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A Brief History of Coffee

Ancient roots in the Middle East lead to a new life in the New World

Sam Gugino
Posted: June 14, 2004

Little has changed in coffee production since colonial times. Now as then, families work the fields with primitive tools.
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  Around the World
Coffee's tropical origin and terroir determine flavor
  Making the Perfect Cup
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  Best Brewers
Machines that make you wake up and smell the coffee

Today's practice of processing, roasting, grinding and brewing coffee is actually a very recent development in the long history of the coffee plant. Scientists and historians have traced the origin of the wild Coffea arabica plant to either Ethiopia or Yemen, just across the Red Sea, and have found evidence of human consumption millennia before the Christian era.

The fruit, called a cherry, and its seed or bean were originally eaten fresh. Later the cherries and ground beans were combined with animal fat to make a lump of high-energy food. Some people chewed the beans like nuts. Others steeped the cherries and beans in water to create a kind of tea. The fermented fruit was even made into a wine. It wasn't until the 16th century, however, that coffee beans were roasted, ground and combined with hot water-and often liberal amounts of sugar and spices such as cardamom and cinnamon-to approximate the bracing beverage that jump-starts our mornings.

Wild coffee plants were probably brought to the Arabian Peninsula in A.D. 525 with the Ethiopian invasion of what is now Yemen. While coffee was initially used by Arabs for medicinal and religious purposes, it soon became widespread as a beverage in coffeehouses throughout the Islamic world.

"So important did the brew become in Turkey that lack of sufficient coffee provided grounds for a woman to seek a divorce," writes Mark Pendergrast in Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World (Basic Books). It's also interesting to note that the word coffee comes from qahwa, the Arab name for the coffee wine that resulted from the fermentation of a coffee-based brew. Since alcohol was forbidden to Muslims, qahwa provided an acceptable alternative.

The Ottoman Turks, who occupied Yemen in 1536, dominated the coffee trade in the 16th and 17th centuries and decreed that no cherries were allowed to leave the country unless they had been boiled or roasted to prevent germination.

But beans were smuggled out, first to southern India. Then the Dutch brought seeds to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and the islands of the East Indies, such as Java and Sumatra. Before long, Europeans had embraced coffee. By the mid-17th century, coffee was being sold by Italian vendors along with chocolate and lemonade.

In the early 18th century, the French created the first filtered coffee by putting grounds in a cloth bag suspended over a pot and pouring boiling water over them (a method still used in Costa Rica). In the 1720s, the French also introduced coffee plants to the New World in their colony of Martinique. A few years later, the Portuguese planted seeds in Brazil.

Vienna owes its famous coffeehouses to the Turks, who left some beans behind after an unsuccessful siege of that city in 1683. This East-West juncture is the dividing line for coffee drinking habits; those in Middle Eastern and southern Mediterranean countries drink coffee black (though heavily sweetened), whereas the inhabitants of northern and Western Europe and the United States often drink it with milk. America's coffee consumption rocketed in the 19th century, after tea imports were cut off owing to the War of 1812. Still, Americans were woefully behind Europeans in brewing techniques. Jabez Burns' 1864 invention of the modern coffee roaster and, soon thereafter, John Arbuckle's use of 1-pound packages to sell roasted coffee propelled the United States into large-scale coffee production and consumption.

Coffee quality continued to improve until after World War II, when large coffee roasters began to use increasing amounts of inferior coffee from the high-yielding, disease-resistant Coffea robusta plant, once banned by the New York Coffee Exchange. Today, with the help of a glut of robusta coffee from Vietnam, the big four coffee companies-Kraft (Maxwell House), Proctor & Gamble (Folgers), Sara Lee (Hills Brothers), and Nestlé (Nescafé)-battle each other over who can sell at the lowest price. Unfortunately, many farmers produce both high- and low-grade coffees. If they can't sell the latter at a decent price, they may go out of business entirely.

In the mid- to late 1960s, small roasters such as Alfred Peet, who founded Peet's Coffee & Tea, began to emerge to fill the quality vacuum and create what was dubbed in 1974 "specialty coffee." This niche product invaded the mainstream in the 1980s and '90s, especially through the market power of Starbucks, the now ubiquitous retailer that has changed Americans' definition of quality coffee.

In the past three decades, the development of specialty coffee has mirrored the improvement in wine. Just as wine aficionados focus on the quality of the grapes, the terroir in which they are grown and the style of the winemaker, coffee lovers place increasing emphasis on quality beans, regional character and the skill of the roaster.

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