The 411 on Coffee History

The History of Coffee

The coffee tree probably originated in the province of Kaffa, in the area known today as Ethiopia. There is no real evidence to show exactly when, or how, it was first discovered that a rich and stimulating brew could be made from the bean (or seed) within the fruit of the coffee bush, but it is thought that before coffee was ever appreciated as a beverage, native people may have chewed the ripe cherries and beans as food.

There is evidence to suggest that coffee trees were cultivated in monastery gardens 1,000 years ago, and commercial cultivation followed, although the first reports of this, from the Yemen, were not recorded until the fifteenth century.

The first coffee houses were opened in Mecca, where coffee drinking was initially encouraged, and quickly spread throughout the Arab world.

The coffee houses, which developed into luxuriously decorated places where music, dancing, chess and gossip could be enjoyed and business conducted, were subsequently suppressed when they became centers of political activity, although they were soon re-established.

Trade in coffee, a much-prized commodity, was jealously guarded by the Arabs who would not allow foreigners to visit their coffee plantations, nor fertile coffee beans to be taken out of the country. However, seed-beans or plant cuttings were eventually taken out of Arabia and cultivated in the Dutch colonies in India and Java. The Dutch became the main suppliers of coffee to Europe, with Amsterdam its trading centre.

Venetian traders first brought coffee to Europe in 1615, and 30 years later a coffee house or ‘cafĂ©’ was opened in Venice. The growth of popular coffee houses, which became favourite meeting places for both social and business purposes, spread from the mid-17th century to other European countries including Austria, France, Germany, Holland and England. Lloyd’s of London, the largest insurance market in the world, began life as a coffee house in 1688.

From Europe coffee was taken to Virginia, USA, and the last three hundred years have seen coffee make its way around the world, establishing itself in the economies and lifestyles of the main trading nations.

Coffee is now one of the most valuable primary commodities in the world, often second in value only to oil as a source of foreign exchange to developing countries. Millions of people around the world earn their living from it.

At times in history coffee has been hailed as a medicinal cure-all, and at others condemned as the devil’s brew — in the latter case usually for political or religious reasons, when coffee houses were at their height of popularity as meeting places.

However, in the last half-century scientific research has established the facts about coffee, caffeine (responsible for coffee’s mild stimulant effect) and our health: in moderation coffee consumption is in no way a health risk, and besides being a most pleasurable experience drinking coffee can indeed confer some health benefits. This CoSIC Web site provides an overview of the published scientific evidence on coffee, caffeine and health.

More Information

International Coffee Organisation: http://www.ico.org

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