The History of Coffee

This article originally appeared on my MySpace page, way back in April 2006. I was talking with my friend Doug and mentioned it to him. I was sure I had reposted it, but apparently not.

The Devil’s Fruit

Coffee’s unique properties as a stimulant were discovered by an Ethiopian shepherd named Kaldi. On a long, meandering trip with his sheep, Kaldi observed that some of his sheep were acting a little tipsy after eating certain berries.

Being an apparently reckless and thoughtless individual willing to do anything for a trip, Kaldi sampled some of the berries. He got a little tipsy himself and began chasing the sheep around, probably with less than natural intentions since when a monk happened on the scene he immediately branded the berries as “the Devil’s fruit.”

Proving that monks everywhere are a few crackers short of communion, the monk eventually gave into the temptation and also sampled the berries. Discovering that the berries kept them awake during their prayers (really, is there anything more exciting than Coptic midnight vigils?), the monks did what all good individuals who have taken a vow of poverty do, they immediately began profiting from it.

The Muslim Monopoly

The monks sold it to the Arabs who decided no one else should have it. So, they killed the monks and transplanted all the coffee plants they could find in their own lands.

It was the Turks, also Muslims, who thought up the idea of making a drink out of the beans. One has to wonder how exactly they came up with the idea of grinding up the beans and straining hot water through it, but nonetheless they did. Since sugar had not yet been discovered (it was a New World thing), the Turks dumped every spice imaginable into their coffee to make it palatable.

Mocha Anyone?

I should mention, however, that the Arabs do not give the Ethiopians credit for discovering coffee. They say that two men were banished into the desert to die, and the two exiles decided, before trying to kill each other and eat themselves, they would make a desperation attempt at survival. They took an unknown berry and boiled it in water. The berry was coffee, and after drinking the broth, they both survived. Since their survival was considered miraculous, the beverage was named after a nearby town – Mocha.

There are a few holes in this story. For example, how would they have had water to boil since they were sent into exile to die? Second, who sends people into exile near a town? Third, why boil the berries rather than just eating them raw? See what I mean?

Top Secret Weapons

Once the Arabs allowed other Muslim countries to have the stuff, things got ugly. There were actually a number of countries who considered coffee a military secret. Fortunately, whenever a government tries to make something a secret, people just keep trying to let it out until it finally happens.

In this case, it was a disgruntled Arab named Baba Budan. He stuffed some coffee beans in his underwear and walked to Mysore, India, where he planted them. They grew and once other countries got wind of coffee’s euphorial effect, the Arab secret was out.

And then there was Khair Beg

With every good beverage, there’s someone who is oversensitive. In 1511, the governor of Mecca, Khair Beg, banned coffee because he feared it would lead to uprisings. How exactly drinking coffee would cause unrest is unclear, and we’ll never know since the Sultan found out and ordered Khair Beg executed.

I’ve seen people get upset over not getting the right coffee order at Starbucks, but clearly the Arabs took the mocha latte to an entirely different level.

Meanwhile, Back in Christendom

Most Christians viewed coffee as Beelzebub’s beverage and wanted nothing to do with it. They even tried to get Pope Vincent III to ban the drink, but he, being a good Catholic, decided that before he bans the brew as the Devil’s drink, he should try it. This makes good sense in some twisted papal way.

Anyway, Vincent liked the stuff and declared: “Coffee is so delicious it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it.” Of course, he probably declared it in Latin or Italian, but that’s the gyst of it.

On to the New World

In 1607, Captain John Smith and his band of swarthy Brits (there’s a term you’ll not hear often!) landed in Virginia and established Jamestown. Smith was apparently a coffee junkie because one of the first things he did, prior to developing an odd relationship with a teenage Pocahontas, was plant coffee beans. The coffee must have been ok, but its hard to find a Virginia style coffee these days since it grows in warmer climates.

By 1668, the morning cup of joe had replaced beer as the most popular breakfast drink in New York. One can only wonder how different breakfast would be in Manhattan if people still downed a brewsky with their ham and eggs. We can be thankful for small things, I guess.

Also that year, a guy named Edward Lloyd opened a coffee house in London. His place became a popular gathering for merchants and today is the leading insurance holder in the world – Lloyd’s of London. I wonder if he could get my order right because at Starbucks the people who wait on me certainly can’t.

The Reason the Dutch Don’t Run Things

The Dutch gave Louis XIV a single coffee bush as a diplomatic favor in 1713. Louis took the bush and used it to plant bushes throughout French holdings in the new world. By the middle of the 18th century, there were 19 million French coffee bushes on just the island of Martinique. Believe it or not, 90% of the coffee in today’s world is directly descendant of that single bush!

This is the reason why we have the UN building but the Dutch have the Hague. If you’re wondering what they Hague is, it is about the most useless international institution outside of anythin run by the French.

The Boys from Brazil

In 1727, Francisco de Melo Palheta is sent to Guiana to try to convince the French and the Dutch not to kill each other. He strikes up a conversation with the French representative’s wife, which leads to a dangerous liason. As a going away present, she slips de Melo Palheta some coffee bush cuttings in a bouquet of flowers. He takes them home to Brazil, plants them and ends France’s monopoly on New World coffee. By 1907, the Brazilians account for 97% of the world’s coffee harvest!

Americans Oust the British Tea

George III, king of England, decides to lift a series of duties and taxes on the American colonies around 1770called the Townsend Act. The only commodity that remains taxed tea, largely to help the East India Company through a rough patch. The colonists revolt and decide to place an embargo on tea. They look around for something else to drink with crumpets and find coffee. By 1773, it is every American’s patriotic duty to dump the tea bags and get a coffee maker.

Coffee remained a popular drink, but it was prohibition that made it the staple of American existence. When alcohol was banned, Americans wandered the streets bleary eyed and beaten down. Men had to actually face their wives sober, and the only way to do that was hopped up on caffeine. Coffee sales soared!

The Italian Contribution

Not content with just straight coffee, Achillies Gaggia invented expresso in 1946. Apparently their defeat in World War II was so depressing that they needed the extra jolt to make it through their pathetic after-war roles as absolute nothings on the world stage.

And Lastly
Lest you think I forgot, there are two other important notes to add to this history. 1) The first Dunkin’ Donuts opened in 1950 in Massachusetts. At present, there are thousands of locations worldwide, most of which are located in New England. 2) Starbucks opened in 1971 and pioneered the over-priced underflavored tastes which has made its founders filthy rich.

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