It’s hard to imagine a world without coffee. But, before the 9th century CE, such a world existed!
The history of coffee, from how the coffee bean was discovered to how Starbucks came to dominate street corners in many major cities world-wide is fascinating!
We have spent many hours researching and gathering all the information to bring you the definitive history of coffee from when it was first discovered to the role it plays in modern society.
We hope you enjoy this trip through time – and coffee!
Table of Contents
c. 850 CE - The Legend of Kaldi
Legend has it that an Ethiopian goat herder named Kaldi discovered coffee when his goats were exceptionally energetic and almost looked like they are ‘dancing’ after eating the red berries of a particular bush. Curious, Kaldi tried the berries himself.
He found that the berries kept him alert and awake during his long days and nights watching his herd. Some versions of the legend say that Kaldi brought the berry to a local monastery to show the monks their power.
Other versions say a monk came upon a wired Kaldi and his frolicking goats. What did the monk think of the coffee berries?
One story says that the monk thought these beans were the devil’s work and threw them into the fire, making him the world’s first coffee roaster.
Another story says that the monk decided that these berries were just what he needed to stay awake during long hours of prayer.
The monk shared the beans with his fellow monks, and from there, news of these invigorating berries spread throughout the Arabian peninsula. This was a pivotal moment in the history of coffee.
11th - 15th Centuries - The News of Coffee Spreads
As spice traders traveled through Ethiopia on their way to Yemen and Muslim pilgrims journeyed to Islam’s most holy site at Mecca, they discovered coffee.
Coffee beans became popular among the Muslim community because the caffeine helped people stay alert during long religious services.
Sufis, people practicing a mystical form of Islam, living in the Yemeni port city of Mocha may have been the first people to roast coffee beans and brew them into a beverage.
Yemen quickly became a leading producer of coffee. The most common coffee plant, coffea arabica, producer of the Arabica coffee bean, was so named because of Yemen’s location on the tip of the Arabian peninsula.
16th Century: The Birth of the Coffee House
By the 16th century, coffee had made its way to Persia, Egypt, Syria, and Turkey. Along with it came a business opportunity: the coffee house.
The coffee houses, known as qahveh khaneh, were places that people gathered to talk, watch performances, hear music, play games, and share news.
Because coffee houses drew intellectuals and were major hubs for sharing information, they became known as “schools of the wise.”
Pilgrims to Mecca came to enjoy coffee. Unfortunately for these new coffee devotees, Mecca’s governor, Khair Beg banned coffee in 1511, claiming that it was the “wine of Arabia.”
Since wine and other intoxicants were forbidden by Islamic law, Khair Beg ordered coffee houses destroyed. Fortunately, this ban was soon overturned.
Recommended Reading: How Much Caffeine In A Cup Of Coffee? Here’s The Answer!
17th Century: Coffee Goes Global
Until the 1600s, Arabia held a monopoly over coffee production. It is commonly believed that Arabs held such tight control over coffee that they prevented any fertile beans from leaving the region.
That is until an Indian pilgrim to Mecca, Baba Budan, smuggled 7 fertile coffee beans out of Arabia and back home to India.
Some traditions say Baba Budan hid the beans in his beard. Others say he strapped them to his stomach with a length of cloth. However he got them out, Baba Budan brought coffee plants to the wider world.
At the time, the Dutch had settlements and trading posts in India. When the Dutch governor of India discovered coffee, he quickly sent beans off to Sri Lanka, Java, and Ceylon to be grown on plantations.
It did not take long for Europeans to pick up the coffee drinking habit. Just as coffee houses had become popular on the Arabian peninsula, they also quickly became staples of European social and intellectual life.
By the middle of the century, there were over 300 coffee houses in London alone. London coffee houses were known by some as “penny universities” because for a penny, a person could buy a cup of coffee and enjoy stimulating conversation.
Not all Europeans embraced coffee, however. Some Christians believed coffee was the “bitter invention of Satan” and demanded that Pope Clement VIII prohibit Catholics from drinking it.
The Pope decided to try coffee for himself before taking such action. Upon taking a drink, the Pope is reported to have said: “This Satan’s drink is so delicious it would be a pity to let infidels have exclusive use of it”. He is even said to have gone so far as to say that coffee should be baptized!
Fear of coffee was not limited to the religious-minded. King Charles II of England was concerned by the free exchange of ideas happening in coffee houses.
He was afraid that all this talk would lead to an overthrow of his government. So, in 1675, he issued the “Proclamation for the Suppression of Coffee Houses” in which he ordered all coffee houses closed.
18th Century: Goodbye Tea, Hello Coffee
The history of coffee also has deep roots in the US. Coffee had made its way into Great Britain’s American colonies in the 17th century, but it wasn’t until the late 1700s that the American colonists really began drinking coffee in earnest.
Why? Because in an effort to sell more tea from the British East India company, Great Britain allowed British East India tea to go directly to the colonies without stopping in England first.
This meant the transportation costs were lower and the British East India Company avoided paying taxes both upon landing in England and then again in America.
Their tea was therefore the cheapest on the American market. The American colonists, however, did not like essentially being told which tea to drink and whom to buy it from.
On December 16, 1773, a group of Massachusetts rebels boarded several ships and dumped 342 chests of British East India Company tea into the Boston Harbor. To add insult to injury, colonists switched from tea to coffee as their hot beverage of choice, and never looked back!
The American colonists, fortunately, had a ready supply of coffee close by thanks to the French. In 1714, the mayor of Amsterdam gave King Louis XIV a coffee plant as a gift.
The plant grew in the Royal Botanical Gardens in Paris. In 1723, French naval officer Gabriel De Clieu covertly obtained seeds from his coffee plant and smuggled them to the French colony of Martinique. From there, it spread across the Caribbean and into Central and South America.
Seeing the tremendous value of coffee, Portuguese Lieutenant Francisco de Melo Palheta went to French Guiana under the guise of a diplomatic visit.
While there, he seduced the governor’s wife and convinced her to give him some coffee seeds. He smuggled them out of French Guiana in a bouquet of flowers and the Brazilian coffee industry was born.
Late 18th and early 19th Centuries: Coffee Is King!
By the late 18th century, coffee was popular worldwide. Some might even have said that coffee was king – except for actual kings.
In 1777, Prussia’s King Frederick II, also known as Frederick the Great, decided that too much money was leaving the country due to coffee imports.
He thought his subjects should stick to the local brew – beer. Frederick banned coffee by royal decree. Dismayed, his subjects looked for a substitute and found it in chicory root.
True, chicory root didn’t have the all-important caffeine of real coffee, but when the root was roasted, ground, and mixed with hot liquid, it produced a hot, bitter, black beverage.
That, it seemed, was better than nothing. Of course, when Frederick died in 1786 and the ban was lifted, Prussians were more than happy to get back to drinking the real stuff.
The French looked to the Prussian’s experiment with chicory root when Napoleon Bonaparte launched his Continental System in 1806.
Napoleon wanted to ruin British commerce, so he instituted a naval blockade of Great Britain and prohibited British ships from landing in French ports and the ports of France’s allies.
Coffee was soon in short supply on the European continent. Again, coffee starved Europeans had to make do with the chicory substitute until Napoleon was defeated and the Continental System ended.
19th and 20th Century: Coffee In the United States
Fortunately for coffee growers, the popularity of coffee was on the rise in the United States. During the Civil War, Union soldiers depended on the caffeine to give them energy for long hours of battle.
Confederate soldiers sadly turned to chicory when the Union navy blockaded the Port of New Orleans, cutting the South off from coffee imports. By the end of the century, the United States imported 40% of the world’s coffee.
Mid - 1800s USA
American inventors and entrepreneurs seized on coffee’s popularity to make their fortunes. In 1864, Scottish immigrant and door-to-door coffee salesman Jabez Burns invented a better coffee roaster.
His self-emptying coffee roaster ensured that beans were roasted more evenly and that fewer beans were burned in the roasting process.
Pittsburgh brothers John and Charles Arbuckle bought one of Burns’s roasters and then developed a machine to automate the weighing and packaging of coffee beans.
Taking advantage of the new transcontinental railroad system, began selling pre-roasted coffee beans to cowboys in the American West. James Folger similarly made his fortune selling coffee to California gold miners.
Early 1900s USA
In the early 20th century, American president Theodore Roosevelt boosted the Maxwell House coffee brand onto the national stage.
While visiting Andrew Jackson’s historical home in Tennessee, President Roosevelt, who is rumored to have drunk 40 cups of coffee a day, decided he wanted to experience dining in Andrew Jackson’s dining room.
He asked for a cup of coffee. Two local coffee companies claimed Roosevelt drank their coffee: H.G. Hill and Maxwell House.
Maxwell House ran with it, and went so far as to say that Roosevelt had proclaimed their coffee “good to the last drop.” And with that, the Maxwell House slogan was born.
Roosevelt’s influence on coffee culture was expanded by his children. Kermit Roosevelt had spent time in Brazil and was taken with Brazilian coffee houses.
When he returned to the United States, he convinced his siblings that New York City needed upscale coffee houses that served freshly roasted and ground coffee to its clientele. The siblings established a chain of Double R Coffee Houses that some say were Starbucks’ predecessors.
World War I created a huge demand for a coffee product that was invented by a Japanese chemist in Chicago in 1901. Satori Kato discovered a way to make a dried coffee extract to which one only needed to add water to get a cup of Joe.
Another inventor, an Anglo-Belgian immigrant named George Washtington, figured out how to mass produce instant coffee. He established the G. Washington Coffee Refining Co. in 1910.
These developments were timely, because soon American soldiers were fighting in trenches across Europe fueled by the instant coffee they called “George.”
Between the World Wars, two events furthered coffee’s ubiquitousness in the United States: Prohibition and the Great Depression.
During the Prohibition Era, alcohol was outlawed in the United States. So, where some may have socialized over a drink, now some people turned to coffee to fill that need.
But, what turned even more people into regular coffee drinkers was the stock market crash at the end of the 1920s and the Great Depression that followed.
Thousands of people who were unemployed and hungry flocked to soup kitchens where they were often greeted with a cup of coffee and a donut.
Mid- 1900s USA
The Beatniks, artists and writers who established a counterculture in the 1950s, popularized American coffee houses.
Coffeehouses were places where misfits and creatives could gather to talk, read poetry, play music, do stand up comedy, and perform experimental theater.
Beat greats Allen Ginsburg, Jack Kerouac, and Bob Dylan were regulars at the Caffe Trieste in San Francisco.
The age of specialty coffee in the United States began with Dutch coffee importer Alfred Peet’s arrival in San Francisco, California in 1955.
Upon tasting the coffee Americans were serving, Peet is reported to have said, “I came to the richest country in the world, so why are they drinking the lousiest coffee?”
Peet decided to open his own coffee shop in Berkeley, California where he would serve only freshly roasted coffee from the highest quality beans. At Peet’s coffee shop, an American love for craft coffee was born.
1970s - 1980s USA
Then, in 1971, three friends, Zev Siegl, Jerry Baldwin, and Gordon Bowker, came to Alfred Peet to learn the craft coffee business.
They were launching a new coffee company called Starbucks. Starbucks followed Peet’s model of serving high quality, freshly roasted coffee, even using Peet’s beans for 2 years before developing their own roasting operations.
Starbucks upped its game, and introduced specialty coffee drinks like espresso, cappuccinos, and lattes to the American public after Howard Schultz, Starbucks’ director of retail operations and marketing, traveled to Italy in 1983.
After experiencing Milan’s espresso bars, he knew Starbucks had to recreate itself as a coffee bar. The first Starbucks Latte was served in Seattle in 1984.
19th and 20th Century: Coffee in Europe
Coffee’s journey through Europe in the 19th and 20th century was an interesting one.
Let’s take a looks and see what role coffee played in Europe in that period.
Early 1800s Europe
While Americans were developing a taste for coffee, Europeans were coming up with new ways to make it.
Before coffee machines were invented, it could take 5 minutes or more to brew a cup of coffee. Several European inventors wanted to create machines that brewed coffee more quickly.
In 1818, a metal-smith only known to us as a Mr. Laurens of Paris invented a percolator style coffee maker. A version of this type of coffee maker was later patented in the United States by James Nason.
The first espresso machine was interestingly invented in France, not Italy. In 1822, Louis Bernard Rabaut filed drawings for a device that would use steam to push water through finely ground coffee with the French Academy of Science.
Check out our guide that breaks down everything you need to know about All The Coffee Brewing Methods so you choose the right one for you!
Mid - 1800s Europe
In 1843, Edward Loysel de Santais invented the first commercial espresso machine.
In 1855, Loysel de Santais brought a large-scale version of his machine to the Paris Exhibition and wowed crowds with its ability to brew up to 2,000 cups of coffee per hour.
While some people were looking to steam to brew coffee, others were looking for a more simple solution.
In 1842, Elizabeth Dakin, the wife of a London tea and coffee merchant, decided to improve the traditional method of brewing coffee by simply pouring hot water over grounds because she did not like drinking grounds along with her coffee.
So, she invented an early version of the French press. Around the same time, two French men, Henri-Otto Mayer and Victor Delforge, filed a patent for a similar device.
Early 1900s Europe
Yet another patent for a French press was filed in the United States in 1929 by Italians Attilio Calimani and Guilio Moneta. This version of the French press is similar to those we use today.
In Germany, Dresden housewife Melitta Bentz also disliked drinking grounds along with her coffee.
She, however, found a different solution to the problem. One day, she ripped a piece of blotting paper out of her son’s notebook, folded it into a funnel shape, filled it with grounds and poured water over it. Voila! The paper coffee filter was born. Bentz patented her design in 1908.
Mid 1900s Europe
Bentz’s paper coffee filter paved the way for fellow German Gottlob Widmann’s invention of the first electric drip coffee machine in 1954.
Another famous brewing method was invented by Italian Alfonso Bialetti in 1933. Bialetti wanted to find a way to brew espresso at home quickly, but without the heavy espresso equipment found in commercial coffee shops.
He invented a three-part aluminum pot that could be heated on a stove. As the water in the bottom compartment was heated, it pushed upward through the coffee grounds in the middle, producing an espresso-like brew in the top chamber.
Tipping his hat to the Yemeni city of Mocha where coffee was first roasted and brewed, Bialetti named his new pot the Moka Express.
19th and 20th Century: Coffee Production Across the Globe
Let’s learn the path role that coffee played through the rest of the world throughout the 19th and 20th century.
Early 1800s Hawaii
In 1813, coffee came to Hawaii. Spaniard Francisco de Paula y Marin, advisor and physician to Hawaiian King Kamehameha I cultivated some coffee plants on the island of Oahu.
Then, in 1825, an Englishman named John Wilkinson brought coffee plants from Brazil to Oahu. The famous Kona coffee came from these first Hawaiian coffee plants.
In 1828, missionary Samuel Ruggles brought coffee plants to the Kona region of the island of Hawaii. The rich volcanic soil that the plants are grown in contributes to Kona coffee’s distinctive flavor.
Mid 1900s Hawaii
From 1932 – 1969, the public school schedule on Hawaii was changed so that “summer” break corresponded to the coffee harvest season.
School children would work alongside their families to harvest coffee from August through November.
Early 1800s South America
Meanwhile, coffee production continued to grow in South America, the Caribbean, and Indonesia.
In the 1820s, Brazilian coffee growers began to clear large swaths of rainforest to make way for coffee plantations.
The success of coffee plantations in Brazil, Cuba and Haiti encouraged planters in Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Colombia to begin growing coffee.
Late 1800s Ethiopia
Coffee’s reputation also received a boost in its birthplace, Ethiopia, in the 1880s. Although coffee had been banned by the Ethiopian Coptic Christian Church, Emperor Menelik II not only drank it, but saw its economic potential.
He enlisted Abuna Matewos, a Coptic Christian bishop, to convince Ethiopians that it was ok to drink coffee.
Africa & Asia 1800s - 1900s
European colonization of African and Asia in the 19th and 20th century brought coffee cultivation to some countries that continue to be major coffee producers today.
While coffee originated in Africa, it was not until German and British colonizers transported Brazilian coffee plants to Tanzania and Kenya in 1893 that coffee production in these countries took off.
The French brought coffee to Vietnam in the mid-19th century. The French ramped up coffee production in the 1920s, establishing large plantations in Vietnam’s Central Highlands.
In 2022, the world’s 10 leading coffee producing countries are, in order: Brazil, Vietnam, Colombia, Indonesia, Ethiopia, Honduras, India, Uganda, Mexico, and Guatemala.
Coffee Culture Today
The modern-day history of coffee is just as fascinating as its early roots. While most of the world drinks coffee today, the way in which they drink it can vary.
Busy Americans tend to like to breeze in and out of their local coffee shops getting their coffee to go.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, some Americans liked to work remotely from coffee shops. This number is sure to increase as coffee shops reopen for in-person seating and more and more American workers shift towards fully remote or hybrid work arrangements.
Similarly, in the UK, coffee shops have become meeting and workplaces for many people. You are sure to find friends gathering or young professionals typing away at their laptops in coffee shops in the UK.
Italy’s coffee culture remains more relaxed. People prefer to drink their coffee al-banco, or at the bar. To-go style coffee in Italy is named for the type of people who order it: American.
Data by Statista shows that by 2025, 21% of volume consumption and 84% of spending in the coffee business will be from out-of-home locations such as restaurants and bars.
The modern café experience was introduced by coffee shop giant Starbucks following inspiration from Alfred Peet, who started Peet’s Coffee.
Thanks to these pioneers, the coffee shop combines the local gathering concept and the sale of freshly brewed coffee and roasted beans.
Today, several companies specialize in selling coffee and contributing to the growth of the global economy.
Here are some of the most prominent players in the coffee industry and the number of stores they have…
|Costa Coffee||Over 4,000|
|Tim Hortons||Over 4,000|
|Gloria Jean’s Coffees||Over 1,000|
|Caribou Coffee||Over 600|
While some of these brands operate their own stores, most work on a franchise-based model, especially in different countries. This makes it easier to manage and run profitable businesses.
The history of coffee is a complex and interesting story. Coffee has come a long way since it first energized Khaldi and his goats in 9th century Ethiopia!
It has transformed from a brew made by mixing roasted beans and water to a beverage that can be made in percolators, French presses, Moka pots, espresso machines, and electric drip machines.
From its early days as an exclusive Arabian commodity to its arrival in Europe and beyond, coffee has not only been a tasty beverage, but also a drink that has brought people and their ideas together.
Where will coffee go from here? We can’t wait to find out!