Torrents of Black Water: The Abridged Travels of the Coffee Bean to the Far Ends of the Earth!

Did you know: Berry Bros. and Rudd started out as a coffee shop?  A single living tree may have sired every coffee plant in the Western Hemisphere?  German coffee-drinkers disgrace the national pastime of beer?  French coffee is terrible?  Read on!....

The Origins of Coffee

In the beginning, the Coffea arabica tree grew wild on the mountainsides of Abyssinia (modern-day Ethiopia) but the precise moment that man ascertained its appeal and transformed bean into beverage is unclear.  One popular legend offers a story of serendipitous discovery: Kaldi, a 9th century Abyssinian goat-herder, was one day dismayed upon encountering his herd, for they were uncharacteristically spirited—dancing, frolicking, drunk with newfound delight!  The observant goat-herder noticed that his animals had been eating the bright red berries of a nearby shrub, and, filled with curiosity, Kaldi tasted a few of the berries himself.  Feeling bolder, he chewed on the bitter seeds within the fruit.  Filled with a swell of exuberance, he ran home to report his finding to his wife, and together the pair—in the clarity and haze of history’s first deliberate caffeine intoxication—ran off to inform the local monks and share their discovery.  Unmoved, and surely seeing the devil’s work at hand, the monks threw the fruit into their fire.  It was only moments before the beans within were cooking, and the sweet, robust smell of roasting coffee filled the air.  The monks realized their error, and quickly pulled the beans from the fire, dousing them with water to cool and preserve them.  The rest, as they say, is history.  Or so this folktale, penned as late as 1671, would suggest.  Many variations exist.  Another old story ascribes the discovery of coffee to Hadji Omar, an Arab Sufi Dervish, or religious ascetic.  Sometime in the late 13th or 14th century, his superiors exiled the Dervish from his home in the seaport al-Mukha to the remote desert, for “moral remissness”.  At a place called Ousab, Omar and his followers faced slow starvation, save for the coffee cherry, which grew wild around them.  They boiled the fruit in water, and drank the concoction to ward off hunger.  A local doctor noted coffee’s beneficial and restorative powers, and Omar returned in triumph to al-Mukha—known to westerners as Mocha—where the grateful populace built him a monastery and made him a saint.  Other versions of this story attribute coffee as the cure to a plague that nearly claimed the king of Mocha’s daughter, and suggest that birds of marvelous plumage and mellifluous voices led Omar to his tree.  All of this lore suggests that the discovery of coffee and the development of the roasting and brewing processes essentially occurred simultaneously, but it is likely that man enjoyed a form of coffee long before he learned to infuse the roasted, ground bean in hot water.  This process, signaling coffee’s most rudimentary modern form, may not have developed until the 15th century.

The stories of Kaldi and Omar serve to reinforce two generally accepted theories: the discovery of coffee and its intoxicating properties occurred in Abyssinia/Ethiopia, but the development of the beverage of coffee as we know it and the first culture of coffee sprang up in Arabia Felix, now Yemen.  In Abyssinia, coffee was known as buna, and the various forms of extracting caffeine from the plant included chewing the beans, boiling leaves and coffee cherries with water, grinding the beans into compressed balls of animal fat and butter, and fermenting the fruit.  The Oromo tribes of Abyssinia revered coffee as the buna qala—tears of their sky god.  In modern Africa, buni indicates coffee, and its homophone Mbuni characterizes a low quality Kenyan coffee.  The coffee tree may have migrated across the Red Sea to the Arabian Peninsula in pre-Islamic time, perhaps during a brief period of Ethiopian rule over Yemen in the 6th century.  The Arabs called the coffee cherry bunn, and it is unclear whether buna is a derivative of bunn, or vice versa.  References to a related beverage, bunchum, occur in the medical writings of two Persian physicians, Rhazes and Avicenna, who lived a century apart from one another.  Rhazes, who died in 922 CE, is thus often cited as the first to mention coffee as a form of beverage in print, although conflicting evidence suggests his bunchum concoction was the product of a root infusion, unrelated to the similar-sounding bunn.  Some scholars have found circumstantial evidence of coffee drinking in Arabic scriptures dating to the 10th century; others have even claimed the appearance of roasted coffee in the Old Testament of the Bible, as a peace offering to King David of the Jews.  Some theorize that coffee composed the “black broth” of the warlike Spartans of ancient Greece; others find coffee among the medicines with which Helen of Troy returned from Egypt.  From somewhere amidst all of this conjecture and uncertainty, coffee would emerge, first as a medicinal and religious broth, and finally as a social beverage, to be consumed in the Arabian kaveh kanes: the world’s first coffeehouses.  

As with most other aspects regarding the early history of coffee, the etymology of the word itself is in dispute.  “Coffee” could be derived from “Kaffa”, a region of Ethiopia, or kafta, an Arabic drink produced from qat leaves, an indigenous intoxicant.  Some suggest Qawwa, the Arabic word for “power”, as an antecedent to “coffee”.  Upon their own eventual discovery of brewed coffee, English-speaking Europeans nicknamed it the “Wine of Araby”, and so it is perhaps most attractive to view “coffee” as a corruption of qahwa—the Arabic word for wine. 

The Arabian historian al-Jaziri, in a 16th century work on coffee, credits a Sufi holy man named Gemaleddin with the introduction of coffee brewing in Aden, a town in Arabia Felix, during the mid-15th century.  Gemaleddin, inspired by Chinese tea-brewing, discovered the coffee tree and the invigorating effects of its fruit and seeds while abroad in Abyssinia.  Author Antony Wild theorizes that Gemaleddin, an alchemist, decided to roast the bean as a means of transmuting it, as an alchemist might hope to transform lead into gold.  In its original form, alchemy was intimately tied to religion: alchemists viewed gold as the solid form of fire, and the soul as an igneous substance.  A parallel transformation of the coffee bean through fire thus takes on religious connotations, and through the consumption of coffee the Sufis found, quite naturally, that they could remain vigilant and awake throughout their evening prayers.  The Sufi Dervishes soon carried their ritual use of coffee to nearby Mecca and Medina.  As the technique of brewing roasted coffee spread outward from Aden, its use soon became secularized.  By 1510, the Dervishes introduced coffee to Cairo, where by mid-century there were nearly a thousand coffeehouses.  Coffee reached Damascus in modern-day Syria by 1530.  In 1536, Ottoman Turks invaded Yemen, and the coffee trade commenced in earnest throughout their empire.  The first coffeehouse in Istanbul, capital of the Ottoman Empire and the second largest city in Europe at the time, opened in 1554.  Coffee was on the move.

As coffee expanded in popularity, it gained a reputation for fomenting trouble and discontent.  Like every other intoxicating beverage known to man, coffee has its share of critics who condemn it as a source of moral decrepitude, yet the coffeehouse—unlike the tavern—poses the added threat of lucid political discourse and, presumably, dissent.  One can argue that the coffeehouse has, throughout its history, played a role in stirring political disobedience, from quelled rumblings of sedition in the first coffeeshops of the Ottoman Empire, to the revolutionary fervor incubated in French coffeehouses of the latter 18th century.  In late 1960s and 1970s America, “GI Coffee Houses” sprang up as bastions of liberal discontent and gathering places for US soldiers opposed to the Vietnam War.  Authorities in nearly every serious coffee-consuming county have, at one point or another, attempted to shut down or restrict the coffeehouse in some way.  In 1511, the first such ban occurred, in Mecca.  The governer of Mecca, Khair-Beg (Kha’ir Bey) believed the newfangled substance, like alcohol, to be prohibited by the Qu’ran and ordered the city’s coffeehouses to be shuttered, abruptly putting a stop to the sale of the bean.  Despite his enthusiasm for such strict interpretation, the young governor failed to take into account the coffee habit of his superior, the Sultan of Cairo, who quickly reversed the ruling.  The following year, Khair-Beg found his own virtue wanting, and was tortured to death after the Sultan’s court found him guilty of extortion and embezzlement.  Authorities in Mecca levied a second short-lived ban on coffee in 1524, and the Ottomans tried to enforce prohibition several times throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, but the “Wine of Araby” was by this time firmly entrenched in the societies of the Middle East.  Coffee continues to be an important social beverage in Islamic societies, where the consumption of alcohol is forbidden.

Coffee Arrives in Europe         

In the 16th century the Ottoman Empire was ascendant: as the preeminent power in Eastern Europe and Western Asia, the Ottoman Sultan controlled a vast territory ranging from North Africa, the Middle East and Asia Minor to much of Eastern Europe, including modern-day Greece, Hungary, Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, and the Balkans.  Coffee flowed to every corner through the empire’s veins of trade.  Despite continuing efforts, both religious and secular in origin, to ban coffee and coffeehouses, its popularity soared.  The Turks considered refusal to provide coffee to one’s wife as legitimate grounds for divorce.  A Persian myth of the time ascribed the invention of coffee to the Angel Gabriel, who delivered it unto the Prophet Muhammad as a restorative.  The Prophet, for his part, reputedly asserted that, after taking his coffee, he could “unhorse forty men and possess forty women”—a legend recalled by Mark Pendergrast in his history of the coffee trade, Uncommon Grounds.  Feeling perhaps ecumenical, the Roman Catholic Pope Clement VIII later gave his blessing to the brewed beverage, against his advisors’ wishes.  In an unsubstantiated story, certain priests feared that coffee—the Wine of Araby—was a brew of infernal origin, and warned the Pope against its charms, but he found its taste too agreeable to condemn, and “baptized” the bean instead.  Although this tale of baptism is likely apocryphal, by Pope Clement’s death in 1605 coffee was beginning its encroachment into Western European society.      

Coffee entered Western Europe after both cocoa and tea, in the hands of the Turks and the Venetians.  The Republic of Venice, in the 16th and 17th centuries, competed with the Ottoman Turks for economic and military control of the eastern Mediterranean, and held sway over coastal territories in northeastern Italy, the Balkans, and Greece; and islands such as Crete, Cyprus, and Santorini.  As maritime tradesmen, the Venetians may have first carried the coffee bean home to Venice in 1615, predated by a description of the coffee tree and prepared beverage in Italian print some twenty-three years prior.  While acquacedratajo—street lemonade vendors—may have peddled coffee in the mid-17th century, the first Venetian coffeehouse, or caffè, did not open until 1683.  In 1720, the Caffè Florian opened in Venice’s historic Procuratie Nuove, and over the years attracted to its tables luminous personalities, from Stravinsky to Charles Dickens.  Today the Caffè Florian is the oldest coffeehouse in continuous operation in Italy.

The Turks, meanwhile, introduced coffee into France through diplomacy and into Austria through war.  In 1669, a Turkish ambassador to Paris and Versailles, Suleiman Aga, brought exotic Turkish style and the exotic Turkish drink—coffee—with him from the east.  When not discussing with King Louis XIV their mutual distaste for the Austrian Habsburgs, Aga was busy introducing the elite class of Paris to the wonders of caffeine.  An Armenian named Pascal opened Paris’ first café two years later, and in 1686 a Florentine lemonade vendor opened the Café Procope—the oldest café still in operation in Paris.  In the 18th century, Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Benjamin Franklin would sip coffee at François Procope’s landmark establishment, and the café would count Robespierre, a chief architect of the revolution, among its customers.  In 1710 the French improved on the Turkish method of coffee brewing—boiling ground coffee and water together—by creating an infusion, wherein they suspended the ground coffee in a cloth pouch, and poured boiling water over it.  Coffee in France exploded in popularity, in both salon and café, and the French took to adding milk, sugar and flavorings such as cinnamon and clove to the otherwise bitter drink.

In 1683—the same year that Venice’s first caffè opened—the Ottoman Turks amassed a huge army to expand their empire further into Habsburg-controlled central Europe, and laid siege to Vienna in Austria.  The Austrian alliance, victorious against the Turks, had employed a Ukrainian Cossack named Franz Georg Kolschitzky to move through enemy lines, risking life and limb to pass messages to the nearby Prince of Lorraine, who stood ready to intervene on behalf of the Viennese.  After the siege lifted, Kolschitzky received as reward for his service money, property and many bags of “camel fodder”—the hundreds of pounds of green coffee beans the Turkish army left in its wake.  Kolschitzky became Vienna’s first kaffee-sieder, or coffee-maker, opening his “House under the Blue Bottle” shortly after war’s end, where he served sweetened coffee with cream to grateful Austrians, and acquired the fraternal nickname bruderherz—“brother heart”.  As with much coffee lore, the truth is probably a more complicated and less rewarding story: it is likely that coffee was really introduced to Vienna by a Turkish ambassador some twenty-odd years prior; it is likely that several other coffeeshops preceded the Blue Bottle; and it is likely that Kolschitzky himself, rather than a brotherly figure and selfless hero, was in fact a model of shameless self-promotion, self-aggrandizement, and greed.  Nonetheless, by 1714 Vienna’s coffee-makers were numerous enough to form their first trade association, and the city’s coffee-drinkers enjoyed their new beverage with a new pastry: the kipfler, precursor to the French croissant, baked in the shape of the Islamic crescent—a daily reminder of victory against the Turks in the 1683 Battle of Vienna.  Today, the legacy of Kolschitzky lives on in the form of the San Francisco Bay Area’s Blue Bottle Coffee, one of America’s best modern artisan roasters.

In the first few years of the 17th century, English travelers and explorers from Sir Francis Bacon to Captain John Smith, founder of the Jamestown colony in Virginia, referred to coffee in print.  The first coffeehouse in England predated similar arrivals in Italy, Austria, Germany and France.  Oxford’s first coffeehouse opened its doors in 1650, and London’s first café followed in 1652.  By 1700, coffeehouses throughout London—nicknamed “penny universities”—numbered in the thousands, and ensconced all manner of political, philosophical, and artistic discourse.  Lloyd’s of London, the British insurance market, actually got its start as a coffeehouse: in 1688, Edward Lloyd opened “Lloyd’s Coffee House”.  The establishment soon became a magnet for seafarers, a hub of shipping news, and a market for underwriters, offering insurance to cover long ocean voyages.  The London Stock Exchange similarly evolved from a list of commodity prices published in “Jonathan’s Coffee-House”.  The Royal Society, the world’s oldest scientific academy in continuous existence, emerged from the “Oxford Coffee Club” in the mid-17th century. In 1698, Britain’s most venerable wine and spirits shop, Berry Bros. & Rudd opened its doors—as a coffeehouse.  Samuel Pepys, who famously admired the “good and most particular taste” of “Ho-Bryan” wine, was just as devoted to his coffeehouses—he offered (scathing) criticism for the 1668 theatrical satire Tarugo’s Wiles or The Coffee-House, one of the first European dramatizations of the lively goings-on in the cafés.  Coffee in the latter half of the 17th century found its share of detractors in England, including kings and female upholders of pious behavior—the former tried to ban it outright, and the latter claimed it made men slothful and impotent—but the hot brew tempered, to its credit, the legendary and rampant alcoholism that pervaded England at the time.  Coffee’s popularity in England in the 17th century, however rapid and vibrant, would lose some of its steam in the 18th, as the British Empire became enamored with another vessel of caffeine: tea. 

The first printed mention of coffee in Western Europe appeared in a German work, written and published in 1582 by Leonhard Rauwolf, following his return from Aleppo, a city in modern-day Syria.  In a thorough description of the customs of the city, Rauwolf writes:

….They have a very good drink, by them called chaube that is almost as black
as ink, and very good in illness, chiefly that of the stomach; of this they drink in the morning…as hot as they can.
(Ukers, p. 25)

Despite Rauwolf’s 16th century news of chaube (coffee), the drink itself did not reach Germany until about 1670, and an English coffee merchant opened the country’s first coffeehouse in Hamburg in 1679.  By 1777, the German populace was so enamored with coffee that King Frederick the Great issued a proclamation reminding his subjects that the royal family was raised on beer, and any soldier who preferred coffee to the traditional brew of Germany was unreliable in wartime.  Four years later, the king monopolized the roasting of coffee under the German crown, raised prices, and in effect shuttered the poorer classes from the enjoyment of the drink.  Despite a total lack of caffeine, roasted chicory root, cereal grains, corn, and dried fig appeared as affordable substitutes.  Chicory, particularly, would serve as a poor but widespread replacement for coffee into the 20th century, whenever the real thing was prohibitively expensive or simply unavailable.  In 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte of France turned to chicory when his Continental System essentially cut off continental Europe from the trade of coffee, and the American South relied on chicory for coffee when the Union blockaded southern ports during the Civil War.  In the latter half of the 19th century, unscrupulous American coffee men adulterated their wares with chicory to inflate their pocketbooks.  Today, chicory remains a popular coffee flavoring in France and areas of French influence, such as New Orleans. 

New Coffee Growing Regions Emerge

The Dutch East India Company, chartered in 1602, was the world’s first corporation and one of the first companies to act on a truly global scale.  The Netherlands-based company monopolized the spice trade in the Far East, and by 1614 the Dutch tradesman expressed interest in the coffee of Aden.  In 1616 they transplanted a living coffee tree from the Arabian Peninsula to Holland.  Records indicate the Dutch East India Company’s robust trade of coffee between Mocha and other ports on the Arabian Sea as early as the 1620s.  A commercial shipment of beans reached Amsterdam by 1640, and in 1663 the company began regularly importing coffee into Holland from Mocha.  It is likely that the introduction of coffee into the states of Northern Europe arrived not with Ottoman diplomats or soldiers but with traders such as these.  Meanwhile, the port of Mocha in Yemen held, in these early years, a virtual monopoly on the trade of coffee.  Whether cultivated in the nearby mountains, or shipped from nearby Ethiopia, Mocha coffee moved throughout the Ottoman Empire—whose sultans counted Yemen as a territory—and poured into the Far East in the hands of European traders.  The “Mocha” bean became synonymous with quality coffee, and in modern America one can order a café mocha—an espresso drink made with milk and chocolate—at just about any corner coffeeshop.

The acceptance of coffee by the societies of Europe created a great divide between coffee-producing countries and coffee-consuming countries, a separation that continues to exist in an even more exacerbated form today.  Coffea arabica prefers warm tropical or subtropical climates.  After several failed attempts to grow the tree in Holland and France, entrepreneurial Europeans looked to the possibilities of cultivation in their new colonies across the globe.  From the single living tree in Holland, the Dutch took seeds to Ceylon (Sri Lanka), and by 1658 they had established the island’s first coffee plantations.  In 1696, the Dutch introduced coffee to Java—an Indonesian island with which the beverage is now synonymous—and in 1699 developed the island’s first permanent coffee farms.  Accounts differ as to whether the coffee seed entered India in 1600 or as late as 1695, but the story remains: a Muslim pilgrim from Mysore on India’s southwestern Malabar Coast returned to his native land from Arabia with seven hidden coffee seeds strapped to his belly.  Although coffee production in India did not begin in earnest until 1840, it was supposedly a seed from Malabar that provided the first material for Java’s plantations.  In 1714, the Dutch made a gift of a living coffee tree to King Louis XIV of France.  Such gifts were rare, as living specimens were difficult to ship and could not often survive the continental climate of Europe.  This tree, the progeny of a similar specimen in Amsterdam of Yemeni origin, thrived in a greenhouse in the botanical gardens of Paris and was, legend suggests, the sole ancestor to all coffee plants in the Western Hemisphere. 

In 1723, the French Captain Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu sailed from Nantes to the French colony of Martinique in the Caribbean Sea.  Braving Tunisian corsairs, tempests of hurricane-like proportions, and other furies of the sea, the noble captain risked his life and limb, and shared even his pittance of water rations with his most valuable passenger: a single coffee tree, spawned from the specimen in Paris.  From this lone tree, successfully transported to Martinique soil, did the whole of Central and South American coffee descend.  Alas, the romance of de Clieu’s tale is lessened by the fact that coffee was already elsewhere in the New World: in 1718 the Dutch introduced coffee to Dutch Guyana (modern-day Suriname), and in 1715 the French themselves commenced the cultivation of coffee in Hispaniola.  In 1722, a French criminal named Mourgure may have escaped French Guyana for the neighboring Dutch territory and returned, repatriated, with stolen coffee seeds.  Once both French and Dutch Guyana possessed coffee, neither would allow its export—it was too invaluable.  In a story that recalls de Clieu’s single tree, a Brazilian diplomat named Francisco de Mello Palheta in 1727 bedded the wife of the governor of French Guyana during a border dispute between the French and Dutch colonies.  In return for his “services”, he received from the governor’s wife a bouquet of flowers, within which she concealed several ripe coffee cherries.  He returned to his native home of Pará in northern Brazil and planted the seeds.  From these beans, perhaps the entirety of the Brazilian coffee industry sprang.  More likely, coffee cultivation was introduced into the country in stages from various sources, arriving independently in southern Brazil as late as 1774.  In the tales of de Clieu and Palheta, one might draw parallels to the stories of modern American winemakers and their “suitcase clones”, and wonder similarly about their veracity.        

By the end of the 18th century, coffee grew throughout most of the European colonies of Central and South America.  The British introduced coffee to Jamaica in 1730, and in the coming decades the Spanish brought coffee to their colonies in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Venezuela, and Mexico.  The development of coffee production throughout the colonial states of Central and South America is intertwined with that of sugar and the inhuman enterprise of the slave trade.  As the infrastructure of sugarcane plantations already existed, the mechanism of production could be easily adopted for growing and harvesting coffee.  African slaves provided the manpower to run these huge estates.  By 1788, Saint-Domingue—the western half of the isle of Hispaniola—produced half of the world’s coffee, on the backs of African slaves.  In 1791, however, the Western Hemisphere’s first and only successful national slave revolt dampened coffee production in Saint-Domingue—known as Haiti after the declaration of independence from France in 1804—and signaled decades of colonial upheaval in the region.  The loss of Haiti, paralleled by English naval dominance, inspired Napoleon to develop his Continental System in an attempt to make continental Europe economically self-sufficient.  Chicory made a poor coffee substitute, but a chief success of the system—the use of the European beet crop for sugar—greatly impacted the sugarcane industry of South America.  Brazil, which declared independence from Portugal in 1822, shifted from a sugar-based economy to one based on the coffee bean, and emerged in the 19th century as the world’s center of coffee production. 

Brazil, which remains the largest coffee-producing country in the world, achieved this position through the environmental catastrophe of rainforest devastation and an utter reliance on slavery.  The coffee plantation arose principally in the mountains of the Paraiba Valley, located within the southeastern states of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, where the coffee growers burned countless miles of virgin forest to make way for their fazendas (plantations).  Brazilian coffee grew vigorously in the terra roxa clay soils of the subtropical Paraiba Valley, but it was generally not a high quality bean.  Due to slave labor, however, it was extremely cheap to produce, and it could be colored with lead sprays or arsenic to resemble superior beans from elsewhere in the world.  The slaves—imported from Africa until 1850 and “home-grown” afterward—toiled on the fazendas under intolerable conditions, dying after an average of seven years in the relentless sun.  In 1888, Brazil was the last country in the Western Hemisphere to ban slavery, due in large part to the vocal resistance of the coffee industry, which was by the early 20th century responsible for 90% of Brazil’s exports.  In 1880, a Brazilian parliamentarian put it most succinctly: “Brazil is coffee, and coffee is the negro.”  (Wild, p. 173) 

The coffee men of Mocha had for years attempted to maintain their monopoly on the trade.  Although the Dutch were able to abscond with living coffee trees as early as 1616, the Arabs generally forbade Europeans from leaving with living plants or fruits, and may have even attempted to sterilize the coffee seeds through boiling or partially roasting them prior to export.  If the men of Mocha thoroughly dried the beans before sale, using them as seeds would have been a moot point regardless.  Nonetheless, the floodgates of coffee opened, and the era of Mocha’s stranglehold on the trade drew to a close.  As C. arabica spread westward to the Americas in the early 18th century, the Dutch East Indies—particularly the islands of Java, Sumatra, Celebes (Sulawesi) and Bali—emerged as a major supplier of coffees to Europe.  In 1712 Dutch traders sold their first shipment of Java-grown coffee in Amsterdam.  The Yemeni seedling that ended up in Louis XIV’s greenhouse two years later traveled by way of Java.  The Dutch loved coffee; unlike every other coffee-consuming society in the world, there is no suggestion of intolerance to the beverage in the history of Holland.  By the end of the 19th century, Holland consumed more coffee per capita than any other in the world, and the Dutch grew the great majority of the coffee they drank on their island territories in the Far East.      

The Dutch East Indies, a sphere of influence for Dutch traders throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, became a fully-fledged colony of the Netherlands in 1795.  From this point forward, coffee production was essentially a monopolistic enterprise on the part of the Dutch government, who used the island’s native population as indentured servants.  Francis Thurber, in his Coffee, from Plantation to Cup, regards the treatment of native workers as “better than slaves…they cannot be punished by whipping, and are free to come and go as they please”, yet he concedes that they are “miserably poor…and degraded.”  The government required every native family to maintain anywhere from 500 to 1000 coffee trees, and deliver the processed beans to their coffee-brokers for a paltry return.  Natives in Java’s Sunda district, the original home of coffee on the island, bore the largest burden of cultivation.  After the harvest, Dutch sailing vessels carried fresh coffee over lengthy voyages to the markets of Europe and America.  In a process that recalls the torna viagem of Madeira wines, the beans “sweated” and mellowed in character during their passage through warm equatorial waters, and ship captains received a premium for beans delivered in such a condition.  The widespread adoption of steam-powered ships in the first part of the 19th century shortened the voyage, and the Dutch government began aging the beans in godowns (storehouses) to replicate the “sweating” process.  Beans dried, browned and mellowed for two years or more, shrinking in weight and increasing in price.  “Old Government Java”, the oldest and most premium coffee, was highly prized among the coffee connoisseurs of the late 19th century, but the process of bean aging—often compared to the cellaring of fine wines by its admirers—has been disavowed by many coffee enthusiasts in modern times. 

Hemileia vastatrix, Robusta, and the Resurgence of Coffee in Africa

The island of Ceylon, where the Dutch had established coffee plantations by 1658, first shipped coffee to Amsterdam in 1721, at a higher price than Java coffee.  It is possible, even, that Arab sailors introduced coffee cultivation to the island prior to the arrival of the first Europeans in 1505.  However, coffee growing remained a smaller enterprise in Ceylon until the British took control of the island at the beginning of the 19th century.  From the 1830s onward, the British increased coffee production on the island dramatically, as they had done in neighboring India a decade earlier.  A half-century of frenzied expansion occurred; by 1877 there were nearly 275,000 acres of European-owned coffee plantations in what is now Sri Lanka.  The coffee industry’s quick rise in Ceylon would encounter a similarly spectacular demise, in the form of Hemileia vastatrix, a fungal disease that kills the C. arabica tree by destroying its leaves.  Just as the vintners of Europe fell victim to the ravages of Phylloxera vastatrix, H. vastatrix decimated the coffee plantations of Ceylon.  Vastatrix derives from the Latin vastare, meaning “to lay waste”, and from its initial appearance in 1869 to the end of the century it did exactly that—by 1900, the coffee tree essentially disappeared from the country.  Like the root louse, the fungus responsible for coffee leaf rust was not content in isolation: H. vastatrix soon spread to nearby India and Indonesia, and laid waste to all of the coffee fields of Asia in the last decades of the 19th century.  The sudden scourge afflicting Asian sources of coffee paved the way for Brazil to dominate the global trade, and growers in Ceylon and the Dutch East Indies planted tea in dead coffee fields.  Ceylon would soon become a serious tea producer, but it would never again be a major exporter of the coffee bean.  The Indonesian islands and other areas of Asia, however, found salvation from the disease in a lowly relative of C. arabica, discovered deep in the heart of Africa.

Robusta, banned and decried by the New York Coffee Exchange in 1912 as “a practically worthless bean,” (Pendergrast, p. 142) produces coffee of coarse and crude quality.  Whereas good Arabica is nuanced, aromatic, and distinguished by its acidity, 2004 World Barista Champion Tim Wendelboe describes Robusta’s character as “bitter and vulgar, like burnt popcorn.”  Yet Robusta would have an enormous impact on world coffee production in the 20th century, and today nearly one-third of all coffees produced are Robusta.  Robusta is a variety of Coffea canephora, which grows at lower, warmer altitudes than Coffea arabica, produces more fruit and matures sooner, and is—above all else—resistant to the ravages of H. vastatrix.  The slightly larger Arabica coffee beans contain more sugars but less caffeine: Robusta beans may contain up to 4% caffeine content, whereas Arabica beans hover around 0.8-1.4%.  Both plants developed caffeine levels as a form of natural insecticide; the evolution of higher caffeine content conforms to the Robusta trees’ preferred tropical environment, where the climate is warmer, wetter, and more insect-rich.  In 1862 Europeans first encountered C. canephora in Uganda, where natives smeared the bean with blood during tribal ceremonies of brotherhood, and chewed it before battle.  A Frenchman named Emil Laurent rediscovered it in the Belgian Congo in 1898, and a Belgian firm responsible for its initial cultivation gave it the name “Robusta”, signaling its full body and powerful caffeine kick.

Plantation owners in the Dutch East Indies and India turned to Robusta coffee in droves.  By 1920, Robusta beans accounted for over 80% of Java’s coffee crop, despite the fact the Robusta could not legally be sold as “Java” coffee, according to United States labeling laws.  The New York Coffee Exchange ended its ban on Robusta in 1960, and many of the big-name, mass-produced American brands turned to the cheaper bean for both instant and ground coffees.  A generation of coffee drinkers suffered as a result.  By World War I Robusta composed the majority of Holland’s imported coffee, and the French—despite enviable advancements in other areas of food and wine appreciation—took a liking to the beans, following their previous (and equally misguided) embrace of chicory as a perfectly acceptable coffee substitute.  In French Indochina (modern-day Vietnam), the French first planted coffee near Hanoi in 1887.  The colony exported nearly all of its coffee back to France, and the growers in French Indochina cultivated the Robusta variety almost exclusively.  Throughout the 20th century, Vietnam was a small player in the international coffee trade, but production surged in the 1990s.  By 2000, Vietnam overtook Indonesia to become the world’s largest producer of Robusta, and charged past Colombia to become the second largest producer of coffee in the world.  Although Vietnam now produces approximately 10% of the world’s coffee, one will not often find beans of Vietnam origin in better coffeeshops, as the Vietnamese cultivate the cheap, inferior Robusta in 95% of their farms.

Until Vietnam’s sudden rise in the late 20th century, the world’s most prominent growing regions for Robusta coffee were not located in Indonesia or India, but in the tree’s native home: sub-Saharan Africa.  Despite the fact that both Arabica and Robusta originated in Africa, European colonizers were slow to convert their African possessions to coffee production.  Africa lagged far behind other coffee growing areas of the world in railroad development and transportation infrastructure: coffee was “re-introduced” to Africa in the early years of the 18th century, but it remained difficult to take the bean to European markets.  In 1715, the French imported Arabica coffee from Mocha to an island off the coast of Madagascar, the Ile de Bourbon (Réunion).  This was not the first coffee on the island—settlers discovered wild coffee trees in 1711—but the new trees thrived, and the island lent its name to one of the great sub-varieties of Arabica.  Coffee production commenced in earnest in nearby Madagascar in the 1820s, and spiked significantly after the French annexed the island in 1896.  The British, who were by then more interested in tea, introduced coffee cultivation to their territories in modern-day Malawi in 1878, and to modern-day Kenya and Uganda near the turn of the century.  In the same year, the British imported Arabica coffee into Ethiopia—its ancestral home—from Réunion and Jamaica.  Thus, over hundreds of years Arabica coffee traveled from Ethiopia to Yemen to other corners of the globe and back again, yet it was the Robusta strain that truly conquered the new African coffee farms.  H. vastatrix attacked the coffee lands of Africa not long after it hit Ceylon and Java, just as many African regions were finding their footing.  Uganda adopted its native strain of Robusta coffee, as did most areas under French control at the turn of the century, including the Ivory Coast, the Congo and Madagascar.  The majority of coffees from Angola and Cameroon—then and now—are Robusta.  By 1954, Robusta accounted for over 80% of total African coffee exports.  Ethiopia and Kenya managed to remain dedicated to Arabica, and are today universally regarded for the quality of their single-origin coffees.  The countries of Burundi, Rwanda, and Tanzania also remained committed to Arabica; nonetheless, today Robusta composes nearly three-quarters of the African coffee harvest.                    

In Brazil and other coffee-growing states of the Americas, Arabica remained dominant.  For many years, Brazil banned the import of Robusta seedlings, fearing that spores of H. vastatrix would travel with them.  The coffee leaf rust did not actually arrive in Brazil until 1970, and from 1976 forward the country began to export a small degree of Robusta.  By 2010 Brazilian Robusta climbed to 15% of the total green coffee export, and nearly 30% of the actual production.  Colombia, the world’s third largest producer, still cultivates Arabica exclusively, but in neighboring Ecuador, Robusta represents 40% of the crop.  Some scientists and industry experts warn that the extreme weather patterns associated with climate change may spell disaster in the coming years for the more fragile Arabica, and the future of coffee may, sadly, rest on the shoulders of the hardier Robusta.        

Coffee Advances.  Sort of.

In the years leading up to World War I, Holland led the world in per capita consumption, and Europeans in general drank more coffee per capita than their American counterparts.  However, in the latter years of the 19th century the US emerged as the world’s largest consumer of coffee, and by World War I Americans consumed over half of the world’s coffee—a position that they would maintain until 1970.  Per capita consumption in the US grew to thirteen pounds per person by the 1930s.  Today, we still drink a hell of a lot of coffee.  Whether drinking it in the form of a triple grande nonfat skinny vanilla frapa-cappuccino amounts to more than a lateral pass in quality on the Robusta-heavy instant coffees of the past is debatable, but Americans like to think we care about good coffee.  We want to care about the quality; we just sometimes don't actually like the taste. Hopefully, we simply graduate to better coffees as our tastes mature.  This will not be a new progression for those whose drinking days began with Natty ice and Tropical-flavored Mad Dog 20/20.

Americans consider coffee a birthright, available at every corner Starbucks and gas station.  We have perhaps been fooled by its omnipresence into forgetting the incongruity of its availability in our northern climate, or the arduous journey it takes to get here.  The immense and frequent social and political upheavals in coffee-growing countries, the bloodshed in coffee fields, the inequalities between producer and consumer: the story of coffee is alight with real human difficulties, and a cup of coffee represents a westward path some 500 years and thousands of miles in the making.  It is in one sense an appreciation of the struggle involved that we should take the time to reflect on the articulation, flavor, aroma, and terroir of a good cup of coffee, unadorned with milk or sugar, every now and again.



A note on the above text: 

This history of coffee attempts to produce, culling from as many reputable sources as possible, a general timeline of the discovery and evolution of coffee, as both bean and beverage.  It should be noted that, throughout scholarly works on coffee, there emerge many discrepancies in this history, and thus many dates below can best be viewed as approximations.  In many cases, the lore of coffee has been repeated so many times as to masquerade as fact.

 Works consulted for historical detail include the following:

Coffee: Its History, Cultivation, and Uses (Robert Hewitt, published 1872)
Coffee, from Plantation to Cup (Francis Beatty Thurber, published 1881)
All About Coffee 2nd Ed. (William Harrison Ukers, published 1935)
Coffee: Botany, Cultivation, and Utilization (Frederick L. Wellman, published 1961)
The Book of Coffee & Tea, 2nd Revised Ed. (Joel, David, and Karl Schapira, published 1996)
Coffee: A Dark History (Antony Wild, published 2004)
The Global Coffee Economy in Africa, Asia and Latin America, 1500-1989 (W. G. Clarence-Smith and Steven Topik, published 2006)
Uncommon Grounds: A History of Coffee and How it Transformed our World 2nd Ed. (Mark Pendergrast, published 2010)