Coffee, A History

Updated: Jul 7

Coffee is so popular and so widespread around us that often we don’t question where it came from. So, today, in honor of the Fourth of July and recognizing our country’s history, we’ve decided to highlight the history of coffee, starting from its origin legends and ending with today’s coffee culture in America.

How was coffee discovered?

There are two legends of the origins of coffee, the first following Kaldi the goat-keeper, and his infamous goats in Ethiopia. While Kaldi was watching over his herd, he found them dancing all around in a hyper manner, next to a bush of red berries. When he tried the red berries himself, he found that they gave him energy and made him wish to dance alongside his goats. These red berries seemed to be mystical so he gathered some and brought them to the monks, who adopted them as something which would provide power to stay awake during prayer. They began to cultivate the coffee by roasting the beans and brewing them into a drink.

Another legend accompanying coffee is about a doctor named Omar al Shadhili from Mocha, Yemen. Those around him suspected contact with the Devil as a method for healing. Shadhili was then expelled and was forced to live in a cave. He ate the coffee fruit as a means of survival, but while finding the fruit to be bitter, he began to roast the beans on the inside of the fruit. These beans were too difficult to eat, and so he boiled the beans in water. He finally found a way for the coffee plant to sustain him, the water giving him strength. When the people of Mocha learned of this, the new drink made him famous and they wanted him to rule them.

From here, how did it become today’s coffee drink, and how did it become popularized?

From these legends, it was a long time before coffee was consumed in the same fashion as today. One of the common uses was to mix the fruit with animal fat to create a sort of protein bar to eat. There was also another type of drink created with the fermented pulp of the coffee fruit, an alcoholic beverage. The first record of coffee in its non-alcoholic and brewed form was in a written document from Al Razi, an Islamic scientist. During his lifetime (850 to 922), he created documents detailing a drink known as bunshum which has similar characteristics to today’s coffee. The beans, in this drink form, were described to have a healing effect over hurting stomachs.

Up until this point, coffee use had been limited to Ethiopia but made the transition to the port of Mocha in Yemen by a respected Islamic man, the mufti of Aden. When visiting Ethiopia, he saw many people enjoying the drink and saw its intriguing effects on people. On his return home, he became ill and sent for coffee, which had a sort of healing effect on him. The respect that he had of all the people led to the spread of the popularity of the drink in Mocha. From here, the drink spread to Mecca and other cities in the Middle East. Its main use was as a stimulant to stay awake during nights of prayer. Here, the cherished concept of a coffee house was born, "Kaveh Kanes".

Eventually, coffee was introduced to Europe by Venetians in 1615, where many religious debates were had around the claim that coffee was from the devil. Eventually, the debates were settles by the declaration by Pope Clement VIII that coffee should be the new Christian drink, simply because drinking it brought him pleasure. After this, Europe embraced the drink, coffee houses being opened all over. First in Italy and then in London, coffee houses were a convenient place to drink inexpensive drinks. This social habit has continued to this day.

How did coffee reach America and how has coffee culture evolved in our nation?

Coffee was becoming popular in Europe, and these countries saw the value of growing and selling coffee. They all searched to grow it in their colonies. Here enters America into the coffee scene. When coffee was transported across the Atlantic in 1668 to New York this actually wasn’t their first introduction to it. Way back in 1607, captain John Smith brought coffee to the colony of Virginia after he learned about it in Turkey. Unfortunately, the people of Virginia were too accustomed to tea and hard cider to give coffee a proper chance. But when the drink was brought to New York half a century later, it was given a bigger chance, and taverns began to double as coffee houses by the mid-1700s.

Still, the colonies preferred to drink tea to coffee and viewed coffee as a drink for the well off. This view changed with the act of the Boston Tea Party in 1773. An amount of what would be a million dollars of tea in today’s currency in tea was thrown overboard a ship in the Boston Harbor in direct opposition to the tea tax enforced by Britain. After this act, in the colonies, to drink tea was viewed as an unpatriotic act. Instead, people of the colonies turned to coffee.

From this moment on, coffee began to be associated with America and its consumption kept growing, only hindered by restrictions and rationing due to World Wars I and II. Even these hindrances did not put a halt to coffee consumption. People kept drinking more and more coffee, and during the 1960s, appreciation for specialty coffees grew. This led to the opening of specialty coffee shops such as Starbucks, which opened its doors in 1971. Starbucks paved the way for accessible specialty coffees, and from there, what is known as the “third-wave coffee” movement began.

Essentially, third-wave coffee is specialty coffee that focuses on the relationship between the consumer and the coffee. Often, this goes along with practices that focus on the beans’ stories; where did it come from? What is it like? Who grew them, and is the process ethical and sustainable? It is based around high-quality coffee with a focus on the consumer. Today, what you see around you in America is mostly second and third-wave coffee, and we don’t see coffee’s popularity slowing down anytime soon.


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