Coffee is arguably one of the most significant discoveries in history. It is the world’s second most traded commodity after oil, and is only second to water as the most popular drink nationwide. Coffee has even been credited with the birth of the enlightenment.
Coffee is part of the daily ritual of millions of people around the world. In fact, 15,000 cups of the stuff are drunk every second around the world. It’s how we wake up in the morning, catch up with friends and has fuelled some of the greatest commercial and intellectual exchanges in history.
But where did it all begin?
Kaldi the Goatherd
Believe it or not, the history of coffee as we know it today began with a humble Ethiopian goatherd over 1000 years ago.
The discovery of the coffee bean is shrouded in mythology and folklore, but it is widely believed that the first consumers to enjoy the coffee bean as a caffeinated stimulant were a herd of goats on an Ethiopian hillside in the 9th century. As the legend goes, a goatherder named Kaldi noticed that after eating the red berries on a coffee plant, his goats were frolicking around with much more energy and vigour than usual!
The road to the flat white economy we know today didn’t start until a few hundred years later, though. Coffee was not roasted until the 13th century, by which time it had found its way across the red sea into Arabia, starting in the Yemeni district but migrating into Persia, Egypt, Syria and Turkey by the sixteenth century. Dutch, Spanish and Portugese-owned colonial plantations helped coffee spread throughout Sri Lanka, Ceylon, Java, the Caribbean and Central and South America in the 17th century, and in turn introduced coffee to Europe.
Despite being condemned by the Pope as the ‘bitter invention of satan’, coffee houses quickly emerged in the major cities of Europe in the 17th century (Incidentally, he gave his Papal approval once he sampled how great satan’s drink tasted!).
Coffee houses quickly became centres of social activity and intellectual exchange in London, Paris, Vienna, Amsterdam and Istanbul. In England, they were nicknamed ‘Penny Universities’, because for the price of a coffee, you could access a hotbed of knowledge, information and ideas. Many of the greatest political, cultural and social movements in Europe at this time were believed to have started in coffee houses.
Coffee didn’t really make strides across the Atlantic until the late 18th century, when colonists revolted against a heavy tax on tea by King George. This marked the beginning of the American coffee culture that has become a staple of their identity.
Beginning with the invention of the espresso machine in 1884, coffee really began its meteoric rise the world’s second most consumed commodity at the turn of the twentieth century. Italian espresso culture was shipped over to the US, materialising later in the first Starbucks, opened in Seattle in 1971. This was the ‘second wave’ of coffee culture.
In the forty-five years since the first Starbucks, we have seen a the appetite for speciality coffee grow, and a third and fourth wave of coffee culture to meet the demand for quality, well-sourced and ethical coffee, crafted to perfection by skilled baristas with good customer service.
We now enjoy small-batch roasted, artisan blends and single origin coffees in a variety of different ways. Independent speciality coffee houses are now saturating our cities, and home and office baristas are becoming more and more discerning about the coffee they drink and educated about the best way to make it.
So is the journey complete?
In our campaign for #betterofficecoffee, I thought it might help to know how far through history the coffee you drink has travelled, and the rich cultural, social and economic history represented by every cup that we consume. If there is no other reason to make sure your coffee is as good as it can be, surely that is.