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  • Writer's pictureTastes Of History

A Brief History of Food: Coffee

Updated: Feb 16

Origins Exactly how and when coffee was discovered is uncertain. A legend of its stimulating effects being identified in Ethiopia is probably just that - a legend.

'Despite coffee bushes growing wild in highlands throughout Africa, from Madagascar to Sierra Leone, from the Congo to the mountains of Ethiopia, and may have been indigenous to Arabia, there is no evidence that coffee was known in the ancient Greek, Roman, Middle Eastern or African worlds.' [1]

Several species of these bushes or shrubs of the genus Coffea produce the berries from which coffee is extracted. Today coffee beans, the seeds within the plant's fruits, are commercially cultivated from two Coffea species. The beans (seeds) are separated from the berries whereupon the raw product is known as 'green coffee'. To produce a consumable product, the beans are then roasted. The 'roasted coffee' beans can be ground into fine particles that are typically steeped in hot water before being filtered out to produce a cup of coffee.

Coffee cultivation and trade began on the Arabian Peninsula. By the 15th-century, coffee was being grown in the Yemeni district of Arabia and there is evidence of either coffee drinking or knowledge of the coffee tree in the Sufi monasteries of Yemen [1], which soon spread to Mecca and Medina. Coffee eventually reached the rest of the Middle East, South India (Karnataka), Persia, Turkey, India, and northern Africa before spreading to the Balkans, Italy, and to the rest of Europe, as well as Southeast Asia.

Coffee comes to Europe Coffee was first introduced to Europe in Hungary when the Turks invaded Hungary at the Battle of Mohács in 1526. Within a year, coffee had reached Vienna by the same Turks who had fought the Europeans at the Siege of Vienna in 1529. Later in the 16th-century, coffee was introduced on the island of Malta. Turkish Muslim slaves imprisoned by the Knights of St John in 1565, the year of the Great Siege of Malta, were making their traditional beverage.

The vibrant trade between the Republic of Venice and the people of North Africa, Egypt, and the East brought a large variety of African goods, including coffee, to this leading European port. Venetian merchants introduced coffee-drinking to the wealthy in Venice, with the first European coffee house, aside from those in the Ottoman Empire and Malta, opening in Venice in 1645. In this way, coffee was introduced to the mainland of Europe.

Coffee houses Over time coffee began to replace the common breakfast drink beverages of the time - beer and wine. Those who drank coffee instead of alcohol seemingly began the day alert and energized. The stimulating effect of coffee was quickly noted and coffee houses soon became centres of social activity and communication in the major cities of England, Austria, France, Germany and Holland. In England 'penny universities' appeared, so called because for the price of a penny one could purchase a cup of coffee and engage in stimulating conversation.

By the mid-17th century, there were over 300 coffee houses in London, many of which attracted like-minded patrons, including merchants, shippers, brokers and artists. Many businesses grew out of these specialized coffee houses. Lloyd's of London, for example, came into existence at the Edward Lloyd's Coffee House.

During the enlightenment, these early English coffee houses became gathering places for the frequenters to discuss religious and political views. This practice became so common, and potentially subversive, that Charles II made an attempt to crush coffee houses in 1675.

Today Coffee is one of the most popular drinks in the world [2] and can be prepared and presented in, to some, a confusing array of ways (e.g., espresso, French press, caffè latte, or even pre-brewed canned coffee). Although usually served hot, chilled or iced coffee is a delicious alternative.

Today the coffea plant ranks as one of the world's most valuable and widely traded commodity crops. It is an important export product of several countries, including those in Central and South America, the Caribbean and Africa.



1. Weinberg, B. A. and Bealer, B. K., (2001), The world of caffeine, London: Routledge, pp. 3-4.

2. Oder, T., (2015). 'How coffee changed the world', Mother Nature Network, Narrative Content Group (accessed December 15th, 2021).


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