Coffee has always been a social drink, says UCI history professor Steven Topik. “For Muslims,” he notes, “alcohol is prohibited, so the coffeehouses became a meeting place for men outside the home.” Steve Zylius / UCI

You don’t know joe

Tracing coffee’s evolution from little-used African bean to ubiquitous beverage

For many of us, coffee is a daily ritual that’s solemnly observed, most often in the morning. Its ability to boost vitality, reduce hunger, sharpen the senses and dispel sleepiness, however, have made the drink so popular that it’s no longer relegated to a single time of day or restricted to one form. We like it piping hot or over ice, sweetened or plain, with milk or black.

But where did coffee come from and how did it become such a cultural mainstay around the world?

Coffee was discovered sometime between A.D. 800 and 1000 in Ethiopia, where it was originally consumed as an ingredient in a sort of cake. The beans were added to flour made from durra – a type of millet – and fried in butter. There are also stories of coffee beans being inserted into balls of fat as an energy food for warriors on horseback.

Today's proliferation of Starbucks and similar shops in the U.S. is a far cry from the second half of the 19th century, when Americans eschewed the "bourgeois coffeehouses of Europe," says UCI history professor Steven Topik.

Today’s proliferation of Starbucks and similar shops in the U.S. is a far cry from the second half of the 19th century, when Americans eschewed the “bourgeois coffeehouses of Europe,” says UCI history professor Steven Topik.

University of California, Irvine professor Steven Topik – who explores world history through the study of commodities, especially coffee – says it was first imbibed in the 15th century in Yemen, across the Red Sea from Ethiopia, probably by members of the Sufi sect of Islam. “They believed in an ecstatic version of the religion in which long chanting and dancing brought a visitation of the divine spirit,” he says. “They had their meetings at night, and to stay awake and experience this phenomenon, drinking coffee was an excellent choice.”

The beverage spread to Egypt and Mecca via religious students. As the Ottoman Empire’s territory increased in the 16th century, so did pilgrimages to Mecca, where hundreds of thousands of people were introduced to coffee. In the mid-1600s, it became a European drink as the Dutch, Italians, French and British brought it back to their homelands from Yemen, and it crossed the Atlantic during the discovery and colonization of the Americas.

As coffee traveled across Europe and the United Kingdom, various countries embraced it as part of their national identity, integrating it into the culture in a way not seen with other beverages. “When we think of Italy, we think of espresso, or Viennese coffee with Austria and, of course, Irish coffee,” Topik notes.

Another unique characteristic of coffee is that it has always been a social drink. “For Muslims,” the history professor says, “alcohol is prohibited, so the coffeehouses became a meeting place for men outside the home where they could perform plays, music and poems and discuss them without getting drunk. This same aspect made coffeehouses popular in London for the Puritans.”

It was in the U.S. during the latter half of the 19th century that coffee became a mass drink. Workers earned enough that they could afford it but spurned the “bourgeois coffeehouses of Europe,” Topik says, in favor of consuming it mainly at home. Today’s proliferation of coffeehouses proves that in the 20th century, Americans experienced a radical change of heart. We’ve fallen captive to coffee’s charms, seduced by the irresistible lure of a special place to meet someone for a leisurely chat over steaming cups of joe.

The global thirst for coffee has greatly expanded cultivation. Until the 1600s, Yemen had a worldwide monopoly on growing domesticated coffee, according to Topik. But as demand increased, it was cultivated in southern India, then in Java, Guyana, Martinique and Saint-Domingue, known today as Haiti.

“The big change came in the 1800s, when Brazil turned to coffee growing,” he says. “In the second half of the 19th century, Mexico, Venezuela and Colombia were also growing substantial amounts of coffee, and since the 1970s, Vietnam, Indonesia and some other Asian countries have emerged as leading producers.”

After World War II, coffee cultivation became a tool for famine relief and social justice. “Farmers could earn more money growing coffee than they could growing crops like bananas and chocolate,” Topik says. “And unlike many other crops, such as sugar, coffee doesn’t have large economies of scale. Farmers can do pretty well on 10 acres or less, with family labor.”

Coffee has become a vital cash crop for many developing nations and is the primary export of several African and Central American countries. Its widespread cultivation, however, has sparked controversy about deforestation to facilitate sun-grown coffee, the plants’ “water footprint” and the exploitation of farmworkers.

Topik says these environmental and economic issues are being dealt with. The latest sustainable farming techniques – including fertilizing with organic mulch, utilizing coffee bean husks for fuel and growing coffee in the shade – focus on maximizing the quantity of coffee that can be produced without depleting the soil, while protecting indigenous wildlife and preventing the need to clear native habitat.

“Fair trade practices today ensure that growers get a fair share of the final price,” he adds. “Coffee is an industry that claims to care and has addressed ethical concerns associated with its cultivation.”

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