syrup and almond milk caramel macchiatos with extra whip today would be unrecognizable to the earliest coffee users of the past.

By Alex Faug



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Coffee cup

While the true origin of coffee is unknown, there are many legends surrounding its mysterious beginning. An old Ethiopian tale tells the story of a goat herder named Kaldi who witnessed his goats become full of energy and refuse to go to sleep after eating the red berries from a nearby coffee bush. He tried the berries for himself after watching his goats and found that they gave him abundant energy as well. Kaldi then shared his strange findings with the monks of the local monastery, and it is said that the discovery of the magical energy fruit spread from there. Another theory of coffee’s origin comes from a Persian story that claims coffee came from the angels. The Persians believed the angel Gabriel gave coffee to Mohammad prior to an important battle in order to give him strength when he was weary.

In the earliest days of the coffee bean, coffee wasn’t consumed as the rich black drink we know and love today. Coffee beans on the bush are encased in a bright red fruit, and this fruit was originally mixed with animal fat in order to create a type of protein bar high in caffeine that was consumed by the first people in need of an energy jolt. The coffee fruit could also be turned into various drinks that were nothing like the hot beverage we know and love. Creative people of the 1000s produced a concoction similar to wine using the juice of the fruit surrounding the coffee bean. Another variation of coffee juice included both the fruit and the bean itself. The beans weren’t taken from the shell and roasted to create the traditional drink we think of today until the 1200s.

Coffee By Firesky Studios Ireland

Once coffee made from roasted coffee beans started becoming a popular, bitter drink spread by Arabian traders, coffeehouses began to pop up all throughout the Middle East. Most ordinary people at the time did not have the skills required to brew coffee, so merchants could not sell their beans whole. Instead, merchants created these coffee shops where they could brew and sell their beans by the cup rather than by the bag. The people quickly took to these new shops, and the coffeehouses became not only places to purchase a warm cup of liquid energy, but places of intellectual conversation and learning. The rise of coffeehouses concerned religious leaders in the Middle East as these new shops became major social spaces for people to spend their time. With more people dedicating their time to the coffee houses, less time was spent in mosques, threatening the religion that was fundamental to their lives.

As coffee spread to Europe in the 1600s, even more people became suspicious of the hot beverage. It was originally condemned by Catholics as an invention of Satan, but when Pope Clement VIII tasted the energizing new drink to settle the matter, he gave it the stamp of approval needed for it to become accepted by Catholics and continue to grow in popularity in Europe.

Even though the matter of coffee’s possible Satanic origins was settled by the Pope and the drink had become acceptable by religious standards in Europe, political leaders were still unconvinced that coffee was not a threat. They feared the concept of people gathering in large quantities to exchange ideas in the new coffeehouses, paranoid that the people would plot against the government in these unregulated new community spots. In the end, these concerns turned out to be valid as coffeehouses played a major role in the planning of the French Revolution in 1789 and the revolutions in Berlin, Budapest, and Venice in 1848. Coffeehouses were major planning centers where leaders were able to share their ideas during these revolutions.

While the rest of the world was falling for the newest drink craze, America didn’t jump on the coffee bandwagon until after the Boston Tea Party. As a colony of Great Britain, America was primarily reliant on tea for its daily caffeine boost and soothing hot beverages. Even though the first coffeehouse in America opened its doors in 1689, the drink didn’t truly take off until after the young country began rebelling against its founder nearly a hundred years later. Making the switch from tea to coffee wasn’t so much a preferential choice as it was a patriotic duty during the Revolutionary War. According to John Adams, “drinking tea had become unpatriotic.” Over the course of the following century, consumption of coffee in America went from one eighteenth of a pound per capita to nine hundred pounds per capita, indicating that America’s current obsession with coffee in the 21st century can be traced back all the way to the American Revolution.

After the Revolution, American coffee consumption continued to grow with every major war as soldiers enjoyed the hot drink to keep themselves alert. Coffee in American culture is deeply rooted in the military. Coffee was a necessity in the military for years, even when it wasn’t a common household item as it is today. Even the colloquial term “cup of Joe” comes from the term GI Joe referring to military men.

In the Civil War, soldiers were given rations of coffee instead of the rum that had been distributed in the Revolutionary War. Coffee helped the troops stay alert and allowed them to perform significantly better than when they were provided rum to keep the edge off. Early in the war, southern ports were blocked by the Union, so only the Northern soldiers had access to coffee beans. Off the battlefield, Union and Confederate soldiers were civil and traded tobacco and coffee products with one another. The men were willing to put aside the fact that they were on opposing sides of a major war so that they could all have access to the addicting drink.

During World War I, the military began providing the new instant coffee to the troops. This new way to consume coffee was created by a chemist named Satori Kato in 1901. Suddenly people no longer had to grind their own beans for the drink they so craved; all they had to do was open an envelope and boil some water. Demand for instant coffee instead of beans rose exponentially in 1917 when America entered the Great War and America had to begin providing coffee to troops once again. The easy-to-make hot beverage was comforting to soldiers and helped them stay alert in battle.

After a brief period of coffee rationing during World War II, coffee became a household commodity that everyone drank, not just soldiers. Coffee was consumed black or with the tiniest hint of milk and sugar until the 1960s, when specially made custom coffee drinks began to come into fashion. This new trend of fancy coffee led to the development of the world’s largest coffeehouse franchise: Starbucks.

Starbucks opened its first store in Seattle, Washington in 1971, on a day that marks the death of pure coffee. Suddenly coffee became an artform rather than a simple black drink. The average cup of coffee comes at a price of $1.38 in the United States. The average cost of a Starbucks coffee is $2.75, and a premium coffee loaded with their trademark sugars and syrups can set you back more than five dollars.

It’s strange to think about it, but the events of the Boston Tea Party indirectly led to the development of Starbucks nearly two hundred years later. The way we consume coffee today has been heavily influenced by the wars that have shaped our world in so many other ways. These days it’s second nature to most adults to stumble out of bed to brew a cup of coffee in the morning, but even the most diehard coffee fiends rarely stop to consider the origin of their favorite drink.

Today, getting coffee at a local Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts is a trendy way to spend time with friends. Coffee brings people together through silly trends such as the pumpkin spice latte and ridiculous coffee crazed hashtags that trend on Twitter. The sugary enhancements and the online trends are new, but the concept of spending time in coffee shops has been around for centuries. Coffee has been bringing people together since the early merchants in the Middle East began setting up their first coffeehouses, so don’t feel too bad when you spend a whole day chatting with friends in your local Starbucks.



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