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History of Coffee

Updated on September 14, 2015

The coffee tree is believed to be indigenous to Ethiopia. According to legend, a goatherd in that country watched his animals as they ate the bright red berries from a tree growing wild in the pasture and then was surprised to see the goats cavort about in an unusually frisky manner. He too tried the berries and enjoyed their stimulating effect. It is not clear whether the coffee tree was brought from Ethiopia to Arabia or whether it was also native to Arabia. The Arabs cultivated the plant as early as 600 A.D., and the first mention of coffee in literature was by the Arab physician Rhazes about 900 A.D.

Coffee was a food and a medicine long before it became a beverage. At first the coffee berries, which contain the seeds, or beans, were dried, crushed, and mixed with fat to form a ball that was eaten. Later, the skins of the berries were mixed with the green beans and allowed to ferment to create a wine.

Coffee became a lucrative article of trade following the discovery in Arabia, in the 13th century, that a delicious beverage could be made from the roasted beans. The beverage made from roasted beans was introduced from Arabia into Turkey in 1554, from Turkey into Italy in 1615, from Italy into France in 1644, and soon thereafter into other European countries.

The Arabs long maintained coffee as a national monopoly. Although the drink was forbidden by their religion, coffee was used by the Arabian Moslems to stay awake during long religious ceremonies. For centuries they exported large quantities of beans but did not permit a fertile seed or seedling to leave their territories. However, in 1690 the Dutch managed to obtain a few plants and placed them in botanical gardens in the Netherlands. Then they began cultivation in Java and sent plants to other botanical gardens in Europe.

The story of the introduction of coffee plants into the Western Hemisphere from Europe in 1723 centers on Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu, a young French officer who served in Martinique and believed that coffee could be raised there. While on leave in Paris, he stole a coffee plant from the Jardin des Plantes. De Clieu managed to keep the plant alive during the voyage back to Martinique in spite of an attempted kidnap, an attack by Barbary pirates, violent storms, and a serious water shortage aboard ship. The plant flourished in Martinique and its progeny spread throughout the West Indies and eventually reached the mainland of South America.

The coffee plant did not reach Brazil until 1727. In that year Brazil sent one of its army lieutenants, Francisco de Melo Palheta, to arbitrate a boundary dispute between French and Dutch Guiana. Both were cultivating coffee, but neither allowed the export of seeds or seedlings. Palheta handled the arbitration adroitly and so endeared himself to the wife of the governor of French Guiana that on his departure she presented him with a bouquet; hidden in the bouquet were fertile coffee beans and cuttings. Palheta brought them to Brazil, where they flourished.


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