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It's All In The Beans - The Origin Of Coffee

The history of coffee can easily be used to write a compelling suspense novel or a soap opera fraught with intrigue. It contains all the elements of a fantastical tale of almost unbelievable, hair-raising adventure and drama. From its discovery to its establishment in the country currently producing more than 2,7 million tonnes of coffee annually, it involves tales of mystery, intrigue, death-defying escapes, romance and betrayal. This curious bean has at times been both feared and celebrated, and all of these elements form part of the fascinating history of coffee.

Geologically coffee can be tracked to the plateaus of Ethiopia. Wild coffee plantations still exist today in Ethiopia. Mythology attributes the discovery of coffee to a herdsman by the name of Kaldi. Historically Yemen is considered to be the first country to commercially plant and distribute coffee. Turkey is said to have had the first coffee shop called Kiva Han. So who made and drank the first coffee? These three nations are all credited , depending on which source you use. However, during the 15th and 16 centuries coffee rapidly spread throughout the Middle East and Persia. In 1511 the Governor of Mecca tried to ban coffee, but he was killed by the Sultan, who considered coffee a sacred drink. Coffee plants were smuggled by Baba Budan to India, by the Dutch to Java and Ceylon, and later by the French to the West Indies. Coffee probably reached Europe through Venice, but very quickly coffee shops sprang up in all the major cities of England, Holland, Germany, Austria and France. By the mid-17th century more than 300 coffee houses were doing business in London. Before that, however, the clergy of the church tried to ban coffee and described it as a “bitter invention of Satan”. Pope Clement VIII had to intervene and decided that he should taste the drink before any decision was made. It satisfied him so much that he gave it the papal stamp of approval.

Coffee was brought to America by the English during the 17th century. During the 18th century it surpassed tea as the most popular drink in the newly-formed Union. Today America is the leading consumer of coffee in the world. Coffee beans worth more than 4 billion dollars are imported annually to prepare over 400 million (some statistics say as many as 587 million) cups of coffee consumed in over 55,000 coffee shops in the United States of America.

However, this is not the end of the coffee story. In the early 1713 the mayor from Amsterdam presented King Louis XIV of France with a young coffee plant as a gift. The monarch decreed that it should be planted in the Royal Botanical Gardens in Paris. From there a plant was brought to Martinique by a very brave, determined and sly sailor. This plant grew to around 18 million trees within 50 years, and it’s considered to be the progenitor of all coffee plants in the Caribbean, as well as Central and South America.

In Jamaica, the coffee industry grew steadily throughout the 18th century, but when the plantations reached the Blue Mountains, a new dimension was added to their product. The soil, climate and altitude all contributed to a slower and more difficult maturity process for both the coffe plants and the cherries, which enhanced the flavor in a unique way. Even today, single origin Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee is considered something only a small number of fortunate coffee drinkers have delighted in.

Brazil – today the top producer of coffee in the world with more than 2,7 million tonnes annually – can thank a man by the name of Francisco de Mello Palheta for this. Some say he was sent to French Guiana to get coffee beans, others say he had a relationship with the French Governor’s wife while there to arbitrate a border dispute. Regardless of the reason, the governor refused to give him beans and it was only through the governor’s wife hiding some plants and beans in a bouquet of flowers that Francisco got his hands on it: the beginning of what would turn into a billion dollar business.

Unfortunately, regardless of the size of this expanding industry, local farmers and farm workers still receive only a meager income for all their trouble.

Back in Europe, Johann Sebastian Bach percolated his take on it all with the “Coffee Cantata.” This comedy had its premiére at Zimmerman’s Coffee House in Leipzig, a favourite haunt of JS Bach, and it weaves the tale of a father who desperately wants to cure his daughter of her caffeine habit. He attempts threats against her social life, her wardrobe and even her people-watching pastime, to no avail, but then he plays his trump card: she’s not allowed to marry until she gives up her java fix. She happily lays aside the offensive ritual at the prospect of a husband, and her father rushes out to find a suitable candidate. Then she turns around and reveals the reason of her sudden change in attitude to the audience: she will only marry a man who’s willing to sign a prenuptial contract giving her the right to drink coffee whenever she pleases!

These are a few beans in the brew of the coffee story. Next time you order a cup remember the history and the fact that there is probably more intrigue behind your cup of coffee than there is in your favourite soap opera.

Other articles in this series include:

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