The history of coffee is as rich as the brew

The history of coffee dates back to more than a thousand years ago. As I read in Starbucks once, the history of coffee is as rich as the brew itself.

Let’s go way back and begin by talking about the legend itself. Did you know goats roaming in the hills of Ethiopia over a thousand years ago, discovered coffee and got buzzed? The legend tells the story of a shepherd named Kaldi, who observed the goats acting very unusual after eating red berries from a bush.

Kaldi was very curious about the behavior of the goats and when he realized the goats did not die from consuming the berries, he himself wanted to see what reaction he would get if he ate them. To his pleasant surprise he found he had been re-energized and exhilarated.

Now this is just a legend, but I don’t think we will ever know how much of this is true. The legend goes on to tell us the monks were so intrigued by the behavior of the goats and Kaldi, that they also began eating the berries. The monks had some reservations since they believed it was the devils fruit but they believed it would help to keep them awake during their all night inspiration of prayers.

Kaldi soon spread the word and coffee became a part of the Ethiopian culture. As a matter of fact, an Arabian physician named Rhazes mentions coffee in print in the tenth century. However, it was not called coffee, it was called Bunn. It was believed that the beans and leaves of the bushes were chewed but the Ethiopians quickly brewed the leaves and berries with boiled water that tasted very much like a weak tea. As they continued to experiment with the beans, someone roasted and grounded them sometime in the 16th century. Bravo! Coffee was born.

It did not take long before the word spread through trade across the Red Sea with the Arabs who took to the stimulating drink. This is where it rose to the elixir it became, in Yemen, a province in Arabia. Coffee plantations in Yemen were perfectly grown on slopes rising above sea level. Thick mists ascended from the low coast regions allowing protection from the hot sun. The mists would disappear in the evening when the sun went down allowing the plantations to maintain equal temperatures.

By the 13th century, Muslims were drinking coffee religiously. Before long, coffee went to North Africa, the Eastern Mediterranean and India. By the fifteenth century, coffee was known in Persia, Egypt, Syria and Turkey. However, Arabia controlled the industry for several centuries and only exported roasted, infertile beans to trading partners in both Europe and Asia.

The drink gained so much popularity that it became a “hot” commodity, and people began to smuggle the coffee. In 1616, the Dutch smuggled trees to Holland and being one of the world’s largest shipping trade at that time, it was easy to do.

In the mid 1600’s coffee had reached the British and took London by storm. The first coffee advertisement was made upon the opening of a coffeehouse by a Greek, Pasqua Rosee. It was called “The Vertue of the COFFEE Drink” and said:

A simple innocent thing, composed into a Drink, by being dryed in an Oven, and ground to Powder, and boiled up with Spring water, and about half a pint of it to be drunk, lasting an hour before, and not Eating an hour after, and to be taken as hot as possibly can be endured.
Pasqua Rosee also claimed that the drink would aid in many ailments such as curing headaches, gout, coughs and prevents miscarriages. He stated the following:

“It will prevent Drowsiness, and make one fit for business, if one have occasion to Watch; and therefore you are not to Drink of it after Supper unless you intend to be watchful for it will hinder sleep for 3 or 4 hours”

In the early 1700’s, coffee finally reached many other countries like Germany and France and soon coffeehouses were established gaining popularity in many German cities.
By 1750, coffee trees were growing on five continents and known for a quick pick me up or an aid to sobering up the heavy alcohol abusers in Europe. It also began to be known as a social drink.

Cultivation was happening all over, the French managed to get shrubs and established plantations and the French and the Dutch founded huge coffee plantations in South America and guarded their crop. In Guatemala and El Salvador, coffee cultivation exploded in growth and inequality with plantations being owned by the wealthy and mistreatment of the population. In Costa Rica, cultivation resulted in democracy, small farms and slow but steady growth.

However, it was Brazil who began coffee cultivation in 1727 and was to become the largest coffee growing nation. Columbia became the second largest coffee exporter. Brazil accounted for 66 percent of coffee exports while 30 percent of coffee came from Africa.

So what was happening here in America? Well in 1777, over a hundred women in Boston raided a food warehouse for coffee. In the early 1800’s particularly after the War of 1812, the taste for coffee here in America was becoming very hungry. In the mid nineteenth century, people bought coffee beans from local general stores that purchased them in bulk from the West or East Indies.

Women roasted the beans by frying them on their stoves constantly stirring. This did not work very well and beans were eventually grounded in a manufacturing coffee mill. Women would usually brew by boiling grounds in water and drink when grounds settled on the bottom.

In 100 years, coffee became a commodity crop throughout the world. Fortunes were made and fortunes were lost as not all crops flourished. Coffee by the 18th century was one of the world’s most profitable export crops.

By 1898 2,000,000,000 pounds of coffee was produced and Brazil accounted for 70 percent. The coffee industry was booming by the late 1800’s allowing for large companies to import and make huge profit gains but with substantial risks.

Dominating importers such as B.G. Arnold and Bowie Dash & Co., of New York and O.G. Kimball & Co. of Boston otherwise known as “Trinity” were described as ruling the coffee market for the United States for ten years. The firm made millions but ended in 1880 after the death of O.G. Kimball.

It became clear in 1878 that Brazil was gaining market share that could not be competed with. It was reported after the Kimball’s death the company had liabilities in excess of $1,400,000. Losses related to coffee had amounted to $7 million and $3 million was reported lost in the following year. The history of coffee trade in this country was a record loss and the company went bankrupt.

A year later, an exchange was created in New York with B.G. Arnold as president and soon became the center of world attention. Prices were increased, buying and selling was happening but it was a syndicate in Brazil that boomed the market closing above 21 cents by June of 1887.

By December, the price plummeted to 16 cents and was known as “the slaughter of the bulls”. It was Hermann Sielcken of W. H. Crossman & Brother that purchased 100,000 bags at declining prices and was proclaimed as the one who saved the market bringing the price back up.

Soon coffee exchanges in Europe were responding very quickly with the New York Coffee Exchange tracking the daily price for deliveries comparing with previous prices. Up and through the early 1900’s the exchange suffered its ups and downs as competition lured the market.

In 1909 Sielcken purchased the Woolson Spice Company for $869,000 and made himself a millionaire and saved the Brazilian coffee industry. . Woolson Spice was an ailing company that was purchased by the deceased H. O. Havemeyer who purchased the company for more than $2M and lost $15 million.

Sielcken got a bargain on this deal and turned it around by putting together a consortium of German and British banks and coffee merchants. The syndicate had negotiated loans and used the coffee as security with Brazil. The prices remained stagnant at 7 cents per pound and Sielcken claimed it was the best loans he had ever known but Brazil had mortgaged itself to the syndicate. Sielcken was known as the Coffee King who made millions through the Brazilian vaporization scheme.

Price wars began and Sielcken was sued by the U.S. Attorney General, J. C. McReynolds citing he was manipulating the coffee industry with the Brazilian government. As a result of this legal battle, taxes were abandoned on new plantings and it was clear that Brazil was not immune to competition from other coffee growing countries. Brazil no longer dominated the coffee world as it slowly eroded. The suit was dismissed in early 1913 but nevertheless, Sielcken was a millionaire with an estate valued at over $4 million at the time of his death.

In the early 1900’s Coca Cola came to the legal ground as the cousin of coffee claiming the common drug of caffeine was a prime ingredient in the soft drink. The Judge in the case cited that whether caffeine was a poison or not it was NOT an added ingredient under the law but an integral part of the formula. Coca-Cola won the case proving all testimony was irrelevant.

With all the speculation and controversy surrounding the now called “drug” caffeine, decaf was created. In 1906, shortly after a famous agronomist Luther Burbank claimed his father’s death was as a result of the so called “poison” caffeine, Ludwig Roselius, a German merchant was successful in extracting the caffeine from green beans by superheating them with steam, then flooding them with the solvent benzol.

He patented the process and formed his company in 1906. In Germany it was known as Kaffee Hag and in France it was known as Sanka. Here in the United States it was known as Dekafa from the Merck drug company.

Before coffee, it was Ivory Soap, Listerine and Coca-Cola that claimed the market since coffee was a difficult distribution. Folgers, Hills Brothers, Maxwell House, Chase & Sanborn, Arbuckle Brothers were the visionary coffee companies established. Arbuckle had the Yuban brand but sold it to General Foods because it refused to pay for a national campaign resulting in it fading from the market.

The greatest threat was Eight O’clock Coffee, a private brand from A & P that held its position for privately labeled brands in years to come as it expanded its chain of grocery stores.

In 1921, it was Teddy Roosevelt who supposedly claimed Maxwell House Coffee to be “good to the last drop” but this was done through an advertisement leading one to believe that Mr. Roosevelt did not really make this statement. However, this slogan is still used today in the Maxwell House advertising campaigns.

As the years went by through WWII, coffee was exploding and new brands were being created as well as slogans. Price wars were still going on through the 1980’s and ad campaigns and slogans were all over the world.

Chock full o’ Nuts came out with:

“Chock full o’ Nuts is that heavenly coffee, Heavenly coffee, heavenly coffee; Chock full o’ Nuts is that heavenly coffee, better coffee Rockefeller’s money can’t buy”

On November 14, 1949, the New York Times stated:

Over second and third cups flow matters of high finance, high state, common gossip and low comedy. Coffee is a social binder, a warmer of tongues, a soberer of minds, a stimulant of wit, a foiler of sleep if you want it so. From roadside mugs to the classic demitasse, it is the perfect democrat.

The 1952 Coffee Annual is quoted as saying

“There’s every sign that coffee will remain the country’s leading beverage forever” – Wow that was right on.

There was a 1921 ad

That coffee always provided a pick-me-up that helps workers get through the day providing a drug instead of rest according to many critics. The ad shows a worker drinking a cup of coffee and at the bottom of the ad it states “Coffee An Aid to Factory Efficiency”.

Ads were in magazines, newspapers, television and radio and became a huge campaign. Chase & Sanborn became well known as it launched its jitterbug craze at the New York World’s Fair in 1939.

In 1941, Eleanor Roosevelt had a radio show every Sunday evening called “Over Our Coffee Cups”

sponsored by the Pan American Coffee Bureau. Displayed above her at the studio was a sign that said “Get More Out of Life with Coffee – The Americans Favorite Drink”

Frank Sinatra

Frank once sang, “The Coffee Song” and during the fifties coffee became accepted in America.

Jim Henson

Did you know that Jim Henson, the famous muppeteer launched his career by doing coffee ads for Wilkins Coffee using the puppet Wontkins.

Creativity was taken on a new task as we were introduced to Latte’s and the like with flavored beans. When Starbucks launched its IPO in June of 1992 it was on everyone’s radar. Starbucks was aggressive and was to rule the world succeeding in becoming one of the global coffee giants as the largest leading coffeehouses.

Let’s rule out some of the myths that still exist today around the effects of caffeine and some of those concern heart disease, ulcers, and possibly cancer. There are no studies that suggest any long term risks, although coffee is often thought of as a stimulant.

Years ago, actor Robert Young campaigned for Sanka decaf advertisements. With the myths surrounding coffee and its reputation for being a “drug”, Robert Young was the perfect choice with shows like Father Knows Best and Marcus Welby, M.D. giving advice to avoid caffeine.

Of course everything we ingest should be taken in moderation; that is common sense. Coffee and caffeine have been implicated in a number of ailments but studies failed to confirm negative findings.

After several hours of research on this topic, I found myself spending the most time reading the very extensive work done by the author Mark Pendergrast. In his book “Uncommon Grounds” he gives a very detailed history of Coffee after spending three years traveling and researching this subject.

The complete history of coffee is such an interesting story from where it began to where it is today. No article can come near the details of all the issues that surrounded this market throughout the years than what I have found in this reading.

I highly recommend Mark Pendergrast’s book as you will truly find it all so fascinating.
I would like to close with this statement made by Mark Pendergrast located in the last paragraph of his book as it seems so appropriate.

“Only one thing is certain about coffee, though. Wherever it is grown, sold, brewed, and consumed, there will be lively controversy, strong opinions, and good conversation. “The best stories are told over coffee” wrote a wise commentator in 1902, “as the aroma of the coffee opens the portals of the soul, and the story, long hidden is winged for posterity.”

It couldn’t’ be said better than that.

Today, mostly all of us all enjoy a nice cup of coffee. Whether it is a cuppa joe, java, cuppa brew; cuppa jolt; mud or high test, this writer needs a cup first thing in the morning.

Whether it be decaf, caffeinated, flavored, roasted of whatever suits your fancy, we all have to admit that it is the first thing we look for in the morning to get us all jump started. For some of us, it is also the first thing we look for in mid afternoon when we get that tired feeling around 3:00 p.m. and need the quick pick me up.

Okay, so some of us drink it with our dessert after dinner too…..

Mark Pendergrast, Uncommon Ground, New York, Basic Books, 1999
WWW – Coffee Universe, HISTORY OF COFFEE,
WWW Big Site of Amazing Facts HISTORY OF COFFEE,
WWW National Geographic’s COFFEE,
WWW National Coffee Association of USA, Inc., THE HISTORY OF COFFEE,


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