The History of Coffee

Learn about the origins of coffee and how coffee became the second most valuable traded commodity in the world.

6th Century AD

Coffee was being grown in the Yemen in the 6th Century AD, though some say it was drunk as early as 900BC. There are many legends about the discovery of coffee’s stimulating effects. One myth has it that in 850 AD, Kaldi, an Ethiopian goat herder, was curious to see his goats leaping around after eating a certain type of berry. Kaldi tried the berries, and found himself feeling strangely rejuvenated. Monks then tried the fruit but were so disappointed by the bitter flavour that they threw it in the fire. Soon, a delightful aroma was wafting around their nostrils. The monks were so curious that they used the roasted fruits to create a brew, which they saw as a gift from God because they found it kept them awake for prayer. This beverage became known as ‘kahweh’ from the Arabic for ‘invigorating’ and the Turkish derivative kahveh (that gives strength) – all forms are phonetic forms of this with ‘coffee’ now accepted widely throughout the world.

1200 AD

The culture of coffee-drinking goes back to the 11th century, when it was exported to Arabia. The Persians were enraptured by the invigorating effects of this new “wine of Islam” because alcoholic wine was strictly forbidden to Muslims. The word “coffee” comes from the ancient Arabic “qahwah”. In the second half of the 15th century, coffee spread to the Kingdom of Arabia via Mecca and Medina and went on to reach Cairo in 1510 In the first half of the 16th century, the Osmanic Kingdom reached its zenith. The first coffee houses were opened in Damascus and Aleppo in 1530 and 1532.

1600 AD

In 1615, Venetian traders smuggled a coffee plant out of the Yemen to Western Europe. Coffee came to Europe along the Spice Route, and like many modern stimulants, was originally used for medicinal purposes. By the end of the century, traders were also selling it as a drink alongside herbal infusions and lemon drinks. It’s delicious aroma and invigorating effects rapidly established it as a favourite beverage, and coffee houses were soon springing up throughout Europe

Later, the Dutch colonised Ethiopia and took coffee plants back to Holland, to grow them in greenhouses. When the Turks were forced to break off their siege of Vienna in 1683, they left behind them 500 sacks of coffee. An enterprising Polish businessman used it to open the city’s first coffee house. The spread of the beverage was accompanied by huge growth of coffee tree cultivation

In 1650, the first coffee house opened in Oxford, England, but women were not allowed entrance, other than to serve men. A number of British women signed a petition (now in the coffee museum, London) to the coffee houses requesting access. They were refused. In 1653 the first tea house opened in England. This became a place for women to gather. In 1658, Coffee cultivation began in the Dutch colonies of Ceylon & Java, promoting the growth of coffee trading in Amsterdam.


The Brazilian coffee trade is reported to have been sparked by a love affair. A Brazilian coast guard officer visiting Cayenne, French Guyana, loved the coffee he drank there. He was also attracted to the Governor’s wife, who in turn loved him, and, at his request, secretly supplied the few seeds that were subsequently grown in Brazil, subsequently founding the production that has dominated world trade for 200 years. They proved to be species Arabica. By 1800, Brazil had become the largest producer of coffee in the world.

1774 was the year of the famous Boston tea party – a rebellion by Americans against the new increased taxes put on tea by their British rulers. Dressed as Indians, they dumped three boat loads of tea into Boston harbour and then replaced tea with coffee as their revolutionary beverage of choice.

As early as the end of the 17th century, successful efforts were made to grow coffee trees in greenhouses. One of these plants was sent to Louis XIV in Paris as a gift in 1714. This single plant is thought to have been the ancestor of millions of coffee trees.

Later, a French naval officer, Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu, stole a cutting from the King’s coffee tree, and took it to the Caribbean island of Martinique. Fifty years later, there are an estimated 18 million coffee trees there.


Coffee is the second largest traded commodity in the world (after oil). In Britain, over 7,000 million cups of coffee are served annually and 86% of this is instant. In the early 20th century, Brazil was the world’s biggest coffee producer. Today almost the entire production of coffee comes from Central America, Brazil and the tropical parts of South America. World coffee production amounts to around 100 million bags a year with Brazil in first place representing about ¼ of total production. 8 ½ million bags are produced in Brazil.

The demand for coffee has made this hot beverage the second most important traded commodity after petroleum products. This trend was accompanied by phases of overproduction, incineration of surplus stocks, collapsing prices, world economic crisis, declining consumption during the two world wars and the creation of world coffee agreements to stabilize coffee prices. In Germany after the end of the Second World War, coffee became a symbol of economic reconstruction and the economic miracle. Coffee drinking was synonymous with being able to afford things again.

Coffee House Culture

Coffee houses sprang up everywhere in the Arab world, and people flocked there, but the more they frequented the houses, the less they went to the mosques.

In 1672 a coffee house was opened in Paris in the market place of St Germain by an Armenian named Pascal, created in Turkish style. He had the monopoly on coffee in Paris, until in 1686, a Sicilian (Francesca Procopio dei Coltelli) opened a café across the street, called Café Procope. This started to attract the literary and political élite of the city. From then on, the Parisians’ infatuation with coffee began and by the end of the 18th Century there were 700 cafés. By the mid 19th Century, there were some 3,000. Café Procope still exists today, just off Boulevard St Germain.

The first UK coffee house opened in Oxford, 1650. The first London coffee house opened in 1652 in St Michael’s Alley, Cornhill. Lloyds of London was originally a Coffee Shop called “Edward Lloyds Coffee House”. London coffee houses were nicknamed “Penny Universities” because for the price of a cup of coffee you could sit and join in the stimulating conversation with the great thinkers of the day. Jonathon’s Coffee House in Change Alley was frequented by entrepreneurs and merchant venturers, and spawned the London Stock Exchange.

By 1675 there were nearly 3,000 coffee houses in England. King Charles II tried to denounce them as subversive meeting places and attempted a bill to ban them – it created such opposition it was quickly withdrawn.

By the 18th Century in Germany, coffee had started to challenge the supremacy of beer as the nation’s favourite tipple.

Now there is a revival of the coffee house in the UK, with some 2,000 opened by 2002.