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A Brief History of Coffee – the Brew of Empire, Sedition and Exile

A Brief History of Coffee – the Brew of Empire, Sedition and Exile

A small bag of unroasted coffee beans. Credit: Isai Symens/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

Coffee has transformed wild mountainsides into plantations at the expense of their natural diversity. At the same time, it’s established itself in the last millennium as the companion of the thinking soul.

A small bag of unroasted coffee beans. Credit: Isai Symens/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0
A small bag of unroasted coffee beans. Credit: Isai Symens/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

Caffeine, a source of comfort to many, a necessity for others, primarily consumed in the form of tea and coffee, is central to many of us kickstarting our days and yet we don’t always know how it works its magic. But more significantly, we also fail to appreciate the pivotal role of caffeine in jump-starting the European Renaissance and revolutionising the world.

It is an alkaloid found in tea leaves, coffee beans, cola nuts and cocoa pods. Our intake of caffeine is primarily through the coffee and tea that we consume through the day. Of the two beverages, tea is a weaker source of caffeine per cup than coffee. But why do plants produce a drug that makes us more alert and active? What is the role of caffeine in the plant kingdom. Turns out, in plants, caffeine acts as a natural pesticide that paralyses and kills the insects feeding on them. High caffeine levels have also been found in the soil surrounding coffee seedlings, suggesting it to be secretory alkaloid that inhibits the germination of nearby seedlings giving the young coffee plants exclusive access to all the resources. In humans however, caffeine acts as a stimulant that wards off drowsiness, restores alertness and makes us more energetic. In addition to its stimulatory effects on the nervous system, Caffeine is also used as a component of several over-the-counter pain medications like aspirin and as an appetite suppressant. These very pleasurable properties of coffee also make it addictive and have fuelled its rapid spread across the globe.

“O Coffee! Thou dost dispel all care, thou are the object of desire to the scholar. This is the beverage of the friends of God.” – An Arabic poem form 1511 AD

The recorded history of coffee traces its way back to Ethiopia where legends lead us to believe that a curious goatherd named Kaldi saw his goats in a caffeine-induced-frenzy and tried the red berries for himself, only to find himself alert, active and energised. By the time, coffee was first mentioned in print by Rhazes, a Persian physician (865-925 AD), the coffee trees had likely been in cultivation for centuries. Avicenna, the famous Arabic physician in 1000 AD, also writes about the purifying properties of coffee even though his boiled concoction is nothing like the strong, black brew we drink today. In the history of coffee, the arabs were the early adopters as they grew coffee trees in nearby mountains and called it qahwa (Arabic for ‘wine’). Others believe that the name “coffee” originates from the Kaffa region of Ethiopia, the Arab word quwwa (‘power’) or Kafta (referring to a drink made from the Khat plant). The drink’s earliest adopters were the sufi monks who, thanks to coffee, could now stay awake more easily for their midnight prayers.

However, from these religious beginnings, coffee soon fell into everyday use as wealthy people popularised coffee rooms and ceremonies and the not-so-wealthy resorted to coffee houses called kaveh kanes. By the end of the 15th century, Muslim pilgrims and traders had introduced coffee throughout the Islamic world (Persia, Egypt, Turkey, North Africa, etc.) making it a lucrative trade item. As its popularity grew, coffee became notorious as the trouble-making brew and coffeehouses gained a reputation for “improper pastimes” and seditious conversations. In fact, Sultan Murad IV, a ruler of the Ottoman empire, banned all coffee houses and declared the consumption of coffee a capital offence (along with that of alcohol). Many of the rulers themselves were however big fans of coffee and such bans usually didn’t last long. Coffee drinking persisted despite these oppressive measures because it gave people a simple way to feel increased energy without any apparent side-effects. Coffeehouses also served a social function and allowed people to get together for conversation, entertainment, business and irreverent political chatter. So important did the brew become in Turkey that a woman could seek apparently divorce on grounds of insufficient coffee!

Marching into the Western world

Historic Distribution of Coffea Arabica Map reprinted with permission from the Specialty Coffee Association of America.
Historic Distribution of Coffea Arabica Map reprinted with permission from the Specialty Coffee Association of America.

The Ottoman Turks occupied Yemen in 1536 and from there began the spread of coffee across the world. The beans became an important item of trade as they were exported from the Yemeni port of Mocha to French and Venetian merchants. Since the coffee trade had become a major source of their income, the Turks zealously guarded their beans. No berries were allowed to leave the country without being steeped in boiling water or roasted to quell germination. Sometime in the 1600s, however, a Muslim pilgrim named Baba Budan smuggled out seven coffee seeds and planted the first coffee plantations in the ghats of Southern India. In 1616, the Dutch too managed to transport a tree to Holland from Aden and from this tree began coffee plantations in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). In 1699, another Dutchman spread the trees from Malabar to Java, Sumatra, Celebes, Timor, Bali and other islands of the East Indies. The Dutch soon exercised a monopoly over the global coffee markets. By the 1700s, Java and Mocha were the most sought after varieties of coffee.

The first Europeans to come in contact with coffee were intrigued by the strange new drink as the British poet Sir George Sandys noted that the Turks sat “chatting most of the day” over their coffee, which was “blacke as soote and tasting not much unlike it.” Eventually, however, coffee won over European tastes and passion. In fact, Pope Clement VIII, who died in 1605, is said to have tasted the ‘Muslim drink’ and exclaimed “Why, this Satan’s drink is so delicious that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it. We shall fool Satan by baptising it and making it a truly Christian beverage.” Coffee continued to remain an exotic beverage in the first half of seventeenth century like sugar, cocoa and tea but over the next fifty years, Europeans embraced coffee and the cultural revolution that came with it.

By the 1650s, coffee was being sold on streets of Italy along with chocolate and liquor by roadside vendors. Venice’s first coffeehouse Caffe՛opened in 1683, named for the drink it served. A cafe՛was soon renowned for its culture, relaxed ambience, animated conversation and tasty food. In 1669, Soliman Aga, the new Turkish ambassador to France, introduced coffee at his novel Parisian parties. During this early phase, many French physicians decried coffee as it “tended almost completely to disaccustom people from the enjoyment of wine.”

It was only when Francois Procope, an Italian immigrant opened his Cafe՛de Procope, opposite the Comedie՛Francaise,՛that the famous French coffeehouse finally took root in 1686. Soon, French actors, authors, thinkers, celebrities and artists were meeting at the Cafe՛for their daily dose of coffee and conversation. Coffee slowly fuelled dissent – like in the Ottoman empire and ultimately spawned the French Revolution. Over the next century, coffee lessened the intake of alcohol and provided a wonderful intellectual environment that attracted leading thinkers like Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot and even the visiting Benjamin Franklin. At a time when beer soup was the breakfast and alcohol a ready beverage, as Mark Pendergrast, the author of Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World says “coffee sobered up the world.” It gave people something to drink and socialise with without the dangers of inebriation.

The French historian Michelet described the coffee house culture as “the auspicious revolution of the times, the great event which created new customs, and even modified the human temperament.” In 1710, the french developed the infusion method of brewing powdered coffee as opposed to the Turkish method of boiling coffee beans. They then discovered the milder cafe՛au lait or the sweetened milky coffee that continues to be a popular form of coffee around the world.

Cafe՛de Procope in St. Germain des Prés, Paris. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Cafe՛de Procope in St. Germain des Prés, Paris. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The spread of the coffee culture around Europe came with its share of stories and anecdotes, the most entertaining of which is about the introduction of coffee to Vienna as camel fodder! Coffee arrived in Vienna later than in France, in July 1683, when the Turkish army threatened to invade Europe and massed outside Vienna for a long siege. The Turks however were routed in a decisive battle and they left behind tents, cattle, food provisions, gold and five hundred sacks of strange looking coffee beans that the Viennese guessed must be camel fodder. When finding no good use for this “camel fodder”, the Viennese began to burn the coffee, Kolschitzsky (a spy who had spent many years in the Arab world) yelled with approbation, “That is coffee that you are burning! If you don’t know what coffee is, give the stuff to me. I can find good use for it.”

Having closely observed the turkish customs, he knew the basics of roasting, grinding and brewing and he soon opened the ‘Blue Bottle’, one of the first Viennese cafes. Within a few decades, Kolschitzsky’s coffee had fuelled the intellectual life of Vienna. Unlike the rambunctious beer halls and pubs, the cafes were a place of intellectual concentration and lively scientific exchanges. In fact, right up to the 20th century, the coffee houses of Vienna were the turf of geniuses like Gustav Klimt, Sigmund Freud and Leon Trotsky.

Coffee and coffeehouses finally made their way to Germany in the 1670s and by 1720s there were coffee houses in most major german cities. By 1732, coffee had become popular and controversial enough for Bach to write his humorous Coffee Cantata, in which a daughter implores her father to allow her this one vice. Later, the coffee obsessed Beethoven apparently ground sixty beans precisely to brew a single cup. By 1977, coffee had become entirely too popular for a fearful Frederick the Great who demanded that Germans switch from coffee to beer, Germany’s more traditional drink. He sent soldiers sniffing through the streets, searching for the slightest whiff of the illegal bean even as the poor resorted to coffee substitutes like roasted chicory root, dried fig, barley, wheat or corn. Eventually, coffee outlived all these protests against it and grew to become the chief beverage of the feminine Kaffeeklatsches (gossipy social interludes).

The arrival of coffee in England was marked by the opening of its first coffeehouse in Oxford University in 1650 by Jacobs, a Lebanese jew. Two years later in London, Pasqua Rosee՛opened a coffeehouse with extraordinary claims of aiding digestion, curing headaches, coughs, consumption, dropsy, scurvy and gout. By early 1700s, coffeehouses had proliferated all over London and they came to be known as “penny universities” because for that price one could purchase a cup of coffee and spend hours in a coffeehouse listening to public intellectuals and getting unofficial consultations. Coffeehouses were like the clubs of our times as each one specialised in a particular type of clientele – physicians, jews, actors, catholics, literati, lawyers, merchants etc. They served as England’s first egalitarian meeting places where a man was expected to chat with his table-mates irrespective of class or social standing.

In fact, Lloyd’s of London – the famous insurance company – began from one such coffeehouse where seafarers and merchants gathered. The stock exchange, the bankers clearing house, and newspapers such as The Spectator and The Tattler also owe their origins to coffeehouses. As a British commentator observed that “coffee-drinking hath caused a greater sobriety among the nations; for whereas formerly Apprentices and Clerks with others, used to take their mornings’ draught in Ale, Beer or Wine, which by the dizziness they cause in the Brain, make many unfit for business, they use now to play the Good-fellows in this wakefull and civill drink.” The English women however had much to complain about against coffee. They, in fact, filed a petition against coffee which revealed that a typical male day involved spending the morning in a tavern “till every one of them is as Drunk as a Drum, and then back again to the Coffee-house to drink themselves sober.” Then they were off to the tavern again, only to “stagger back to Soberize themselves with Coffee.”

The politicisation of coffee

In 1973 the US Post Office issued a set of four stamps, together making one scene of the Boston Tea Party. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
In 1973 the US Post Office issued a set of four stamps, together making one scene of the Boston Tea Party. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On December 29, 1675, King Charles II issued a proclamation whereby he banned coffeehouses as of January 10, 1676, since they had become “the great resort of Idle and disaffected persons” where tradesmen neglected their affairs.”  This was perceived as an outrage and within a week, it seemed that the monarchy might actually be overthrown over coffee. Fearing such a rebellion, on January 8, two days before the proclamation was due to take effect, the king backed down. Ironically, however, despite the furore, over the course of the 18th century the British began to drink more tea instead of coffee. Unlike coffee, tea was simple to brew and did not require elaborate roasting and grinding. It was also easier to adulterate for a tidy additional profit. In addition, the British conquest of India had begun, and there they concentrated more on tea than coffee growing. The British East India Company pushed tea through its monopoly in China and smugglers made tea cheaper.

Soon, coffee also made a strong imprint across the Atlantic when American colonists raided British tea ships in 1773 at the famous Boston Tea Party and as a sign of protest, Americans universally switched to drinking coffee over tea. In a letter written by John Adams (one of America’s founding fathers) to his wife, he proclaims his love of tea but says that he will have to learn to embrace coffee instead, since drinking tea had become unpatriotic. Soon, every other European country had received the gift of coffee and today, the Scandinavian countries are some of the biggest consumers in the world.

The production and consumption of coffee evolved with its spread according to the local tastes, tolerances and customs. Coffee historian Ian Bersten believes that the Arab taste for black coffee, and the widespread European (and eventually American) habit of taking coffee with milk, might be explained by the difference in genetics. The Anglo-Saxons had long acquired the ability to tolerate milk, while the Mediterraneans (Arabs, Greek Cypriots, and southern Italians) tended to be lactose-intolerant. That is why they continue to take their coffee black and sweetened. Thus, according to Bersten, “From the two ends of Europe, there eventually developed two totally different ways to brew this new commodity – either filtered in Northern Europe or espresso style in Southern Europe. The intolerance to milk may have even caused cappuccinos to be smaller in Italy so that milk intolerance problems could be minimized.”

From being prescribed as a nerve tonic, life extender and an aphrodisiac; today coffee is a necessity for many and a beverage for social bonding. Its medical and pharmacological properties have been investigated more deeply over the years and many of its legendary benefits are now proven to be more than mere myths.

The caffeine connection

Comparing the structure of caffeine with that of adenosine as it masquerades as the other. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Comparing the structure of caffeine with that of adenosine as it masquerades as the other. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

With our first cups of tea and coffee in the morning, caffeine enters our system and is rapidly absorbed from our guts and into circulation. Between 15 and 90 minutes, it is rapidly distributed throughout our system and begins to alter our brain chemistry, making us more vigilant, attentive and active. The caffeine in circulation is rapidly metabolised by the liver where it is first demethylated into three different methylxanthines: paraxanthine, theobromine and theophylline; which are then finally oxidised into other waste products. These methylxanthines are structurally very similar to adenosine – a breakdown product of ATP (the energy currency of our cells) in our body and a general dampener of neuronal firing in our brains.

As neurons fire away, they continue to break-down ATP into ADP, AMP and finally just adenosine that tends to accumulate around the neurons as a fatigue indicator. While adenosine is produced abundantly and ubiquitously in the body, its effects on the brain are limited to regions where its receptors are located i.e. the guys who can pick up adenosine and report back. Once adenosine levels reach a certain level, the brain starts to ease up on the firing and nudges you towards sleep or at least rest. Adenosine thus decreases the firing rate of neurons and dampens the release of most neurotransmitters thus making us lethargic and less alert.

At present, we know of four receptors of adenosine called A1, A2A, A2B and A3. While all four receptors are found in the brain, the affinity and levels of activation of A2B and A3 receptors for adenosine is very low. The A1 and A2A adenosine receptors, on the other hand, have high affinity for adenosine and are activated by low levels of it. Thus, under normal conditions, adenosine binds to A1 and A2A receptors and inhibits downstream neuronal firing. However, when caffeine is consumed, the resultant methylxanthines masquerade as adenosine. They thus run through our circulation and bind to the A1 and A2A receptors but unlike adenosine, they don’t activate them. As a result, the neurons continue to fire despite increasing levels of adenosine and caffeine makes us more alert by inhibiting the inhibitor. Or, as author Stephen Braun explains in his book Buzz: The Science and Lore of Alcohol and Caffeine, consuming caffeine is like “putting a block of wood under one of the brain’s primary brake pedals.”

The overall effects of our morning cup however depend on many factors – the coffee beans used (the Robusta variety has higher levels than the Arabica variety), the roast of the bean, the method of brewing, the size of the cup and your own genetics. These many variables hinder an accurate and scientific study of the physiological effects of coffee since different beans, brews and people get different amounts of the active ingredient. Nonetheless, despite the many caveats, regular coffee drinking has been associated with several biological and physiological effects ranging from reduced risk of cancer, reduced appetite, reduced glucose absorption and poorer cardiovascular health. It has also been associated with better memory, in both humans and bees. In fact, studies have found that plants have been spiking their nectar with caffeine in order to strengthen a bee’s memory so that it keeps coming back and recruiting more workers even when the source is no longer productive. In humans too, caffeine buzz we rely on is only believed to improve our output and speed in a certain subset of tasks; It is not going to make us smarter, think better or even more creatively.  

Caffeine is also known to enable the accumulation of dopamine, a neurotransmitter involved in motivation, arousal, alertness, pleasure, and motor and executive control. In fact, it is the death of dopamine producing neurons in the brain (specifically in a region called the striatum) that ultimately leads to Parkinson’s disease. Caffeine in the system also boosts our athletic performance by increasing the strength of muscle contraction, reducing pain and raising blood pressure. By counteracting adenosine action, caffeine also reduces the resting cerebral blood flow between 22% and 30%. Several small studies have shown that at low doses (100-250 mg) caffeine improves alertness and mental performance, especially in people who are already tired leading to fewer workplace accidents.

Interestingly, it has also been reported to make us more supportive of each other in social situations. But these beneficial effects of caffeine are not seemingly never-ending and can in fact have adverse consequences at high doses or in people with higher sensitivities to caffeine. Reports suggest that high caffeine consumption can lead to negative effects like jitters, nervousness, anxiety and sleeplessness.

However, as we consume our daily dose of caffeine, our brain also learns and responds to the inhibition of adenosine. It tends to compensate and increase the number of adenosine receptors available in the brain, thereby trying to restore the sensitivity to adenosine. This leads to a form of addiction where higher and higher levels of caffeine might be needed to get the same kick. The good thing though is that this process of habituation is completely reversible in a few days. Upon withdrawing from caffeine, one begins by experiencing fatigue, lethargy and headaches in 12-24 hours. The headache is caused because in the absence of the methyxanthines, the adenosines in the brain get a free reign over the many A1 and A2A receptors and start by dilating the blood vessels which leads to excess blood in the head. Soon, however, the excessive numbers of adenosine receptors are lost and the system returns to baseline alertness. In fact, based on this understanding, many people speculate that to get the best kick out of caffeine, one must wean oneself off every now and then, so that the system returns to baseline and caffeine remains a potent stimulant.

From revolution to big business

The cultivation and production of this psychoactive drug makes the livelihood of 125 million people around the world. Credit: waferboard/Flickr, CC BY 2.0
The cultivation and production of this psychoactive drug makes the livelihood of 125 million people around the world. Credit: waferboard/Flickr, CC BY 2.0


Today, coffee is big business and it is one of the world’s most valuable agricultural commodities as the most widely taken psychoactive drug. From its African origins, the red-berried coffee tree has spread all over the globe, taking over vast swathes of cultivable land between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. The cultivation, processing, and production of this one beverage provides a source of livelihood for some 125 million people across the globe.

The simple “tasting as soote” black brew is now grown, roasted and brewed for many different tastes and flavors. Coffee experts talk about four basic traits that make the perfect cup: aroma, body, acidity and flavour. Coffee connoisseurs are not much behind oenophiles in waxing eloquent about aromas, body, flavours and tastes. While daily caffeine consumption has increased steadily, there has also been an increase in the consumption of speciality or gourmet coffee. Brands serving these speciality coffees have been proliferating along with the special skills of a Barista who can cater to these special needs. The coffee of the last millennium which was the drink of the masses has slowly positioned itself into a luxury commodity as well.  

Today, coffee has moved beyond its seditious and revolutionary past as the drink of the common man. In fact, the innocuous black bean lies at the heart of subjugation of Latin American countries and the Caribbean islands. From Guatemala and Costa Rica to Idi Amin in Uganda, coffee has become a weapon of subjugation and oppression. The coffee culture that liberated the West has inadvertently led to the enslavement and persecution of indigenous people, Asians and Africans. It has transformed wild mountainsides into plantations at the expense of their natural diversity. At the same time, in the past thousand years, it established itself as the stimulant that brought together people and as the companion of the thinking soul. So, the next time, you kickstart your day with that delicious cuppa, spare a thought for the coffee bean and for how it has shaped the world we inhabit today. Doesn’t it make you wonder where the next thousand years of coffee will take us?

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