O F F E E T H R O U G H T H E A G E S
Coffee is one of
the most popular hot beverages in our culture. Since its
discovery, it has had a decisive influence on the economic,
political and social structures of whole countries. Whether it is
celebrated in style, gulped down on the run, or picked up as a
takeaway on the way to work: coffee was always, and remains, part
of our culture.
The history of coffee begins close to the Garden of Eden.
Early signs lead to Ethiopia, to the Abyssinian highlands
and to Kenya.
There are quite a few versions of the discovery of this
black gold. The best-known and oldest of these legends dates
from the 9th century in Arabia and tells of the goatherd,
Khaldi was looking after goats in the Yemeni highlands.
Every day he led the herd to new pastures. One day, after
the goats had been munching on a certain shrub with red
berries, they began jumping about more than they had ever
The abbot of a nearby monastery, who heard about this, had
some berries collected from the bushes and made into an
infusion for his Order. Sure enough, it had the same effect
on the monks, who were able to keep praying through the
night without becoming tired. Soon they couldn't do without
the drink and began to put aside stores of the berries.
During the rainy season they hung twigs full of berries over
an open fire to dry. Once, one of the twigs fell into the
fire unseen, the beans were charred and gave off an aromatic
fragrance. Attracted by the scent, the monks saved the
blistered beans from the fire, ground them up and then
prepared their usual infusion. They quickly noticed that the
taste of this drink was far more delicious, and that the
invigorating effects remained. The secret of coffee beans
had been discovered!
The first centuries of the history of coffee remain rather
clouded. Not until the 14th century is coffee mentioned in
contemporary accounts, when its cultivation in the terraced
gardens of Yemen is reported. It was here that coffee was
planted regularly for the first time. Coffee probably
arrived in this region with Ethiopian warriors who carried
the red berries with them as provisions for their marches.
Finally, coffee spread from the port of Aden in southern
Yemen to Mecca, the holy city of Islam.
Even then, Yemen was an important centre of the Arab world
which every good Muslim should visit at least once during
his lifetime. This is where the first coffee houses
developed, where travellers from all corners of the earth
learned to appreciate coffee. The word 'coffee' also
originated from this region, stemming from the
Arabic-Turkish description of a stimulating drink: 'kahwe'.
'stimulating' effect caused influential religious leaders to
forbid the drinking of coffee in 1511, because it had
similarly damaging effects to alcohol. Within a very short
time this led to the burning of all coffee stores and a ban
on sales. But the actual reason for the ban was less the
stimulating effect of coffee than the growing number of
coffee houses, which were suspected of being the breeding
ground for free political thinking. The spread of coffee was
not to be stopped that easily, however. Mecca was the hub of
many trading routes, so it was only a question of time until
the beans also appeared in the big trading cities of Cairo,
Damascus and Aleppo. The Yemeni port city of Al-Mukha, a
flourishing Red Sea coast trading centre between the Middle
East and India, became the main coffee shipping location. It
is from here that the strong coffee of the Orient takes its
To make sure that they maintained their world monopoly on
coffee, the Yemeni rulers prohibited the export of coffee
plants. Only roasted or boiled coffee beans, which were no
use for planting, could leave the country. Theft of the
plants was heavily punished. This explains why, for a very
long time, no country outside Yemen was able to cultivate
It was not
until 1618 that a Dutch merchant succeeded in smuggling out
some of these desirable coffee plants.
botanists in the Dutch colony of Java, today part of
Indonesia, grew the first seedlings into trees with
surprising success. The fine volcanic soil and the humid
island climate suited the coffee trees excellently, and the
world's first overseas coffee plantation was created.
The first coffee beans were brought to Europe by the Dutch
East India Company during the 17th century. Gradually, the
other colonial powers also began to experiment with coffee
cultivation in their colonies, the British in Jamaica and
Africa, the Portuguese in Brazil, and the French in the
Windward Islands and Guyana. Coffee arrived in Germany at
about the same time and the first German coffee house opened
in 1673 in Bremen. Four years later, a second one was
established in Hamburg; the beverage quickly spread from the
maritime trade centres throughout the whole of Germany.
When coffee houses are mentioned, one usually thinks of
Vienna. There was a dramatic beginning to the development of
a coffee culture in the Austrian capital: in 1683, the city
was besieged by the Turks and was only liberated by a
townsman disguised as a Turk. He smuggled himself across the
frontier to plead for help from Lorraine. Together they
succeeded in driving away the Turks. They left behind 500
sacks of raw coffee beans. That's how coffee came to Vienna!
Initially the Viennese did not really take to the bitter
Turkish mocha. Resourceful coffee house owners refined it by
adding cream and honey, and dubbed the drink 'Vienna melange'.
Once the Viennese began to offer confectionery with the
coffee, the coffee houses became really popular. It is said
that the Empress Elisabeth was addicted to the sweet
accompaniments to coffee - she probably wasn't the only one.
Vienna's coffee-house culture remains unique in the world
Coffee-house culture flourished in
Germany, too. It became a growing habit to meet over coffee and biscuits.
Musicians often gave small public concerts in coffee
houses. One of the
conductors of musical performances of this type was Johann Sebastian Bach.
His famous Coffee Cantata was first performed in a coffee house in 1732.
The Prussian state was as strict with the desirable beans as Yemeni rulers
had been hundreds of years before: the import and roasting of coffee was a
made a state monopoly. Smugglers thought up the most absurd tricks to
bring it across the border. They are said, for example, to have carried
the coffee across the border in coffins, pretending that they contained
relatives who had died of leprosy. Out of fear of the disease, Customs
officers kept their distance and let the coffins past, along with three to
four hundredweight of coffee.
18th and 19th centuries, the colonial powers continually
expanded coffee cultivation in Africa and South America.
Today, the so-called coffee plantation belt extends right
around the globe between the latitudes 23° north and 25°
south. After crude oil, coffee is the second most important
product in global trading. Costa Rica, Brazil, Colombia,
Mexico, Indonesia and Kenya are just a few of around 50
coffee-exporting countries. The world's annual harvest adds
up to around six million tonnes of raw coffee beans, of
which around five million tonnes are for export. One hundred
million people live directly or indirectly from the
cultivation and processing of coffee.
The history of
coffee is a history of success. Charting its course is a
global voyage and has shown to what ends people are prepared
to go in order to get their hands on this stimulating drink.
During the years of huge inflation in Germany in the 1920s,
the price of a pound of coffee rose to three billion marks.
In the second world war, import restrictions paralysed the
coffee market completely. It was just such deprivations,
however, that helped to make coffee the symbol of freedom
and enjoyment that it is today!