How Coffee Changed the World

It only took coffee a few hundred years to conquer the world. (Photo: Coffee Lover/Shutterstock).

Hundreds of years before Starbucks became a hot spot for making social and business connections over lattes and laptops, thriving coffeehouses of a much different type were widely popular in the Arab world.

Those first coffeehouses were in the holy city of Mecca in present-day Saudi Arabia. Nothing like them had ever existed. These were public places, known as kaveh kanes, where people gathered for the same reasons they go to Starbucks today, for coffee and conversation, to discover and share the news of the day, and to conduct business. They also enjoyed music, but not through earbuds plugged into mobile devices, of course. Those early Arabian coffeehouses were vibrant places that pulsated with singing and dancing performers gyrating to the rhythm of Middle Eastern music.

Then, as now, thousands of pilgrims from all over the world visited Mecca each year. When they returned home in those long ago times, they took with them stories about the "wine of Araby," as coffee was once called. But Arab leaders didn't want to lose their monopoly on the coffee trade. To prevent coffee from being cultivated elsewhere and to make sure that stories were all the pilgrims took home, the imams banned the export of coffee beans. Dutch traders circumvented these export restrictions in 1616, and the world hasn't been the same since.

Global Drink

Through the centuries, coffee has become increasingly popular. It is the world's most widely traded tropical agricultural commodity, according to the International Coffee Organization (ICO). Some 70 countries produce coffee, in 2010 global coffee sector employment was about 26 million people in 52 producing countries and exports of 93.4 million bags in 2009-10 were worth an estimated $15.4 billion, according to the London-based group. Global production for 2014-15 is forecast at 149.8 million bags, according to a December 2014 USDA analysis.

The worldwide demand and cultural popularity of coffee as more than a morning ritual made it an easy choice to include on our list of foods that changed the world. Consider it a caffeine jolt, perhaps, but it took coffee fewer centuries than the other foods we've explored so far in our series — grapes, olives or tea — to change cultures and regional and global economies. Here's our take on the history of coffee based largely on information from the ICO and The National Coffee Association USA, Inc. in New York City.

Coffee 'cherries'

Origin of Coffee

Legends and various reports about coffee can be traced back as far as the 10th century. While those stories can't be verified, what's known for sure is that the undomesticated origin of coffee stems from the high mountain rain forests of the southwestern Ethiopian province of Kaffa. These mountains are home to a tree species, Coffea arabica, that produces a fruit called a coffee cherry.

The fruit gets its name because it turns a bright red when it is ripe and ready to pick. The skin has a bitter taste, but the underlying "cherry" fruit is sweet. In fact, Francine Segan, a food historian, and author wrote recently in Zester Daily that it was because of the fruit aspect of the coffee cherry that coffee started out as a food, not a drink. A thousand years ago in Africa, locals would mash the ripe "cherries" from wild coffee trees to create a dried traveling food packed with protein and nutrients. It was, Segan mused, sort of an early version of the breakfast bar.

The fruit had protein, Segan pointed out, but as the world would discover, the real value of the coffee cherry lay deeper in the core of the fruit. It was the seed — the two side-by-side coffee "beans" — that when roasted produced the coffee cherry's most alluring and enduring flavor. Arabica coffees now account for 70 percent of today's global coffee production. All plants of this species of coffee tree in cultivation around the world today are descendants of plants from this part of Ethiopia.

From the mountains of Kaffa, coffee cherries were taken across the Red Sea to Mocha, the great Arab port of the day. There are records that slaves from present-day Sudan, which borders Kaffa on the west, ate the coffee cherries and that the slaves were taken into Yemen and Arabia. But precisely how or why the fruit of the plant was taken from the Horn of Africa to the Arabian Peninsula and how the secret of the beans was discovered have been lost to time.

What is known from historical records is that the first substantiated knowledge of the wonders of the coffee tree or the drinking of coffee occurred in the mid-15th century in the Sufi monasteries of Yemen. The Arabs were not only the first to cultivate coffee and the first to turn coffee beans into a drinkable liquid but also the first to begin the coffee trade. By the sixteenth century, coffee was known in Persia, Egypt, Syria and Turkey.

A sketch of an Ottoman Empire coffeehouse

In an attempt to prevent its cultivation elsewhere, the Arabs imposed a ban on the export of fertile coffee beans, a restriction that was eventually circumvented in 1616 by the Dutch, who brought live coffee plants back to the Netherlands to be grown in greenhouses.

Nothing like those first coffeehouses that sprang up in Mecca had ever existed before. These were public places available to the masses for the price of a cup of coffee. At first the authorities in Yemen encouraged coffee drinking. Before long, though, the conversation turned to politics and coffeehouses became a center of political activity (as depicted in the sketch to the right). At that point, between 1512 and 1524, the imams began banning both coffeehouses and coffee drinking. By that time, coffeehouses and coffee drinking were entrenched in the culture, and the coffeehouses kept reappearing. Finally the authorities and the public figured out a way to keep coffee as a drink and coffeehouses as a place to gather by imposing a tax on both.

Coffeehouses spread to other cities and towns across the Arab world. The first coffeehouse in Damascus opened in 1530. Soon after there were many coffeehouses in Cairo. In 1555, the first coffeehouse opened in Istanbul.

Coffee Spreads Beyond the Ottoman Empire

By the late 1600s, the Dutch started growing coffee outside of the Arab world, first in a failed attempt at Malabar in India and then, in 1699, in Batavia in Java in what is now Indonesia. It didn't take long before Dutch colonies became the main suppliers of coffee to Europe, where people had heard stories from travelers to the Near East of an unusual black beverage.

The first coffeehouses outside of the Ottoman Empire appeared in Europe in Venice in 1629. The first coffeehouse opened in England in Oxford in 1652, and by 1675 there were more than 3,000 coffeehouses in the country. Lloyd's of London was Edward Lloyd's Coffee House, before it was a global insurance company.

Café Procope sketched in 1743

The first coffeehouse opened in Paris in 1672 and then perhaps the city's most famous coffeehouse, Café Procope, opened in 1686 (sketched at right in 1743). It was a popular meeting place during the French Enlightenment, arguably the birthplace of the encyclopedia and is still open today.

Interestingly, coffee wasn't popular at first with everyone in Europe. Some called it the "bitter invention of Satan," and the clergy in Venice condemned it. Pope Clement VIII was asked to intervene and, finding it to his liking, gave coffee Papal approval.

Customs of the day did not always approve of women in coffeehouses. Women were banned from many of these early European coffeehouses, particularly in England and France. Germany, however, did allow women to frequent them.

Coffee Reaches the Americas

The Dutch were also the ones who brought coffee across the Atlantic to Central and South America, first to the Dutch colony of Surinam in 1718, then to French Guyana and then to Brazil. In 1730, the British introduced coffee to Jamaica, which today produces the world's most expensive coffee in the island country's Blue Mountains.

A hundred years later Brazil became the world's largest coffee producer, generating some 600,000 bags a year. Cuba, Java and Haiti had also become major producers, and world production climbed to 2.5 million bags a year. Production continued to spread in the Americas, reaching Guatemala, Mexico, El Salvador and Colombia, which greatly benefited by the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914. The Canal permitted coffee to be exported for the first time from the country's previously unreachable Pacific Coast.

The Green Dragon Tavern in Boston

Image: Wikimedia Commons

The Green Dragon Tavern in Boston, Mass. The Green Dragon, also a coffeehouse, was where the 1773 dumping of tea into Boston Harbor was planned.

Coffee in North America

The first coffeehouses in the New World appeared in the mid-1600s in New York, Philadelphia, Boston and other towns of the British colonies. Even so, tea was the preferred drink. That changed forever when the colonists revolted against King George in 1773 by dumping tea into Boston Harbor during the Boston Tea Party, which was planned in a coffeehouse, the Green Dragon. Both the New York Stock Exchange and the Bank of New York started in coffeehouses in what is today known as Wall Street.

The arrival of the 20th century brought political turmoil and social upheaval but also a steadily increasing demand for coffee in the United States. By 1946, annual per capita consumption was 19.8 pounds, twice the amount it had been in 1900. With the process of decolonization that began in the years after the Second World War, production spread to many newly independent nations in Africa, notably Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Burundi, which found themselves in varying degrees dependent on coffee export revenue.

From the 1950s onward, a revival in American folk music increased the popularity of coffee shops. Thanks to Italian immigrants, coffee shops were already popular in the Italian communities in major U.S. cities, notably Little Italy and Greenwich Village in New York, North End in Boston and North Beach in San Francisco.

It is America's wettest city, though, that can claim to have started America's most recent love affair with coffee. Starbucks began with a single storefront in 1971 in the city's sprawling Pike Place Market on Puget Sound. The name was inspired by the novel "Moby-Dick" to evoke the romance of the high seas and the seafaring tradition of the early coffee traders. Howard Schultz, chairman, president and chief executive officer, purchased the company in 1987 with a vision of spreading the experience of Italian coffee bars and the romance of the coffee experience across America.

Coffee in a coffee mug that reads 'Coffee'

Value of Coffee Today

The United States is the world's largest coffee consumer. That's saying something, considering the global consumption is close to 1.6 billion cups a day, according to Food Industry News.

The industry group also reports that Americans spend in excess of $40 billion a year on coffee. Not to worry, though, says the National Coffee Association. A cup of coffee brewed at home costs less than a dime, which they say is a better value, according to the group, than soft drinks (13 cents), milk (16 cents), bottled water (25 cents), beer (44 cents), orange juice (79 cents) and table wines ($1.30).