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A Coffee Primer - Part 1: The History of Coffee
Coffee. While it may not be "the drink of the gods", it’s the beverage we artists and writers dream about, and often what can float a project long enough for us to finish it and get to bed. Only programmers can rival our love for coffee… maybe.
But as much as we love coffee, it’s surprising how little most of us know about this wonderful elixir.
Other Articles in This Series
Coffee's Humble Beginnings
Coffee begins its life as a berry; yes, not a bean, a berry. The bright red berries, green when unripe, are where coffee begins, but it is the seeds of the berry that, once dried and roasted, become "coffee beans".
While coffee beans are now grown in places all over the world, from Brazil to Kenya to Indonesia, coffee as a drink first developed in the Arabian Peninsula, where it grows naturally. Legend has it that the caffeinating properties of the coffee bean were discovered when a shepherd noticed how frisky his sheep were after they ate the beans and tried it himself. This shepherd then took the berries to monks, explaining his discovery to them. The monks thought this unfitting, and threw the berries into the flames. It wasn't long before the scent of freshly roasted coffee brought everyone to the courtyard wondering. The roasted seeds were raked from the ashes, and a new drink was born.
Other legends claim it was a man named Sheik Omar, a famous man who would heal the sick through prayer. Exiled from his home in Mocha (does that name sound familiar?) he wandered the desert, starving and searching for something to eat. Coffee berries were all he could find. The berries were too bitter so he tried roasting the seeds, but then they were too hard, so he soaked them in boiling water to soften them. You can guess the result of that experiment. Omar was accepted back into the city for his discovery and, in the end, made a saint.
Sometimes it makes you wonder at the things people will try for food.
Coffee is Established
Regardless of how it started, people soon began following suit, and coffee grew to be a very popular drink among the Muslim peoples.
Merchants on their way to China had to travel through the Middle East. Since they were looking for exotic spices and gold it isn't surprising that the merchants tried coffee and found it to their liking. These merchants were able to ask a high price for this new, exotic beverage from the south.
Leonhard Rauwolf, a German physician who actually visited The Holy Land for ten years, described the contemporary view of coffee:
A beverage as black as ink, useful against numerous illnesses, particularly those of the stomach. Its consumers take it in the morning, quite frankly, in a porcelain cup that is passed around and from which each one drinks a cupful. It is composed of water and the fruit from a bush called bunnu.—Léonard Rauwolf, Reise in die Morgenländer (in German)
How Many Cups of Coffee Do You Drink in an Average Day?
The Spread of Coffee
Although its trade through Venice continued to rise,the public opinion of coffee remained ambivalent until Pope Clement the VIII pronounced it fit for Catholics to drink. Still, coffee held weakly onto its appeal in a world dominated by tea, a beverage that was cheaper and easier to make.
This didn't change until the American Revolution.
Recall the Boston Tea Party. The angry colonists refused to allow the king to bully them into buying the tea he had so heavily invested in, and threw it over the sides of the ships into the sea. This didn't change his mind, however, and still the only source of tea in the colonies was from England. Those truly supportive of the Revolution, then, had to choose a separate source for their hot beverages. The obvious choice was coffee. Although darker, more bitter and more robust than the tea they were used to, coffee quickly grew in popularity, rising to staple status by the mid 1800's. The pioneers settling the western lands would almost invariably carry some tools, journey bread, and a precious tin of coffee that they would refill at every town.
In the twentieth century, coffee had firmly established itself into American culture, becoming synonymous with hospitality itself ("Can I ask you in for a cup of coffee?"). But in England, coffee was rejected to this day in favor of the more traditional drink of tea.
So we come to modern times, where it's hard to walk a mile in town without seeing at least one coffee shop (read "Starbucks"), where the 'cool dudes hang', and many others meet for an enjoyable outing together. "Coffee breaks" have made their way into common culture and many men and women start their days over a steaming 'cup of joe'.