Where Did Coffee Come From?

Written by:
Kenny Gould
Photography By:
Katya Austin

If you didn’t know it already, the coffee bean is a crop. Technically, it’s the seed (or “cherry”) of a berry from certain Coffea species that grow in about 70 different countries around the Equator.

After the coffee cherry is ripe, it’s picked, processed, dried, and roasted. In addition to the way it’s grown, the way coffee is stored and the way it’s roasted have the greatest impact on the final aroma and flavor of the bean. This is why roasters like Tandem or Elixr play such an important role with regards to your coffee.

But where did coffee come from? Like, back in the day, when no one used fancy roasting machines? And even before that, hundreds of years ago, when people first started drinking the stuff?

The simple answer: nobody knows.

The Ancient History of Coffee

History Of Coffee 1905

Palestinian women grinding coffee, 1905

While many apocryphal stories exist about coffee’s origins, the truth has been lost to history. However, we know a few things for sure.

The word “coffee” comes from the Dutch koffie, which they borrowed from the Ottoman Turkish kahve. The Turks took their word from the Arabic noun qahwah, derived from the verb qahiya, meaning “to lack hunger.”

Ever heard of people on a diet drinking black coffee for breakfast? Since its earliest uses as a beverage, coffee has been a famous appetite suppressant.

Coffee’s etymology points to the beverage’s origins in the Sufi monasteries of Yemen, where it has been consumed since at least the early 15th century. Often, the devout would use the beverage to keep themselves awake and focused during prayer.

From Yemen, coffee spread across the Arab world. The beverage moved to Mecca and Medina, as well as to Cairo, Baghdad, and Constantinople (now Istanbul).

During the sixteenth century, the beverage moved to Europe, first coming to Malta by way of Turkish slaves. From there, it spread to the rest of Europe through the commercial routes of the Mediterranean Sea.

Eventually, the Dutch and French brought the plant to the Americas. The Dutch also brought coffee to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Southern India, where it thrived.

How The Beverage Was Almost Lost To History

Throughout history, many have viewed coffee as a subversive drink.

The first recorded coffee ban came from conservative imams in Mecca in 1511. In 1524, Ottomon Turkish Sultan Suleiman I struck down the ban, but a similar ban hit Cairo only a few years later.

Historically, many in the Catholic Church opposed coffee, though it gained popularity after Pope Clement VIII (Pope from 1592 to 1605) gave the drink his blessing.

At one point before the 18th century, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church banned coffee. However, the Ethiopian emperor from 1889 to 1913 drank coffee, as did Bishop Matewos X, which softened attitudes toward the drink.

The British consumed coffee as part of progressive religious and political debates. As a result, in 1675, Charles II attempted to wipe out coffee houses.

Even though the attempt failed, many coffeehouses prohibited entry to women, a common practice throughout much of Europe.

The History of Coffee In Asia

Indonesia Coffee Plantation

Photography By: Isabel Sommerfeld

Coffee first came to Asia by way of India, where it was introduced to Chikmagalur, Karnataka by the Sufi saint Baba Budan in 1670.

However, it was the Dutch East India Trading Company that truly brought coffee to Asia. In the late 1600s, they planted coffee on the Indonesian Archipelago. Ever heard coffee called java? The name comes from the Indonesian island of Java, one of the foremost coffee growing regions in the world.

Also in the late 1600s, the Dutch also brought coffee to Japan. However, it wasn’t until trade restrictions were lifted in 1858 that coffee truly took off in Japan.

It was the Spanish who brought coffee to the Philippines in 1740, and the French who brought coffee to Vietnam in the middle of the 19th century.

Today, Vietnam is the world’s second-largest producer of coffee, right after Brazil.

The History Of Coffee In The Americas

Historic Coffee Plantation

Picture courtesy of American Grocer Publishing Association

Coffee has been cultivated in the Americas since at least 1715. However, it was Gabriel de Clieu, a French naval officer, who was responsible for widespread cultivation.

By 1770, the seedlings de Clieu had brought to Martinique fifty years earlier had turned into almost 20,000 coffee trees. From Martinique, coffee spread to Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), Mexico, and the Carribean.

By 1788, Saint-Domingue grew half the world’s coffee. However, the Haitian Revolution, which started in 1791, destroyed the nation’s industry, which has never recovered. By 1852, Brazil had taken over Saint-Domingue’s title as the world’s largest coffee producer, a title it maintains to this day.

After the Boston Tea Party of 1773, many Americans switched to coffee as a display of patriotism. Although the United States isn’t close enough to the equator to be a particularly viable coffee-growing country, it imported vast quantities of coffee from around the world, a practice that continues today.

Because of the European and American demand for coffee, many Central American countries put coffee under cultivation in the late 1800s, largely at the expense of indigenous populations. The repercussions of these practices are still felt today, though several governments (and organizations) have tried to relieve tensions by ensuring better working conditions.

Learn More about the History of Coffee

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