In the beginning, coffee was a shrub or tree
growing in the mountainous forests of Ethiopia. As with many such
trees, it bore cherrylike fruits, and just like cherries the fruits
had pits. Archaeology seem to indicate that people have been eating
coffee cherries for the last 4,000 years or so. The ripe red coffee
cherries also had a fairly high sugar content, so people being what
they are they fermented them to make a sort of wine. There is some
evidence that this was a trade item in early Roman times. The first
coffee drink was almost certainly alcoholic!
No one knows exactly when all this happened, but
it's safe to say that it was a long time before the first bean was
roasted. The coffee husk "Gisher" is still the basis of the brewed
drink "Quawah" in Yemen. "Quawah" may also mean wine, and the word
is supposed to come from Kaffa, a region of Ethiopia where coffee
grows wild today.
The green coffee pits were not ignored, but
ground up and mixed with fat as a travelling food and stimulant for
warriors. The first reliable mention of coffee in Arabic literature
comes from Rhazeq, around 900 a.d. The stimulant properties of the
beans when eaten or boiled in water were known, but the flavour of
the beverage left a lot to be desired. Grassy, minty, medicinal,
quite bitter considering the sweetness of the fruit would be my
assessment, based on tasting modern green coffees. When roasting of
the beans began is not known, but spices were being roasted in the
Middle East and Arabia long before the birth of Christ. Coffee would
have easily been added to the list of roasted seeds.
Archaeological evidence in the form of iron
roasting pans show that coffee was being roasted in Yemen (then just
Arabia) from at least around 1000 a.d. onwards, but reliable
accounts of coffee bean roasting begin around 1200 a.d. Large scale
cultivation of coffee as a crop began in Yemen at much the same
time, and thereafter coffee followed the spread of Islam across
Arabia and North Africa. The world’s total supply was exported from
the ancient Red Sea port of "Al Makha" or Mocha, although it is
probable that both Yemeni and Ethiopian coffees were assembled there
for further shipment.
There is still a certain amount of friction
between Ethiopian and Yemeni brokers over who sells the "real"
Mocha. Having tasted coffees from both sides of the Red Sea, I think
they both do. What is certain is that no coffee grown outside these
countries should use the name, although many do.
Trade with Venice, Islamic influence in Spain
and the inroads of the Ottoman Empire into Europe resulted in the
spread of coffee drinking, first to Vienna in the 1600's, then to
the rest of Europe. Seeds smuggled out of Arabia were transplanted
in India, from the King's Hothouse in France to South America via
Reunion, from Holland to Indonesia and the rest of South East Asia.
There is a venerable Coffee tree in the Singapore Zoo over 9 metres
(40ft) high, still bearing heavily the last time I saw it. Since
Arabia was the first point of distribution for coffee, Coffea
Arabica was the name assigned to the original coffee
The trade in Arabica coffee has grown from the
early days based in the port of Mocha (now silted over) to the point
where it is now the world's second largest traded commodity. Coffee
cultivation has always been labour intensive, so the history of its
spread and cultivation in South America and East Africa and Asia has
tended to follow along standard "Slave Labour" & "Colonial
Exploitation" lines. However, aid projects tied into allowing coffee
smallholders to become self sufficient, generally by giving them
direct access to end-user markets as part of the Specialty coffee
movement, are moving both farmers and consumers in a different and
more sustainable direction.
The consumer history of coffee has tended to
wander off in strange directions. The flavour and aroma have always
been appreciated, but the rise of the U.S.A. as the world's largest
coffee consumer was accompanied by a fall in the quality of the
product supplied to the American public. The rapid increase in
"Instant Coffee" consumption after WWII was matched by a drastic
fall in the quality of the "real coffee" being sold to the public,
to the point where the end taste of both was often
In the 1970's and 80's a few people, scattered
all over the world and almost always acting independently, began to
reverse the trend with the introduction of "specialty" coffees.
Small shops in Japan, Taiwan, Australia and of course the U.S.A.
began selling coffee as if it were wine, emphasising its varietal
origins and processing methods. One such small shop spawned
thousands in its wake, the mighty Starbucks chain. They weren't the
first, or even the best, but the tie up of good quality coffee with
American marketing knowhow has so far proved unstoppable. Buying
direct from the producer and controlling all aspects of processing
and sales thereafter has generated mighty profits and continued
Coffee quality in Europe has never fallen as low
as in the New World, with regional and cultural differences
providing a broader spectrum of tastes and brewing methods. Roasting
and blending have been much more appreciated than in the U.S.A. and
the largest European coffee companies are still roasters for the
wholesale and retail trade rather than brewed coffee sellers.
American coffee chains will no doubt attempt to conquer European
coffee markets in the 21st Century, but their
success or failure remains to be seen.