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The Story of Coffee

Updated: May 1, 2023

Hello Friends!!! For those of you who don't know me, I am Ms Espresso Kaapikar. Today I tell you the story of my ancestors; my family. You know us as "Coffee" but there has been a great deal of adventure, sacrifice and perseverance from my ancestors and yours before we could co-exist like we do today. Read on...

The boy who lived in Ethiopia (or Yemen)

There are many stories about coffee’s first chapter in the book of human history. Some say it was cradled about 2000 years ago by the Oromos tribe in the kingdom of Kefa (today's Ethiopia). It is said that they fashioned the coffee leaves and fruits into chewable cakes for instant energy. Some stories suggest that coffee emerged during the 5th Century AD in the kingdom of Aksum (again, Ethiopia but the northern parts). From there, it is believed to have been planted in Himyar (today, Yemen).

And then there are legends. Like the legend of Kaldi, a young goat herder from Ethiopia. Kaldi noticed that some goats (actual four-legged animals, not people playing sports) turned frantically active after they nibbled fruits and leaves of a tree. Curiosity may have killed the cat but did quite the opposite for Kaldi. He chewed a few berries himself and, voila! He felt like he never did before. And that’s how it all began.

Another legend comes from the land of Yemen. A doctor called Omar was wandering in the wilderness away from the city (he was banished, certainly not because he was trying to run away from Janice). Little did he know that chewing a few red berries would help him claw his way back to the city. He described the berry as nothing short of a miracle. Since then, a new favourite beverage emerged for the residents of Mokha, which would go on to take the world stage in a few centuries.

From Mokha to Mocha

Yemen started brewing coffee (as we know it today) in the 16th Century. It was known as qahwah, which is an Arab word for wine. As it piqued the interest of the Europeans, the Ottomans created laws to protect their monopoly of the world coffee trade flourishing from the port city of Mokha. As per the law, coffee berries had to be soaked in boiling water and partially roasted before the beans can be sent anywhere from Alexandria to Europe. It was to prevent the seeds from being used to plant more trees. But there were rebels. For example, a Dutch merchant risked his life and smuggled raw coffee to Europe. Another gentleman successfully escaped with seeds taped to his stomach and planted in India. (India, herself has an interesting coffee story. Why would you miss that?) In short, within a couple of centuries, coffee plantations sprouted across the globe in regions where the conditions were conducive.

The first coffee houses popped up in the Ottoman empire sometime in the early 17th Century. The concept spread like wildfire. The first European coffee house opened in London in 1652. Since then, their growth in Europe was exponential. Some referred to coffee shops as “penny universities” as they acted like breeding grounds for intellectual discussions and debates over scientific theories, hypotheses or even philosophical demonstrations.

On the other hand, reliance on supplies from the Mokha port started pinching the Europeans. The Dutch were the first to attempt growing coffee, albeit through their colonies, followed by the French. Thus, coffee also proved to be a crucial motivator of the 17th and 18th-century colonial forces that brought slavery, exploitation and violence to the shores of those colonised.

The late 19th century saw the invention of an “espresso machine”, which revolutionised coffee houses forever. Espresso bars emerged in Europe during mid-1900s and became hot-spots for the “defiant” youth. This set into motion what we know as the second wave of coffee (Read more).

Today, the café culture continues to create a special place in people’s lives and hearts, as it did for us. Hopefully, this post has helped you to get a glimpse of coffee’s journey through time. Look out this space for coffee facts, brewing methods, and more.

References and further reading:

  1. The Curious Barista’s Guide to Coffee by Tristan Stephenson

  2. The Coffee Book by Anette Moldvaer

  3. The World Atlas of Coffee, 2nd Edition, by James Hoffmann

  4. The Story of…Coffee, Netflix Docuseries, 2016

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