The History of Coffee

The Legend - African Origins (Circa 800 A.D.)

African Origin of Coffee: Kaldi the Goat HerderGoats will eat anything...Just ask Kaldi the legendary Ethiopian goat herder. Kaldi, as the story goes, noticed his herd dancing from one coffee shrub to another, grazing on the cherry-red berries containing the beans. He copped a few for himself and was soon frolicking with his flock.

After witnessing Kaldi and his enlightened frolicking goats, a monk plucked berries for his brothers. That night they were uncannily alert to divine inspiration. Coffee later crossed the Red Sea to Arabia, where things really got cooking...

Escape From Arabia (1000 to 1600)

Arabian Coffee: Baba Budan, Coffee SmugglerCoffee, as we know it today, started in Arabia where beans were first roasted and brewed around 1000 A.D. By the 13th century Muslims were drinking coffee religiously. The "bean broth" drove dervishes to frenzy, kept worshippers awake, and splashed over into secular life. And wherever Islam went, coffee went too: North Africa, the eastern Mediterranean, and India.

To preserve their precious coffee monopoly, Arabian coffee traders intentionally made export beans infertile by parching or boiling. In fact, legend has it that no coffee seed sprouted outside Africa or Arabia until the 1600s. Baba Budan, an Arabian pilgrim turned smuggler, left Mecca with fertile seeds strapped to his belly. Baba's beans bore fruit and initiated an agricultural expansion that would soon reach European colonies...

Europe Catches the Buzz (1615 to 1700)

Amsterdam, Holland: The Start of the Coffee DynastyA merchant from Venice, Italy first introduced the Turkish black drink (coffee) to Europe in 1615. Once in Europe this new beverage fell under harsh criticism from the Catholic Church. Many felt the pope should ban coffee, calling it the drink of the devil.

To their surprise, the Pope, already a coffee drinker, blessed coffee declaring it a truly Christian beverage. Coffee traders were not satisfied by merely importing coffee, however, and demanded a means of coffee production. The race was on.

The Dutch cleared the first hurdle in 1616, spiriting a coffee plant into Europe for the first time. Then in 1696 they founded the first European-owned coffee estate, on colonial Java, now part of Indonesia.

Business boomed and the Dutch sprinted ahead to adjacent islands. Confident beyond caution, Amsterdam began bestowing coffee trees on aristocrats around Europe...

Enter: France (1714 to 1720)

Louis XIV: Receiving Dutch Coffee Tree GiftFrench King Louis XIV received his Dutch gift around 1714 - a coffee tree for Paris's Jardin des Plantes (Royal Botanical Garden). Several years later, a young naval officer named Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu was in Paris on leave from Martinique, a French colony in the Caribbean. Imagining Martinique as a potential "French Java", he requested clippings from his king's tree. Permission denied.

Resolute, de Clieu led a moonlight raid of the Jardin des Plantes - over the wall, into the hothouse, out with a sprout.

With his mission accomplished, de Clieu sailed for Martinique. He might have thought the hard part was over. He would have been wrong...

Dangerously Crossing the Atlantic (1720 to 1770)

Mathieu de Clieu: Sharing his water ration with his Martinique-bound coffee seedling.On the return passage to Martinique, de Clieu wrote that a "basely jealous" shipmate, "being unable to get this coffee plant away from me, tore off a branch."

Then came the pirates who nearly captured the ship; then came a storm that nearly sank it. Finally, skies grew clear...too clear. Water grew scarce and was rationed. De Clieu gave half of his water ration to his stricken seedling.

Under armed guard, the sprout grew strong in Martinique, yielding an extended family of approximately 19 million trees in 50 years or so. Its progeny would supply Latin America, where a dangerous liaison would help bring coffee to the masses...

Coffee Blooms in Brazil (1727 to 1800)

Brazil Bound: Coffee seedlings were disguised in a flower bouquet.1727: Brazil's government wants a cut of the emerging coffee market; but first, they need an agent to smuggle seeds from a coffee country. Enter Lt. Col. Francisco de Melo Palheta, the James Bond of Coffee Beans.

Colonel Palheta is dispatched to French Guiana, ostensibly to mediate a border dispute. Eschewing the fortresslike coffee farms, slick Palheta chooses a path of less resistance - the governor's wife. The plan pays off; at a state farewell dinner she presents him a sly token of affection: a bouquet spiked with coffee seedlings.

From these scant shoots sprout the world's greatest coffee empire. By 1800 Brazil's monster harvests would turn coffee from an elite indulgence to an everyday elixir, a drink for the people. The rest, as they say, is history. [See also "Coffee Growing Regions"]