Coffee: From Restless Goats to Corner Coffee Houses

The history of coffee begins with a legend. Kaldi was a goat herder in the Ethiopian highlands where coffee trees still grow today. Kaldi began to notice that when his goats ate berries from a particular tree, they became much more energetic and were often restless at night. Monks at a local monastery learned of this occurrence from Kaldi and decided to make a drink from the berries which kept them attentive through hours of prayer. Knowledge of this energizing berry quickly spread to the Arabian Peninsula where coffee became so popular that the Arabs began to cultivate and trade this new product.

Legend becomes History

Coffee’s popularity in the Muslim world was attributed to the fact that Muslims are prohibited from drinking alcohol. Coffee became a welcome replacement, and by the late 1500s, it was enjoyed in Persia, Turkey, Syria, and Egypt. In Arabian cities, coffee houses became popular places to enjoy this beverage and socialize with others while sometimes enjoying performers or other entertainment. The numerous pilgrimages made to Mecca each year brought thousands of outsiders who would there experience coffee for the first time and return with it to their native lands.

The arrival of coffee in Europe was wrought with controversy. Travelers returning from the East brought this mysterious drink back with them, and though it became popular with many, others felt that it was the drink of the devil and asked that the sitting Pope place a ban on the evil liquid. To make his decision, Pope Clement VIII decided to taste coffee for himself. He enjoyed it so much that he issued papal approval of the new beverage. Coffee houses soon emerged throughout the cities of Europe and became the social centers where one could enjoy coffee for a penny and engage in the talk of the day.

Not long after the colonization of America, coffee was brought in and coffee houses were established, but tea remained the favored drink until 1773, when the defiance of British taxes culminated in the Boston Tea Party and many turned to drinking coffee as a form of protest.

Worldwide Cultivation

Wherever coffee went, a demand was established, and coffee became a commodity that many longed to control. The Arabs were able to monopolize production for some time, but eventually cultivation began elsewhere. Towards the end of the 1600s, the Dutch were successful in obtaining some seedlings and growing coffee in their colonies on what is now the Indonesian island of Java. The Dutch were so successful in growing coffee in this region that they soon expanded cultivation to the neighboring islands of Sumatra and Celebes.

Louis XIV received a coffee tree seedling as a gift from the Dutch and had it planted in the botanical garden of Paris. A trimming of this tree is said to have been taken to Martinique where it became the stock for all of the coffee production throughout the Caribbean, South and Central America.

In just a century, coffee had become one of the largest commodities in the world. Riches have been gained and lost in cultivating and trading coffee around the world. As Howard Shultz, the owner of Starbucks, can attest, today coffee can be a profitable commodity, a deserving end to this legendary story. Or is it that Starbucks is now starting to serve alcohol in some of its cafes?


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