The history of the coffee bean does not want for drama. Since its first documented use-and probably long before- stories involving coffee have been rife with intrigue, passion, revolution, and idiosyncratic charm.
Of Goats and Holy Men
Legend has it that the stimulant properties of coffee were discovered sometime before the ninth century by an Abyssinian goatherd named Kaldi. Bored and mischievous, the young man's goats began snacking on coffee cherries while he napped nearby. Waking to find his charges pirouetting off rocks and the surrounding canyon walls, Kaldi collected a handful of the bright red fruit and hastened home to his village imam. As an experiment, the religious leader boiled the cherries in water and then drank the concoction himself. He became alert and lively, so much so that maintaining wakefulness during evening prayers was uncharacteristically effortless. These stimulating properties made coffee an instant hit among the ranks of the faithful, and its use rapidly became routine.
As coffee gained in popularity; the sixteenth-century Mohammedans found reason to complain. Ironically, they considered coffee to be a threat to religious sobriety, especially upon witnessing that followers were more likely to frequent street side cafes than they were to visit the mosques. Consumption was discouraged, and rumors linking the beverage with impotence, among other "ills," spread wildly. Still, there was no scarcity of coffee drinkers. In fact, the Arabians guarded their beans with extreme jealousy. All coffee beans designated for export were boiled, destroying their ability to germinate and be domesticated outside the region. Although there is unofficial record that one religious pilgrim smuggled a seedling back to India in the early 1600's and planted it behind his hut in the Mysore area (where a great deal of good coffee has grown since), the commercial production of coffee remained under Arab control through the latter part of the century.
The Baptism of the Bean
Not long after Venetian traders first presented coffee to Europe in 1615, Pope Clement V111 was warned it might prove threatening to the holy aims of the Church. A legislature of priests accused the beverage of being a tool for the devil, designed to lure good worshippers into losing their souls. Curious, the pope requested that his attendants bring a cup of the stuff to him. He found its aroma pleasing and, upon tasting it, became so enamored with the brew that he decided to get the better of the devil by baptizing it, thereby making coffee a "truly Christian beverage."
The ardently entrepreneurial Dutch orchestrated the first successful planting outside Arabia-on the island of Java-in 1699. An initial trial shipment was sent back to Amsterdam in 1706 and included one seedling, which was planted in the botanical gardens. This tiny plant later played the role of parent seedling to the majority of the coffee grown in the western world.
When coffee so gained in popularity in Germany that it replaced other breakfast beverages, the eighteenth-century ruler Frederick the Great issued a desperate manifesto. "It is disgusting to notice the increase in the quantity of coffee used by my subjects," he declared, complaining with particular bitterness that the revenues for coffee went to foreign hands while profit from beer came to the crown. "My people," he protested, "must drink beer." Johann Sebastian Bach's famous one-act operetta, the Coffee Cantata, was a thinly veiled operatic criticism of the extraordinary lengths the royalty and upper classes took to keep common folk from enjoying the beverage.
The fashionable populations of Vienna and London willingly blessed the beverage as well, although it was a Turkish ambassador's introduction of coffee to Paris that sparked a veritable explosion of coffee culture. It was rumored that Louis XV spent $15,000 per year on coffee for daughters. Even the most avid coffee drinkers are astonished to hear that Voltaire supposedly consumed 50 cups a day. Balzac, another devotee among the French literati, applied its exciting properties thusly: He went to bed at six in the evening, slept until midnight, then rose for 12 solid hours of writing, during which time his sole sustenance was coffee.
Coffee Crosses the Atlantic
After numerous disappointing attempts, a coffee seedling measuring about five feet tall was successfully transplanted from the botanical gardens in Amsterdam to the gardens in Paris. Soon after, a young naval officer, Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu, triumphed as a coffee pioneer by bringing one of the plant's offspring to the Americas. According to his own account, De Clieu shared his shipboard water ration with the plant, fended off jealous shipmates, and survived both storm and calm to finally triumph in planting the little tree when he docked at Martinique. Within 50 years, there were more than 18 million coffee trees growing on the island; these were the progenitors of most of the coffee plants growing in Central and South America today. Consumption of coffee in the United States began as early as 1668. The first documented license to sell coffee was obtained by Dorothy Jones of the Massachusetts Colony in 1670. It was the famous British tax on tea, however, that elevated the role of coffee forever. The British East India Tea Company harbored plans to develop a profitable market in the colonies. But the Boston Tea Party, plotted by revolutionaries in Boston's lively Green Dragon coffee house, made drinking coffee a popular form of protest against the iron fist of the monarchy. From that point, the more refined beverage of the British crown never gained a substantial foothold.
(Extracts from "Coffee Basics" by Kevin Knox and Julie Sheldon Huffaker, 1997, John Wiley & Sons Inc, New York)