The Overlooked History of Coffee: From Brazil to Bristol Coffee Shops 

It is often said that after oil, coffee is the second most traded commodity on the planet. That is not exactly true but it certainly is a commodity of great importance globally. The export market for coffee is seven times that of tea and ranks high amongst our other vices such as wine, tobacco and chocolate. But how did this dark liquor become so popular? This month I’ve delved into the often-overlooked history of coffee and how its found it’s way across the Atlantic Ocean into our Bristol coffee shops.

The Legend of Kaldi

Many people will have heard ‘the Legend of Kaldi’ and his goats. The story is often told by baristas up and down our Bristol coffee shops. Legend has it that around 850 AD in Ethiopia, Kaldi, a humble goat herder, noticed that his goats became more animated after eating the red berries from a certain bush. Intrigued, Kaldi decided to try the beans for himself and soon joined his goats in their merry dance. How then did we get from this accidental discovery to the drink we all know and love today?

A Sufi monk disapproved of their intoxicating effect

There are various different accounts. Some believe Kaldi took the berries to a Sufi monk who disapproved of their intoxicating effect threw them into the fire. Our most intoxicating coffee, and very likely to be disapproved by the Sufi monk, is our Formula 442 Triple Certified Espresso. The then roasted beans created such a sweet smell that the monk took them out of the fire and had the great idea of turning these sweet-smelling beans into a drink. The origins of coffee certainly starts with Islam, and, in particular, the Sufi region in Yemen.

The legend of kaldi

Religious Ceremonies

The Sufi orders used coffee in religious ceremonies, as they often lasted all night, and the stimulating coffee helped to produce a euphoric state that aided contact with the divine. As early as 1450, coffee was common across the Islamic world and even drank in the sacred mosque of Mecca itself.

By the start of the sixteenth-century coffee was well established across North Africa and Egypt. Cairo became the centre of the coffee trade, quickly coffeehouses spread from there to Damascus and Aleppo, in Syria and on to Istanbul, which was then the capital of the Ottoman Empire.

coffee berries

High Society

Through simple trade, coffee made its way into Europe through Malta, which during the mid-sixteenth century had strong trade links with the Ottoman Empire. Coffee consumption slowly made its way from the traders and prisoners into Maltese high society and from there into the general population.

“Black as hell, strong as death and sweet as love”.

London wasn’t too far behind, with its first coffeehouse opening in 1652, by Pasqua Rosee the Greek servant of a British merchant. Having lived in Smyrna on the Aegean coast, Pasqua was said to brew the best coffee in the Ottoman Empire, which was as “black as hell, strong as death and sweet as love”.

Throughout this time the consumption of coffee had spread, but the cultivation seems to have remained in Yemen and Ethiopia.  From here coffee beans were exported on land over the trade routes. There’s a reason why Ethiopia consistently ranks among the best in bristol coffee shops and around the world.  Ethiopian Yirgacheffe is thought to be the variety closest in flavour to the original wild plant and has a mild character, offset by a subtle gamey aftertaste. 

With seven seeds taped to his stomach

The first known cultivation outside of Yemen/Ethiopia is in the Mysore region of India. Legend has it that an Indian Sufi, Baba Budan, returned from the annual pilgrimage to Mecca with seven seeds taped to his stomach, these survived the journey and thrived in their new habitat. Although like Kaldi, this tale may have been elaborated over time.

The Competition

A more viable story is that the Dutch East India Company set up in competition to the British East India Company, transporting coffee plants back to Amsterdam where they were cultivated in greenhouses. These plants were then transported to Sri Lanka and then India, where they began to grow coffee on a commercial basis.

The genie was out of the bottle

However the first seeds did get out, and once the genie was out of the bottle, coffee spread quickly across the tropical regions of the globe. The DEIC sent coffee seeds to Indonesia, specifically Java, which lead to the well-known nickname.

This new commercial coffee production quickly superseded that of Yemen and Ethiopia, where the economy quickly crumbled and by 1740 they were no longer players in the coffee world.

history of coffee

The DEIC dominated coffee trade until 1780 when inadvertently they gifted Louis XIV a coffee plant for the royal botanical gardens in Paris. Which was to be their downfall. A French officer stationed in Martinique in the Carribean noticed the plant on a trip back to Paris and was convinced that it would thrive there. By 1788 production in the Carribean had eclipsed that of the DEIC in Indonesia. This soon spread throughout the Carribean.

The history of Coffee

From Mexico to Brazil

It wouldn’t be long until neighbouring South America wanted in on the action. The rise of Brazil in coffee production early is romantically linked to the Portuguese. It is believed that jealousy over the production in the Carribean and the inability to get seeds legitimately, lead to the Portuguese sending a diplomatic mission to neighbouring French Guiana.

It is said the diplomat seduced the governor’s wife and convinced her to hide some coffee plants in a parting bouquet of flowers. Although it got off to a rocky start, by the second half of the nineteenth century, Brazil was the world-leading producer of coffee and from here it spread like wildfire across the continent, from Mexico to Brazil. Bristol Twenty Copan-Cabana is 100% aribica blend made up of top quality coffees from Brazil and Honduras and is a top seller in Bristol coffee shops. 

150 million (60kg) bags of coffee are produced each year

And this was what carved out coffee production as we know it. Today there are thought to be over 25 million coffee farmers worldwide, and it is believed that over 125 million people rely on it for their livelihood. The International Coffee Organisation estimates that 150 million (60kg) bags of coffee are produced each year in 58 countries.

Although today it is considered to be the fourth most traded agricultural commodity, rather than the second most traded commodity, there is no doubt that coffee is a global phenomenon that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.