The idea of a coffee house usually brings to mind a cosy place, a secluded haven from the bustling city streets, serving gourmet coffee and espresso drinks sourced from around the world. We visualise couches to lounge in, and a bookcase or WiFi for entertainment while you sip. The coffee house is a place for work, or for relaxation.
That is our modern coffee house. But did you ever stop to consider how the coffee house got its start? Or where coffee came from to begin with? The history of coffee and where it got its start. Pollards is here to help with this blog on the history and origins of the humble coffee.
Discovery and the goat herd
Coffee is an ancient commodity that the global population has been consuming since before official records began. Due to this, there are several possible origins and uses of coffee noted over history. The true story of the first discovery however, now lies hidden within the worlds legends. The history of coffee is very hard to pinpoint.
A plausible legend which is widely regarded as the ‘founding’ of the coffee bean, is the tale about the goat herder, Kaldi, in Ethiopia. It is said that Kaldi and his fellow goat herders witnessed their flock consuming the berries from a nearby plant, and they were intrigued by the apparent effect on the animals.
The goats were suddenly energised, and did not sleep that night. Kaldi reported his findings to the local monks at the monastery. The monks tried the berries for themselves. Eventually, the beans were brewed into a caffeinated drink, similar to that which we know today.
Others claim that coffee was discovered either originally by monks, or possibly by Sufis, who transported it back with them to Yemen. These later stories agree though, that coffee came from Ethiopia. They also conclude that the product must have reached Yemen as early as 1400. From there it spread through the Middle East and along the North African coast.
The rapid spread of coffee and its worldwide consumption has been attributed initially to the Sufis, a mystic interpretation of Islam. The history of coffee and the Sufis is much clearer than the origin of coffee. They notably drank coffee for an energy boost during their long and often rigorous ceremonies. Believing it made them stronger and more awake.
They did not roast the beans as we do today, instead they boiled them in water and drank the liquid, naming it ‘the wine of Islam’. This was because coffee was the next best thing to alcohol, which is prohibited under their religion. Roasting the beans came later from the Persians.
These Sufis sects gained adherents who came from many different walks of life. Explorers, pilgrims, students, diplomats, and others, travelled the world during this time, seeking new found knowledge and goods. The visitors were spread across various political and cultural boundaries, often taking the news of coffee with them across the globe.
Constantinople and the first coffee house
The Greeks claim that a Greek citizen opened the first coffeehouse, in Constantinople (now known as Istanbul) in 1475. Although Turkish sources suggest coffee was only brought to the city in 1517, after Sultan Selim I conquered Egypt.
At the time, purist Muslims raised a dispute over the consumption of coffee within the city, fighting to have the product banned. Mostly because of its stimulating nature, but also because it was an innovation.
Eventually, Şeyhülislam Ebussuud issued a decree against drinking coffee in 1543. Ships had arrived at the port bearing a cargo of coffee beans, but as a result of the fatwa, the bags of beans on board were dumped in the sea. Drastic measures were taken. But over the years, the prohibition was mostly ignored. And toward the end of the 16th century another fatwa was ordered, indicating that suspicions about coffee were groundless – pun included.
Over the years, coffee houses were again closed and subsequently reopened a few times, this was a pattern across the globe and not just in Constantinople. In the end, authorities admitted that there was no way they could completely close the coffee houses. These shops merely moved to backstreets and blind alleys.
The economy relied upon the income from licensing fees and the taxes on the products. They were important sources of revenue for the government, just as they are today. Due to this and the loss of revenue to the black market, the sale of coffee was allowed to continue. The product quickly became an important necessity in everyday life.
In fact, coffee was such an important item during that time period, that it was even legal in Turkey for a woman to divorce her husband, if he could not supply her with enough coffee.
It is worth noting here that the coffee in these times had advanced but it still was not the same as we have today, it was mostly Turkish coffee. Turkish coffee was served strong, black and unfiltered, usually brewed in an ibrik. There is much more to the history of coffee than this.
Development and Europe
A more modern development of coffee is the idea of adding cream or sweeter. This came into fashion in 1529, when the first coffee house in Europe was established. This came around when the Turkish army abandoned their invasion of Vienna, leaving many bags of coffee behind when they fled the city.
A man called Franz Georg Kolschitzky lived in the city at the time, and was seemingly the only person who saw value in the beans, having travelled to Turkey before. He claimed the coffee as the spoils of war, and opened a coffee house. Franz introduced the idea of filtering coffee, and was the one responsible for softening the brew with milk and sugar. The beverage was an instant hit, and when coffee houses also started serving sweet pastries and other confectionery treats, their popularity exploded.
British coffee houses
Coffee establishments continued to spread, with the first one opening up in Britain in 1652. Though its popularity was growing in Europe, surprisingly, the idea arrived in England again from Turkey.
Coffee found its way to the UK through Mediterranean trade routes with the Muslim world. Queen Elizabeth I irritated her European neighbours by opening up diplomatic relations with her new-found Moroccan and Ottoman friends, establishing good trading relations and beneficial sea-faring agreements. This trade allowed goods such as tea from Asia, coffee, and chocolate to filter into England, alongside the beloved coffee bean.
An English merchant who dealt in Turkish goods (such as coffee) had two of his servants leave him, going into business for themselves. Conflicting dates arise, but between 1652-166 “The Turk’s Head” coffee house was born. Going down in the history of coffee as the first coffee house in Britain. In St Michael’s Alley, Cornhill, located in the centre of the financial district of the City of London, is where you will find Pasqua Rossee’s coffee house. His first clientele were merchants of the Levant Company. This was the trading house that organised and regulated trade with the Ottoman Empire.
From Britain, the idea spread further through Europe. Italy in 1654 and then Paris in 1672. Germany embraced the coffee house for the first time in 1673. The development in global trade enabled this expansion to happen. People all across the globe were enjoying coffee on a large scale for the first time.
.. In part two, we will be talking you though more of the history of coffee. Looking at the influence that the coffee house had, and the legacy that lasts right through until today. Culture changes, political influences and the rise of the cafe.
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