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The discovery and spread of coffee as a stimulating beverage
The wild coffee plant is native to Ethiopia and originates in an Ethiopian plateau region known as Kefa (Kaffa).
The discovery of coffee as a refreshing drink has a few legends, but the most prominent of these legends is that of a goatherd called Kaldi. Around 850 CE, one day, Kaldi noticed his goats were acting strangely after feeding on a particular evergreen bush with berries. Kaldi tasted these berries for himself and felt a sense of heightened exhilaration.
Kaldi was said to have shared his discovery of the berries with a monk who discarded them into the fire, and this resulted in a pleasing aroma from the fire from the cooking beans. The beans were ground and boiled into what we know as coffee. The ancient Ethiopian coffee ceremony of roasting the beans and grinding them before adding to hot water is still carried out today.
At some later point in history, perhaps as late as the 15th century, coffee plants were taken across the Red Sea to southern Arabia (Yemen) and cultivated there also. In some legends, it is claimed that Sufi monks in Yemen were among the first to brew coffee as a beverage and used the stimulation to pray through the night, however, historical records show that coffee was brewed as a beverage in Ethiopian at a much earlier time.
In Arabia, since the Quran forbode Muslims from drinking alcohol, coffee became an alternative drink of choice across the region. Some Islamic authorities pronounced the drink intoxicating and therefore also prohibited by the Quran, but despite that coffee continued to spread amongst Arabs and neighbouring countries. A new social and cultural base called qahveh khanehs, the coffee house, was established.
These coffeehouses appeared in Mecca in the 15th century and later spread as far as Constantinople (now Istanbul) by the 16th century. Throughout the Muslim world, coffeehouses become meeting places where men of learning gathered for numerous social activities: political discussions, matters of academic importance, board games like chess and backgammon, listening to music singing and dancing and of course smoking tobacco. Coffeehouses were renowned for being schools of learning and wisdom where new and opinions about politics and current affairs were exchanged. Often political and religious authorities would fear the free-thinking discourse entertained by coffeehouses and they sought to ban them, but bans were impossible to maintain, since the drink was deeply ingrained into culture.
From Arabia, coffee became very popular in Turkey and as the Ottoman Empire spread, so did the beverage travel to many more new destinations. Merchant traders, including Venetian merchants were able to spread coffee throughout Europe during the 16th and 17th century. During this time in Europe there are historical records of both the approval of coffee as a religious, political, and medical potion and application sought to the prohibition of coffee. The catholic church viewed the association coffee already enjoyed in the Muslim world, coupled with its novel stimulating effects with suspicion, which led some to urge Pope Clement VIII to forbid it in the late 1500s. However, after he tried coffee for himself, he gave it his blessing.
Coffee continued its rapid spread across Europe, and by the end of the 17th century the drink was flourishing across Britain, the British colonies in America, and nearly all continental Europe.
When coffee had first arrived in Yemen, the Yemeni’s tried to prevent live beans from being exported elsewhere so the coffee trade was able to be controlled by Yemen right up until the end of the 17th century. Eventually the plant was smuggled out and found its way to Java, spreading to other Indonesian Islands and later to the Americas in the 18th century. By 1825, coffee cultivation had begun in the Hawaiian Islands.
By the 20th century, the Western Hemisphere, particularly Brazil, had become the largest producers of coffee. During the 19th and 20th centuries, advancements in coffee production meant that large industrial sized roasting and grinding machines were being used. Vacuum-sealed contained were developed to keep ground coffee roasts fresh for longer and decaffeination techniques were developed to treat the green beans. Instant coffee was introduced in the 1950s and its production allowed the cultivation of cheaper Robusta beans in Africa.
In 2020 the top coffee-producing countries were Brazil, Vietnam, Colombia, Indonesia, and Ethiopia. Interest in organic, fair-trade, and sustainably grown coffee increased in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, leading to shifts in production methods in some places.
Global warming, particularly the projected increases in extreme heat and drought, may threaten the stability of the coffee industry as farmers struggle to adapt in vulnerable regions.