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History of Coffee: From Africa to Your Breakfast Table

Coffee is one of the most well loved beverages in the world. The word coffee is believed to have been deduced from Kaffa, a place situated in Ethiopia, Africa, It came into existence around 800 A.D. and there are many legends and tales associated with discovery.

One such fascinating tale goes like this. One day a monk saw a goatherd imitating his sheep who were dancing from one shrub to another, grazing the cherry-red berries containing coffee beans. The monk was amazed at the goatherd’s caper on eating the beans. The monk took some of the berries for his fellow monks and that night they realized that they seemed to attain something that they felt was ‘divine stimulation’.

Other than the legends and tales there is also historical evidence about how the Africans of the same era used the coffee plant in different ways. Africans used what can be called primitive ‘Power Bars’ made of coffee and animal stout as a stimulant. They also made wine from the coffee-berry pulp. From Africa, coffee went out towards Arabia via the Red Sea and then slowly made its way to the rest of the world.

Coffee, as we know it today came into existence around 1000 A.D. and this is when it was first roasted and brewed. By the 13th Century, coffee became well loved with the Muslim holy men who found it a very convenient drink it to keep worshippers awake and send them in a tizzy. Then onwards, coffee traveled with the Muslims. Wherever Islam went, coffee traveled along. But, Arabians were cautious and did not want to share the plant with the world. They made sure that no coffee bean sprouted outside Arabia and coffee beans were boiled or parched to make them infertile before taking out of Arabia.

An enterprising Indian pilgrim cum smuggler, Baba Budan, strapped some fertile coffee beans to his stomach and left Mecca. These beans were ultimately responsible for the agricultural expansion of coffee, which later reached Europe’s colonies in the East.

From these colonies, coffee was traded by a Venice merchant who took it to Europe. The Europeans liked it so much that they wanted a constant supply of the beans. And later, it was the Dutch who set up the first European-owned coffee plantation in colonial Java in 1616. The Dutch were, but, not as cautious as the Arabians and they gifted coffee trees to the aristocracy all over Europe. Louis XIV was presented one such coffee tree in 1714, for his garden in Paris.

The coffee tree finally crossed the Atlantic with Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu, a retired French naval officer. He smuggled a sprout with him to Martinique, a French Colony in the Caribbean after he was denied a clipping of the tree. Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu guarded the plant religiously. When the ship got caught in a storm de Clieu nurtured the pant with half of the water that he was rationed. Ultimately, the sprout flourished in Martinique and in the next 50 years more than 18 million coffee trees were grown there.

By 1727, Brazil had realized the potential of the plant and wanted a share in the coffee pie. Unable to get the plant through honest means, they dispatched Lt. Col. Francisco de Melo Palheta, allegedly to mediate in a border dispute, to French Guiana. Avoiding the heavily guarded coffee plantations, he chose to take the simple route of befriending the governor’s wife who slyly presented him a bouquet spiked with coffee seedlings on his farewell dinner. Coffee had now entered Brazil, a land of extremely fertile farms.

From 800 A.D. in Africa to 1727 in Brazil, the coffee plant had traveled through Middle East, South East and Europe and then to South America. Production of coffee reached dizzying heights due to the enormous harvests of Brazil’s fertile lands. This boom in production, apart from anything else, was instrumental in turning coffee, an elitist drink till then, into a drink of the masses.

Initially considered as a poor substitute for alcohol by the American colonists, its popularity grew when tea from Britain became scarce during the Revolutionary War. During and after the American Civil War, coffee had gained a premier position and was being increasingly accepted. Later, advancement in brewing technology ultimately secured its place as an everyday beverage of America.

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