Coffee is the second-most traded commodity in the world, behind only petroleum, and has become a mainstay of the modern diet. Believed to have originated in Ethiopia, coffee was used in the Middle East in the 16th century to aid concentration. But did you know it also sparked a social revolution in Britain in the 17th century?
Here are eight facts about the history of coffee…
1. Coffee may have been discovered by ‘excited goats’...
Legend has it that Kaldi, a lonely goat herder in ninth-century Ethiopia, discovered the energising and invigorating effects of coffee when he saw his goats getting excited after eating some berries from a tree.
Kaldi told the abbot of the local monastery about this and the abbot came up with the idea of drying and boiling the berries to make a beverage.
He threw the berries into the fire, whence the unmistakable aroma of what we now know as coffee drifted through the night air. The now roasted beans were raked from the embers, ground up and dissolved in hot water: so was made the world’s first cup of coffee.
The abbot and his monks found that the beverage kept them awake for hours at a time – just the thing for men devoted to long hours of prayer. Word spread, and so did the hot drink, even as far afield as the Arabian peninsula
2. Coffee forged a social revolution...
Coffee was drunk in the home as a domestic beverage but, more significantly, it was also drunk in the ubiquitous public coffee houses – qahveh khaneh – which sprang up in villages, towns and cities across the Middle East and east Africa.
These coffee houses soon became all the rage and were the place to go to socialise. Coffee drinking and conversation were complemented by all manner of entertainment: musical performances, dancing, games of chess and, most crucially, gossiping, arguing and discussing the breaking news of the day (or night).
These coffee houses soon became known as ‘schools of the wise’, the place you went to if you wanted to know what was going on in your world. The link between coffee and intellectual life had been established.
3. It was believed that coffee is ‘sinful’...
Coffee, like alcohol, has a long history of prohibition, attracting fear and suspicion and religious disquiet and hypocrisy.
Had the zealots (of all religions) got their way then there would not be very many coffee houses open today.
Coffee drinking was banned by jurists and scholars meeting in Mecca in 1511. The opposition was led by the Meccan governor Khair Beg, who was afraid that coffee would foster opposition to his rule by bringing men together and allowing them to discuss his failings.
Thus was born coffee’s association with sedition and revolution. It was decreed sinful, but the controversy over whether it was intoxicating or not raged on over the next 13 years until the ban was finally rescinded in 1524 by an order of the Ottoman Turkish Sultan Selim I, with Grand Mufti Mehmet Ebussuud el-İmadi issuing a fatwa allowing coffee to be drunk again.
Beg was executed for his troubles by command of the Sultan himself, who further proclaimed coffee to be sacred.
In Cairo there was a similar ban in 1532; coffee houses and coffee warehouses there were ransacked.
4. Coffee was known as ‘the devil’s cup’...
It did not take long for coffee to travel the short distance to the European mainland where it was landed first in Venice on the back of the lucrative trade the city enjoyed with its Mediterranean neighbours.
Initially, however, coffee met with the suspicion and religious prejudice it had suffered in the Middle East and Turkey. The word on the street, filtering back from intrepid European travellers to the mysterious and mystical lands of the east, was of an equally mysterious, exotic and intoxicating liquor.
To Catholics it was the ‘bitter invention of Satan’, carrying the whiff of Islam, and it seemed suspiciously like a substitute for wine as used in the Eucharist; in any event, it was outlawed.
Such was the consternation that Pope Clement VIII had to intervene: he sampled coffee for himself and decreed that it was indeed a Christian as well as a Muslim drink. On tasting it he wittily declared: “This devil’s drink is so delicious… we should cheat the devil by baptising it!” From then on, coffee has been dubbed the devil’s drink, or the devil’s cup.
5. Coffee was claimed to be a 17th-century ‘Viagra’
Unless they were prostitutes, women were excluded from coffee houses and they let their resentment be known: in An Essay in Defence of the Female Sex in 1696, an indignant Mary Astell wrote: “A coffee house habitué is someone who lodges at home, but he lives at the coffee-house. He converses more with newspapers, gazettes and votes, than with his shop-books, and his constant application to the publick takes him off all care for his private home. He is always settling the nation, yet cou’d never manage his own family.”
Astell was merely chiming with all the other wives left at home with their chores and cups of tea; in 1674 there had been the vitriolic The Women’s Petition Against Coffee, in which wives argued that their husbands were forever absent from the home and family, neglecting their domestic duties – “turning Turk”, and all for “a little base, black, thick, nasty, bitter, stinking nauseous puddle water”.
This article was first published on www.historyextra.com