The History, Origin and Spread of Coffee

What is coffee?

Coffee is the kernel of cherry-like fruits that grow on flowering plants, the plant species is called Coffea and the two species we mainly use for coffee are Coffea arabica which accounts for about 70% of the world’s production and Coffea Canephora (also known as robusta) which accounts for the remaining about 30%.

When was coffee discovered?

No one really knows exactly when and how coffee was discovered, but it is known that it originated in Ethiopia and there are some stories that go something like this. 

Somewhere around the year 850-1000, a goatherd named Kaldi was out walking with his goats. At one area, he noticed that the goats used to chew berries from a plant and the goats started to become more energetic and behave like “shitting goats”. Kaldi decided to taste these berries himself and immediately felt the need to take the berries back to the village, once back in the village he gave the berries to a Sufi monk. The monk did not approve of the use of the berries and threw them directly into the fire, after a while an aroma arose, a fantastic aroma that took the monk’s attention. The monk was so fascinated that he quickly took out the roasted berries, ground them down and put them in hot water, which is said to have become the world’s first cup of coffee.

Whether the story is true or not, no one knows, but it is a very good story and reasonably credible as monks were also scientists of the time.

How did coffee spread around the world?

Hur kaffe och kaffeträdet spreds i världen

We start by stacking up a few key years when it reached different continents and thus the coffee plant’s significant spread, and then delve into the history of coffee’s worldwide spread.

  • The coffee originates from Ethiopia in Africa,
  • First out was Yemen in the Middle East around 500-1500
  • Then it came to France in Europe in 1616.
  • In the mid-17th century it reached India and Sri Lanka.
  • In the early 18th century, it arrived in South America and the Caribbean islands.
  • Around 1750-1850 it arrived in Mexico and Central America.

Thus, each coffee-producing continent has received its share of the Coffea plant, in between and then it has spread around the continents to those countries that have the right climate for the coffee plants flourishing production.

How did the coffee plant spread?

It all begins with a century under Arab control

In the early days of the coffee trade, it was the supplies to the people of Venice that set the stage for the beginning of a lucrative trade that was entirely controlled by the Arabs who had access to this raw material. They maintained this control for almost a century by making sure that no cultivable seeds left the country, this was ensured by always making sure to deliver already roasted coffee and not allowing visitors to come near the plantations.

The Dutch Company: the outbreak of the century

At the time when the Venetians received their first supply of green coffee, i.e. green beans that had not been roasted, a Dutch trader managed to break the century by stealing some plants from Moka in 1616. The trader brought the plants back to Amsterdam intact, where they were carefully preserved in the Botanical Garden.

In the 17th century, the Dutch East India Company was established in Java and began experimenting with coffee cultivation. As early as the 1690s, cultivation began to spread one by one among the colonies of Sumatra, Timir and Bali.

Nederländska Ostindiska Kompaniet och dess kaffehistoria

The Coffee Pantry of the Universe

In 1706, the first harvest was sent from Dutch farmers in Java, and it was from this harvest that some coffee plants were later exported to the New World.

Later, these plants were claimed to have come from coffee plantations in the West; some came to call the Amsterdam Botanical Garden the “coffee nursery of the universe”.

The King's Tree

In 1714, the mayor of Amsterdam offered a coffee tree to Louis XIV of France. The French had already taken commercial shares through stolen Moka seeds planted on the island of Reunion. But they had problems getting the cultivation going. The tree offered by the Netherlands was gladly accepted. The tree came to fruition and Louis XIV was able to continue with his ambitions for his future coffee plantations in the colonies. This tree became the basis for most of the coffee trees that grow in Central and South America today.

In 1715, the Sultan of Yemen offered 60 young coffee plants to France, which were transferred to the island of Bourbon, now known as Reunion, and administered by the Dutch East India Company. Bourbon coffee later came to be classified as grand cru – a bit like today’s “single origin” – from a region or a cultivation – an expression of extremely high quality.

Coffee migration to the New World

There is controversy over whether it was the Dutch or the French who first introduced coffee culture to the New World.

A year after coffee was donated by the Netherlands to France, the Netherlands sent coffee plants to its territories in French Guiana.

In 1721, Louis XV had given two coffee trees to an infantry captain named Gabriel de Clieu. The captain was instructed to ensure that the trees were planted in Martinique. A journey full of adventure with an officer who made himself worthy of his mission. He avoided drinking water himself to ensure that the only surviving plant would get its water needs. Miraculously, both the captain and a tree survived the journey. The tree was transported to the captain’s garden, where it acclimatised and yielded its first harvest in 1726.

50 years later, Martinique had around 19 million coffee trees.

Later, from Martinique and Dutch Guiana, coffee farming spread to the Caribbean and Central and South America.

The world has got coffee.

Sources & read more:

Bok: The world that trade created : society, culture, and the world economy, 1400-the present.

Book: Coffee Culture: Local Experiences, Global Connections

Bok: Bound together : how traders preachers adventurers and warriors shaped globalization

Book: The merchant houses of Mocha : trade and architecture in an Indian Ocean port