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Coffee is Planted Firmly in History

Coffeehouses today cater to an eclectic group of customers. You’ll likely find students studying, parents taking a break while toddlers or infants snooze in strollers, and businesspeople holding casual meetings. Hang around long enough and you’ll see couples come in for after-dinner coffees. Some coffeehouses host local performers, harkening back to the day of Beatniks. But did you know that the first coffeehouses actually were formed in the Arabian Peninsula during the 15th century?

A Drink in Time

The history of coffee plants has been traced back to the eastern Africa country of Ethiopia. The legend goes that a goat herder named Kaldi noticed an energetic change in the animals after they munched on the fruit of one certain plant. When he relayed his observation to the abbot of the village monastery, the monk requested a few of the berries so he could turn them into a beverage and see what would happen if he drank it. He and his fellow monks appreciated the spirited energy boost they received. In no time, drinking coffee was a daily routine at the monastery.

Want the freshest of fresh cup of coffee? Try growing your own coffee plant. This seedling arrives in a 4-inch pot and measures about 8 inches high. It prefers temps between 65° and 80° Fahrenheit. Even if you don’t want to harvest and roast the beans, you’ll enjoy the floral fragrance of the beautiful white blooms.

According to the Kaldi legend, Arab visitors were equally entranced by the beverage’s energy, and brought coffee plants back with them to Arabia. Another theory is that slaves from the region brought the plants with them to the Middle East.

Whichever way they traveled from Ethiopia to the Yemen region, by the 15th century, the Arabs had figured how to cultivate the crop. What’s more, they had created a monopoly by carefully guarding their farming and roasting methods. In fact, a law prohibited the export of fertile seeds. At the same time, demand for the rich beverage both at home and around the globe exploded as traders and the faithful traveled to and from the Middle East. Part of coffee’s appeal was the accompanying socializing at neighborhood coffeehouses called qahveh khaneh. Customers gathered to discuss the politics of the day as well as play chess, listen to music or watch performers, not all that different from what takes place at our modern coffeehouses.

As much as the Arabs tried to maintain a tight hold on their coffee, they couldn’t keep a good thing a secret for long. Visitors brought the beans home with them, and eventually, Europeans joined the coffeehouse bandwagon. Historians estimate that by the mid-1600s, the city of London hosted more than 300 coffeehouses. In fact, the legendary Lloyd’s of London insurance market started out as Edward Lloyd’s Coffee House.

Of course, the trend crossed the Atlantic, too. Colonists gathered at local coffeehouses to share newsworthy tidbits, including hatching the scheme behind the Boston Tea Party.

Until the 18th century, most coffee continued to be grown in Africa and the Middle East. The plants were finally introduced to North America around 1723 when a seedling from the Paris Royal Botanical Garden was transported to the island of Martinique. The consistent temperature, humidity and rich soil were ideal, and the tree flourished. Historians estimate that single plant is responsible for the production of 18 million trees over a 50-year span. It’s also believed some of those offspring traveled to other parts of the Caribbean as well as Central and South America, where today, coffee is a top export.