If you are like most people, you probably drink coffee every morning. But have you ever wondered about the history of coffee timeline? Where does coffee originate from, and how did it spread? There are legends such as Ethiopian goat herder Kaldi seeing his goats eating coffee cherries and dancing, while more likely explanations date back to the 15th-century Sufis of Yemen fermenting coffee cherries.
Whatever the exact story, coffee drinking is a cultural tradition that goes back at least 600 years, with the origin of the coffee plant being Ethiopia. And, the details along the way tell a fascinating story.
By the 16th century, coffee spread into most of the Middle East and Asia, and Turkish invasions slowly introduced the beverage into Europe. The first coffeehouse opened in England in 1652, and by 1739, London alone had over 550 coffeehouses.
Fast forward to today, people consume an estimated 1.6 billion cups of coffee worldwide every day. So let’s dive into coffee’s fascinating history!
The History of Coffee Timeline
The origin and development of coffee is a long and detailed story that dates back at least 600 years and possibly even longer. There are some reports and legends of its first use being well over 1000 years ago.
I’ll explore some of those coffee history legends below, but nobody can say for sure who drank the first cup of coffee. However it is clear that coffee plants originated in Ethiopia, and by the 15th century, coffee cultivation was happening in Yemen and throughout the Arabian Peninsula. Coffee got the nickname “mocha” because of the port’s name Mocha in Yemen. To this day, mocha beans are famous, as are the mocha latte and the Moka pot coffee maker.
Brief Coffee History Timeline: How & When It Spread
A general timeline of coffee’s history looks like this:
- Early 15th century: The coffee bean was discovered, and coffee cultivation began on the Arabian Peninsula.
- 1475: Kiva Han, in Constantinople (modern-day Turkey) became the world’s first coffeehouse. Coffee houses would soon open all across the Middle East.
- 1526: A Turkish invasion of Hungary introduced coffee to Europe.
- 1645: The first European coffeehouse opened in Venice.
- 1652: The first coffee house opened in England
- 1675: There were more than 3000 coffee houses in England alone. Coffee houses became a center for conversation and intellectual life.
- 1710: The French are the first to pour boiled water through the ground coffee beans in a cloth bag.
- 1723: A French naval officer brought coffee seeds to the Caribbean. Within a half-century, there were over 18,000 coffee trees in Martinique.
- 1773: After the Boston Tea Party, where American colonists threw British tea into the harbor, drinking coffee became patriotic.
After 1773, many more developments contributed to the coffee’s development. But to fast forward and leave the rest aside, by 1938 Nescafe and Maxwell House were on the market. And by 1987 Howard Schultz began turning Starbucks into one of the world’s most famous specialty coffee shops.
Where Was Coffee First Discovered: The Legends
When was coffee invented, or rather, who discovered boiling coffee plant seeds to drink? Well, there are at least a few legends that describe the origin of coffee. Most involve someone accidentally stumbling upon the beverage. The berries themselves, the fruit of the coffee plant, have a bitter taste and so people also had to discover roasting and brewing.
These legends are fun to think about and although they might be true or half true, there is no way to say for sure who drank the first cup of coffee and how they discovered it. But it would be impossible not to mention some of these legends!
Where Does Coffee Originate From? Sufi Mystics Story
One legend involves the Sufi mystic Ghothul Akbar Nooruddin. He noticed that birds, after consuming the berries of a particular bush, were full of energy. And, after eating the berries, he too became energetic and full of life.
Another legend explains why the beans of the coffee berry are roasted and brewed. A man named Omar, known for curing the sick through prayer, was exiled from Mecca into the mountains of Africa. After eating the fruit of the coffee plant, the bitter taste disturbed him. In an attempt to find a better flavor, he roasted and boiled the beans. And after drinking the brown liquid he suddenly felt revitalized.
Kaldi Coffee History: The Legend of the Coffee Goat
The most fun legend involves Kaldi, the Ethiopian goat herder. Kaldi noticed that when his goats ate the red berries from a certain bush, they began dancing wildly and could not sleep that night. Kaldi then experimented with the coffee fruit and eventually brought them to a local monastery. From there, people spread knowledge of these energizing beans all around the world.
Credible Coffee History Timeline: Coffee’s Most Likely Beginning
Kaldi the goat herder and the other legends are fun stories, but it is unlikely that they are true. More legitimate evidence of people cultivating the coffee tree and drinking brewed coffee comes from the late 15th-century monasteries in Yemen, and they are not specific to any one person.
Coffee came to Yemen as imported goods from Ethiopia, specifically at the port of Mocha. Early Arabian people supposedly made a wine beverage out of crushing the cherries (and the beans inside) and fermenting the juice. This beverage gave the Sufis of Yemen more concentration and spiritual energy for their prayers during normal rest hours.
The name for this wine beverage was “qahwa”, which is probably the origin of the word “coffee”.
First Coffee Shop in the World: Kiva Han
While the history of coffee houses in Europe has a fascinating relationship with enlightenment thinking and modern culture, the first coffee shop in the world was in the Near East. Kiva Han gets credit as the first coffee house, dating to 1475 in the Ottoman Empire’s capital Constantinople (aka Istanbul in modern Türkiye.)
By the end of the 15th century, coffee and coffee houses were well established throughout the Middle East. It was only a matter of time before coffee culture would spread to Europe.
The History of Coffee Consumption in Europe & Asia
In the Islamic world, coffee houses were the meeting place to have intellectual conversations about news and politics. Board games such as chess and backgammon were also popular.
So coffee history is not just about the coffee trees, the roasting, or the brewing. It is more of a story about the spread of coffee culture.
And, when that new culture hit Europe, it created a change that we still feel today.
The Coffee Timeline In the West: When Was Coffee Introduced to Europe?
When did coffee become popular in Europe? And, how quickly did it spread?
Well, after the first coffeehouse (or café) opened in Venice, coffee and coffee houses exploded in popularity. England opened its first coffee house in 1652, and within just 25 years, there were over 3000 cafés in England. Especially in London, the coffeehouse became a place for political debates and intellectual conversations.
The English coffee houses, in particular, were referred to as “penny universities” because people could drink coffee and learn all day for just one penny. Many historians, such as Steven Johnson and Tom Standage, believe that coffee was directly responsible for the culture that gave rise to the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason.
Coffee And The Age of Enlightenment
“Coffeehouses were centers of self-education, literary and philosophical speculation, commercial innovation, and, in some cases, political fermentation. But above all, they were clearinghouses for news and gossip, linked by the circulation of customers, publications, and information from one establishment to the next. Collectively, Europe’s coffeehouses functioned as the Internet of the Age of Reason.”
Tom Standage, A HISTORY OF THE WORLD IN 6 GLASSES
The Age of Enlightenment brought empirical thinking, individualism, skepticism, and experimentation into the culture of Europe and beyond. And coffee helped fuel this cultural progress.
It wasn’t just the fact that coffee houses were meeting places to discuss intellectual ideas. And it also wasn’t just the fact that coffee was a stimulant. Those were factors, but according to Tom Standage, the role of coffee was mainly that it replaced alcohol. It was difficult to find clean drinking water in the 16th and 17th centuries, and it was much safer to stay hydrated with beverages like beer and wine. The alcohol sterilized the water.
As Standage says, “Western Europe began to emerge from an alcoholic haze that had lasted for centuries”.
Café Zimmermann And Johann Sebastian Bach
Another well-known European coffeehouse was Café Zimmermann, in the German city of Leipzig. Café Zimmermann hosted the musical society Collegium Musicum, which gave free concerts to the coffee-drinking public. Composer Georg Philipp Telemann created the concert series, and the famous Johann Sebastian Bach later took over as leader.
Bach even wrote a comic opera (BWV 211), known as The Coffee Cantata, about a woman’s addiction to coffee.
Some text from the third movement says:
“If I couldn’t, three times a day, be allowed to drink my little cup of coffee, in my anguish I will turn into a shriveled-up roast goat”Johann Sebastian Bach, Cantata 211
Coffee’s History in Asia: The Philippines, India, and Indonesia
Baba Budan, a 16th-century Sufi, supposedly first smuggled coffee seeds from Mocha into India. Even though coffee came to India in roasted form earlier, Baba Budan brought the raw seeds that can grow into coffee plants. After smuggling the seeds sometime in the 17th century, coffee cultivation took off in India.
Coffee came to the Philippines in 1740, and coffee plants quickly became popular produce. The soil conditions in this region produced coffee with a rich flavor, and during the 19th century, the Philippines was one of the world’s top exporters of coffee.
Indonesia has a special place in coffee history because of its island Java. Coffee first arrived in Indonesia via Dutch colonists in the 17th century, and within a few years, coffee trees were prolific. Java, in particular, became one of the largest exporters of coffee in the world. And it is why coffee now has the nickname “java”.
Coffee Introduced In The New World & The History of Coffee Shops in America
The history of coffee in America dates back to 1723 when the French naval officer Gabriel de Clieu first brought coffee seeds to the island of Martinique in the Caribbean. And within 50 years, there were almost 20,000 coffee trees in the region. Coffee cultivation quickly spread around Latin America, which today is one of the largest producers of coffee.
And, to this day, most of the coffee grown in Latin America is considered a descendant of that original coffee tree.
American Coffee History And The Boston Tea Party
The Dutch first brought coffee to New York City (at the time New Amsterdam) in the mid-17th century. But at first, Americans considered coffee drinking a luxury. It didn’t take off as a popular drink in the beginning. But that all changed in 1773.
On December 16th, 1773, the Boston Tea Party sparked a change in coffee’s popularity. As a political protest against Great Britain, American colonists threw tea into the harbor. Following this event, drinking coffee instead of tea became a popular symbol of American patriotism.
And, by the late 19th century, America was importing close to a third of the world’s coffee, most of it through New York City.
The Coffee Industry As We Know It Today
Human beings began their relationship with coffee trees somewhere on the Ethiopian plateaus. And, from there it quickly spread into the Arab world (hence the Arabica bean). Even in those early days, merchants sold coffee in the streets and people drank it while making conversation. The link between drinking coffee and socializing was there from the beginning.
And in the modern-day, coffee is one of the most traded commodities in the world. There is an entire industry centered around the coffee bean between growing, roasting, and brewing. According to 2020 statistics, the world consumes more than 2.25 billion cups of coffee each day.
People cultivate coffee all around the world, but the most successful coffee plants require a tropical climate. This ideal climate is generally the area between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, known as the “bean belt” to coffee growers. Coffee is also best cultivated at higher elevations of 1000-2000 meters above sea level.
The main coffee-growing regions are Central/South America, Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. And even though the climates are similar in these areas, like wine, each region produces a distinct flavor.
Around the world, there are 27 million acres of farmland devoted to growing coffee. And 70% of this coffee cultivation is by smaller-scale farmers. After crude oil, coffee is the most traded commodity in the world.
Coffee Roasting History
Coffee roasting was probably an accidental discovery or experiment. You can imagine someone trying to make the beans taste better over hot coals or a fire. Raw coffee is hard and green, with a bitter flavor lacking in sweetness. But roasted beans are brown and caramelized, meaning sugars and other flavors are more easily extracted into brewed coffee.
In one sense, roasting coffee beans is simple. Like popcorn, a hot environment will darken the coffee beans, make them soft, and eventually crack them. But to produce great roasted beans, a coffee roaster needs high-quality green coffee, the perfect temperature, and the perfect amount of time.
In modern times, a coffee roaster uses a drum-like machine pictured above that adds heat and measures how the coffee reacts. Coffee roasting is now an art form, and roasters can extract different flavor profiles from the coffee beans by altering the temperature graphs.
Early on, hot coals or a fire probably roasted the beans to the point of burning. It worked, but it lacked the precision of modern technology. You can imagine that dark roasts were more popular. But in today’s world of specialty coffee, lighter roast profiles bring out the more delicate and subtle flavors hidden within the coffee bean.
Coffee Brewing History
How did people brew coffee before coffee makers and other modern methods? How did brewing methods develop over coffee’s timeline? In theory, the basics of brewing coffee are pretty simple: roasted beans are ground up into smaller pieces and mixed with hot water to make a delicious beverage.
However, the details are quite interesting. So let’s look at the history of preparing coffee over time, for which some techniques are still in use today!
How Did They Make Coffee in the Old Days
Earlier in coffee’s history on the Arabian Peninsula, people fermented the coffee fruit and included it in the brewed drink. The Arabic word for this drink, “qahwah”, signified a type of wine. The etymology of coffee probably comes from this Arabic word.
The coffee fruit is no longer included in brewed coffee, and usually, you filter the ground coffee out of the final cup. Filtering coffee makes for a cleaner taste and prevents a bitter flavor. But in some countries like Turkey, coffee is still boiled like it was in the early days of coffee history. Turkish coffee uses a fine grind, and the ground beans are poured directly into the cup.
History of Coffee Making and The Origin of Drip Coffee
Drip coffee is the most common brewing method today, and its filter and automatic process make coffee accessible to a wide range of people. Additionally, the ability to brew in large batches makes it ideal for coffee shops and restaurants to always have coffee ready.
History of Grinding Coffee
Why is coffee grinding necessary? The answer is that ground coffee has much more surface area. And more surface area allows the water to quickly extract the flavor from the coffee beans. Otherwise, the water would not be able to reach the inner parts of the coffee bean.
You can imagine the early grinders were quite simple, probably crushing beans like you would food with a mortar and pestle. Eventually, more complex coffee mills could grind beans finer and with a range of sizes. Today, complex machines such as burr grinders can grind coffee to precise sizes and with an eveness that brews coffee perfectly.
Specialty Coffee History
I decided that the history of specialty coffee deserved a separate article because of how many fascinating details went into its development. Also known as third wave coffee in the present day, the short history is that the term dates back to 1974 to describe coffee from special regions. Coffee shops like Starbucks and Peets (aka the second wave) helped spark the movement, and today, third-wave specialty coffee aims to perfect everything about the coffee process: farming, roasting, and brewing!
Coffee History FAQs
Before leaving, feel free to scan through some common questions about the origin of coffee beans and the coffee history that it sparked in our cultures.
When did humans start drinking coffee?
While there are many fun legends about coffee’s origin (including Kaldi and his dancing goats,) the most solid evidence of humans drinking coffee dates back to 15th-century Yemen. Sufis in southern Arabia began brewing seeds from the coffee plant into an intense beverage that gave them more concentration and energy.
When was the first coffee shop in the world?
While coffee houses exploded in popularity throughout Europe by the mid-17th century, the first coffee shop in the world dates back to 1475 in modern-day Türkiye. Named Kiva Han, this coffee house existed in the Ottoman Empire’s capital city Constantinople, which is modern-day Istanbul.
When did coffee become popular in Europe?
A Turkish invasion of Hungary in 1526 first introduced coffee to Europe, and coffee slowly grew in popularity until Europe’s first coffee house opened in 1645 in Vienna. By 1675, England had over 3000 coffee houses, and they became the center of a cultural and intellectual movement.
What is the history of coffee culture?
While coffee had a literal beginning in the 15th century (perhaps with the Ethiopian goat herder Kaldi and his dancing goats,) it would take hundreds of years for coffee culture to spread in the Middle East and eventually make its way to Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. Especially after European coffee houses exploded by the 1670s, coffee culture became associated with intellectual conversations, politics, and enlightenment thinking.
Final Thoughts on Coffee History
The origin and story of coffee mirrors much of history. From humble beginnings in Ethiopia, coffee became a common fermented drink amongst the 15th-century Sufis of Yemen. Over time, coffee spread itself everywhere as the world became more and more connected. And coffee brought more than caffeine—it also brought an entirely new culture. Coffee houses, first in the Middle East and eventually in Europe, became popular places to exchange ideas and have intellectual conversations.
So hopefully, you now have a bit more to think about as you drink your morning cup of coffee. You are not just waking yourself up—you are participating in a worldwide cultural tradition that goes back centuries, maybe even to some dancing Ethiopian goats.