How Coffee Became A Worldwide Commodity

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A Brief History

In approximately the 11th century A.D., an Ethiopian goatherd realized that coffee beans could serve as a pick-me-up. From that simple beginning in the foothills of Abyssinia, coffee has become a favored drink for people around the world and a significant part of the world’s economy.

Coffee offers a variety of delicious tastes, fragrant aromas and the ability to simulate coffee aficionados in the same way that a Springbok casino bonus invigorates casino gamers.

Digging Deeper

How Was Coffee Discovered

Legend says that, approximately 1000 years ago, an Ethiopian goatherd named Kaldi was watching his goats one day when he saw them frolicking about. Kaldi investigated and noticed that the frisky goats had been nibbling on some red berries and leaves of an unidentified bush.  Kaldi ingested some of the berries and noticed that right afterward, his mood brightened considerably.

Kaldi shared the information with a passing monk who considered how to process the plant so that it could be used by all. He dried and boiled the berries and used the brew to make a beverage. He shared the drink with the other monks at the monastery and they all agreed that it was delicious.

Slowly, the plant’s berries began to be cultivated by people living on the Arabian Peninsula.  It spread and by the 16th century it was a staple of residents of Egypt, Syria, Persia and Turkey.

They started to open coffee houses called qahveh khaneh where coffee aficionados could listen to music, play chess, keep up with the news, watch performers and socialize. Coffee houses were often referred to as “schools of the wise” because they were such an important  center for the exchange of information.

Spreading Popularity

One of the reasons that coffee’s popularity was so well known is that it often replaced wine and spirits in Muslim nations where alcohol was forbidden. In fact, many people referred to coffee as the “wine of Araby.” Over the years, Europeans who travelled to the Near East brought back tales of the dark black beverage that was full-bodied, tasty, invigorating and enriching. By the 17th century, coffee had become popular across Europe.

Some people were suspicious of the beverage, calling it the “bitter invention of Satan.” In Venice the local clergy condemned coffee but when Pope Clement VIII  was asked for his opinion, he found it so satisfying that he gave it the papal stamp of approval.

In cities across  England, Austria, France, Germany and Holland, coffee houses became centers of social activity. “Penny universities” gave stimulating conversation and an engaging social atmosphere for the price of a one-penny cup of coffee. Beer and wine were supplanted as breakfast drinks by coffee which made employers happy because their employees were coming to work energized and alert.

By the mid-1600s there were over 300 coffee houses in London. Lloyd’s of London was established by its founders who gathered at the Edward Lloyd’s Coffee House of London.

Americas

Coffee arrived in New Amsterdam in the mid-1600s. Coffee was not as popular as tea in the Americas until 1773 when King George III imposed a heavy tax on tea.  The colonists revolted, tossing boxes of tea into Boston Harbor, and Americans boycotted tea, supplanting it with coffee. By the 1800s coffee was as popular in America as it was in Europe and entrepreneurs started to look for new opportunities to cultivate the coffee plant.

The Dutch were the first to successfully grow coffee plants, first in Indonesia and then on the islands of Sumatra and Celebes. A French explorer got a hold of a seedling and brought it to Martinique where an entirely new industry was established. To this day, the 18th century seedling is the ancestor of all coffee trees that grow today in South America, Central America and the Caribbean.

Brazil

Brazil was another country where the coffee plant was successful. The Brazilian coffee industry started when the Portuguese decided to try to try to grow coffee in Brazil so that they could get a foothold in the market.

They tried to obtain seeds from nearby French Guiana but the governor there would not give them seeds.  Francisco de Mello Palheta was sent to try to resolve the issue by the Portuguese emperor. He seduced the governor’s wife and she expressed her love for him by gifting him, secretly, with coffee bean plant seeds.

Over the years, travelers, including missionaries, traders and colonists, continued to plant new coffee plantations including in mountain highlands and in tropical forests.  Coffee economies were responsible for the establishment of new nations and personal fortunes. By the 19th century coffee was one of the most profitable export crops in the world.

Today

Today, coffee is one of the world’s most traded products, second only to oil. Growing, processing and trading coffee is responsible for the employment of millions of people. The International Coffee Organization (ICO) decides the price of coffee worldwide under agreements negotiated under the authority of the United Nations in 1962, 1968, 1976, 1983, 1994 and 2001.

These agreements control coffee supply, stabilize the market and structure import and export of the coffee worldwide.  The agreements successfully limit excess supplies based on implemented price controls and a quota system. The goal of the agreements is to strengthen the economies of coffee-producing countries in South America and Africa.

Currently, coffee accounts for nearly half of the total net exports from tropical countries.

Question for students (and subscribers): What do you think are the five most important beverages in history?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Pendergrast, Mark.  Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World.  Basic Books, 2019.

The featured image in this article, a photograph by G. LaRue of the USAID Africa Bureau of Ethiopian coffee tasters honing their skills during a Coffee Corps Advanced Cuppers Training Seminar, is a work of an employee of the Executive Office of the President of the United States, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, it is in the public domain.  This image, originally posted to Flickr, was reviewed on  by the administrator or reviewer File Upload Bot (Magnus Manske), who confirmed that it was available on Flickr under the stated license on that date.

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About Author

Abdul Alhazred

“But I don’t want to go among mad people," Alice remarked. "Oh, you can’t help that," said the Cat: "we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad." "How do you know I’m mad?" said Alice. "You must be," said the Cat, "or you wouldn’t have come here.” ― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland