Coffee

This article first appeared in Asian Global Impact in the column “Asian Verbal Impact”

Every morning at around 11 I pay silent homage to a ninth century Ethiopian goatherd. On observing the liveliness of his goats after chewing the berries of certain plant, he decided to investigate whether the berries would have a similar effect on him. Kaldi, the pastoralist in question, is probably apocryphal but he serves a useful purpose: the berries were none other than those of the Coffea arabica plant which grows wild in Ethiopia and is thought to have first been cultivated in or around the city of Harar.

The early history of coffee is as murky as a strong espresso, and many alternatives exist to the legend of Kaldi. Reliable references only begin to appear in the 15th century, by which time the Yemeni port of Mocha (now more familiar for having lent its name to a chocolatey latte) served as a focal point in the coffee trade which stretched to Mecca (where it was briefly banned by clerics on account of the political unrest it was thought to fuel), Cairo, Damascus and beyond. The Arabs called the coffee bean al-bunn, which is probably derived from the Amharic (Ethiopian) name for it, buna. As a drink, however, coffee is called qahwah in Arabic, and one theory holds that this word originally referred to wine, another that it denotes the Kaffa region in Ethiopia.

16th Century European references to coffee feature attempts to transliterate the Arabic, such as chaoua and chaube, but the real gateway to coffee in Europe was Constantinople (now Istanbul). The city boasted a vibrant coffee culture which had spread from the Ottoman court, now with a Chief Coffee Maker among its ranks, to the public at large. Legend has it that the world’s first coffee house, Kiva Han, was established in Constantinople, although the date varies wildly between 1475 and 1554 depending on the source. The drink caught on with Venetian merchants who brought it back to Venice where it was sold by lemonade vendors and later in dedicated coffee houses. The Turkish name kahveh became the familiar caffè and, despite earlier initiatives to ban the “Muslim” drink, it now benefitted from a firm papal endorsement.

Perhaps surprisingly one of the earliest coffee houses in Europe was established in Oxford in the 1650’s, decades before more stereotypically caffeinated cities like Paris or Vienna. In the following decades coffee houses sprung up across London where they were called “Penny Universities” on account of their typical entry fee and of the writers, artists and diverse intellectuals that frequented them. They also served as places of commerce, most notably Edward Lloyd’s Coffee House (Est. 1688) which later gave birth to the insurance company Lloyd’s of London. When the word “coffee” was first used in its current form, and whether it comes directly from the Venetian or from the related Dutch word koffie, is a matter of debate.

The Dutch, in any case, were as concerned with the trading of coffee as with its consumption, and were responsible for establishing plantations in its Indonesian colonies (a legacy that you can still taste in a cup of Java or Sulawesi). They later introduced coffee to Scandinavia, the region with the highest per capita consumption worldwide today. A more dramatic introduction was effected in Vienna, where (supposedly) the Ottomans retreating after the Second Siege of 1683 left behind sacks of coffee sparking a craze for the beverage that, famously, still persists in the city. Some decades later, in the 1720’s coffee was introduced to Brazil – supposedly stolen from a plant in French Guiana – and a century or so (and much human traffic) later Brazil had become the world’s biggest coffee producer, a title it still holds. Also high in the ranks are Vietnam, where the French name has been adapted to cà phê, Colombia, thought by some as the source of the world’s best coffee, and, rich with historical resonances, Ethiopia.

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