Coffee is the most popular drink in the world. It is consumed by more than 1 billion people daily, and it has been around for centuries!
In this brief article, we will explore the history of coffee, where does coffee originates from, and how it was invented -although the development of coffee drinks as we know them today was more a product of cultural achievement than individual invention.
Kaldi: The legend
The legend of Kaldi, a goatherd from Ethiopia, is the most widely shared story about coffee discovery. According to the legend, Kaldi discovered the stimulant properties of coffee when he observed his goats becoming frisky after eating the berries from a specific tree.
After this finding, legend versions vary. Some claim that Kaldi sampled the fruit himself and found that it gave him energy and kept him alert. Others talk about a wise older priest who rejected an infusion of green beans and threw it to a nearby fire when they smelled the delicious aroma of roasted coffee for the first time.
Although appealing, historians agree on its inaccuracy and the lack of evidence to support it. The discovery of coffee is more likely a result of the cross-cultural exchanges between the Muslim world and Abyssinia -today's Ethiopia- during the 15th century.
Ethiopia: where does coffee originate from?
Coffee plants are thought to have originated in the highlands of Ethiopia, where they grew wild. Experts claim that ancestors of today's Oromo people tried and tasted coffee for the first time. However, it's almost impossible to know exactly when was coffee discovered in Ethiopia.
To this day, it's hard to know how long it took coffee to develop into a hot infusion of the roasted coffee seeds -that we call coffee beans. This brief reference is much more important than it seems at first glance. The first reliable evidence that the Arabs knew about coffee dates back to the 15th century when Sufi monks wrote about it. So, if someone asks when coffee was invented, we could say it was near the 15th century in Moka, Yemen. It's hard to be more precise than that.
Most historical accounts attribute the Sufis to developing a brewed infusion of roasted and ground coffee beans. Arguably, the Muslim forbiddance of conscience-altering drugs stopped coffee from becoming more popular at first. But, somehow, we that's how the invention of coffee as we know it today started to happen.
Sufi circles used coffee for their religious rituals, though, and it eventually became a traditional beverage in the Middle East.
Many historians put Yemen first, where coffee was cultivated for commercial export, and centuries later, the Ottoman Empire armies took coffee with them, spreading its popularity among friends and foes. At the same time, European armies, explorers, and travelers found coffee in the Middle East, reinforcing Western interest in the dark drink and its properties.
The rise of European cafés
The first European coffeehouses opened in Venice around 1615, but the real boom came when other countries imported coffee beans.
Although it was not easy for Europeans to get used to consuming a bitter, boiled drink without sugar at all -which is still common today- they considered it an affordable luxury that helped them communicate and do business with strangers.
The first coffeehouses in Europe were not places for socializing and relaxing, as we know them today. They were more like business centers where people discussed politics, economics, and culture.
In London, where cafés became quickly popular, over 300 shops opened before the end of the 17th century, transforming into guilds, financial companies, and all kinds of enterprises.
Amsterdam, The Hague, Vienna, and Paris grew a booming café scene that led to higher demand. The modern era of coffee started, bringing with it centuries of colonial aggression, intellectual development, scientific progress, higher productivity, and more paradoxical yet impressive breakthroughs.
Modern cafés: Italian vanguard and espresso
In the early 20th century, the collective genius of Angelo Moriondo, Luigi Bezzera, Desiderio Pavoni, and Achille Gaggia brought the espresso machine into the world.
Through individual and independent efforts, these three creators and their companies developed the modern espresso machine:
- Capable of delivering 9 bar of pressure, creating crema for the first time
- Building a reliable and secure system to make quick coffee servings
- Developing a frothing wand to create coffee drinks with steamed milk
These three innovations changed cafés throughout the world, first, in Italy, where manufacturers started. Then, they quickly became popular through Europe and America, where many countries have adopted the espresso machine since the mid-twentieth century.
Italian influence throughout the 20th century across many countries, taking the practical beauty of espresso. Even today, espresso machines symbolize refinement for many coffee shops.
Contemporary Cafés and Specialty Coffee
Although not single-handedly, Starbucks and other large chains promoted high-end coffee shops, where espresso drinks were the protagonists.
Through an impressive menu, these coffee shops created a new culture of coffee drinking. To some extent, these cafés like Dunkin' Donuts, Dutch Bros, and Starbucks still serve a large audience in the United States and many countries globally.
These massive corporations nurtured a global market for coffee drinks that was almost impossible to imagine before them. Somehow, at the same time, small roasteries and specialty coffee shops started to grow across the globe, albeit less notably and profitably.
Currently, we are more aware of the injustices in the coffee trade, and many consumers are paying more attention to sustainability and the impact of their buying habits on the planet and producing countries.
In this regard, the present and the future of coffee depend on the past. Colonial aggression, commoditization, climate vulnerability, and instability in producing countries stain coffee's history. Still, through the last few decades, organizations, individuals, and companies have been working both separately and in coordination to change the course of coffee history towards a promising future.
As you may know, that's one of the main reasons why Era of We exists: "to secure the future of the coffee industry by building a community who believes in the power of transparency and collaboration."
Current trends promise a fairer and more sustainable coffee industry, although they require effort, collaboration, and innovation to become a reality.