by Jonathan Good

Coffee plant: illustrated in John Gabriel Stedman, Narrative, of a five years’ expedition.… London, 1806.Coffee plant: illustrated in John Gabriel Stedman, Narrative, of a five years’ expedition.… London, 1806.

The current attempt by certain elements of the coffee industry to make coffee into a fashionable, rather than simply an everyday, beverage has a long way to go before coffee becomes as fashionable as it was in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe. We tend to assume that coffee was always as utilitarian as it currently is in countless offices across the land. At times in European history coffee outranked wine and beer in popularity, and it played a role in the development of European expansion and long-distance trade.

      Coffee is made from the roasted pits of a berry that grows on the coffee tree. These coffee “beans” are ground and steeped in hot water to produce an infusion that is consumed hot or, sometimes, cold. The stimulant caffeine is naturally present in the bean and the infusion, and apart from coffee’s characteristic bitter flavor, its perennial appeal can be attributed to the increased wakefulness and alertness that the drug produces.1 Like other beverage-drugs coffee has accumulated a panoply of social traditions, one of which was the coffeehouse, an institution of some social importance in certain European cities in the early modern period.

      As a beverage coffee originated, as far as it is known, in medieval Ethiopia and Yemen. As with gravity or electricity, “human interest” stories of its discovery abound. One tells of the dervish Omar, driven into the countryside, who tried to capture a bird which was sitting in a tree. The bird turned out to be only a bunch of flowers and berries, which Omar picked and found delicious. He filled his pockets with the berries and later, as he was preparing to boil a few herbs for his dinner, he decided to substitute the berries for the herbs; the savory, uplifting drink that resulted was coffee. Another tells of a melancholic goatherd named Kaldi whose normally docile goats became excited when they ate coffee berries; Kaldi tried them himself to the lifting of his spirits, and a passing monk told the world about the berries after he noticed the goatherd and the goats dancing together.2 Whatever its provenance, coffee became widely popular, reaching Aden, Mecca, Medina and Cairo in quick succession in the late fifteenth century. Dervishes found that its invigorating effects helped them with their late-night devotions, and lay Muslims everywhere enjoyed a stimulating beverage-drug that was not, like alcohol, forbidden by the Koran. There were, in fact, several attempts to apply the same prohibitions against alcohol to coffee, due to its alleged tendency to provoke disputes among the people who consumed it in public. Official opinion was divided, however, and by the end of the sixteenth century coffee prevailed and was consumed almost everywhere in the Muslim world.3

      It was the Venetians, intrepid merchants that they were, who introduced coffee into Europe in 1615, although European travelers in the middle east had remarked on it and Clement VII (1535-1605) had declared in lawful for Christians to drink.4 At first people consumed coffee privately for “medicinal purposes”, but by the mid-seventeenth century coffeehouses had opened in Marseilles (1644), Venice (1645). Oxford (1650), London (1652), Paris (1657) and Vienna (1683).5 Advertising material of the time indicates that coffee’s appeal lay partly in its origin in the “mystical east” — indeed, European traders acquired the bans chiefly through contact with their Muslim counterparts. (The Viennese allegedly discovered coffee after a rout of the Turkish army that was besieging the city. Among the supplies abandoned by the Turks included several sacks of coffee beans.6)

      It was the Dutch, however, equally intrepid merchants, who apparently first tried to grow coffee themselves in their colonies in Ceylon (1658) and Java (1696).7 In 1714 a cutting from a coffee plant growing in the Amsterdam botanical gardens was offered as a gift to King Louis XIV of France, and from this cutting, nurtured in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, came French attempts to cultivate coffee in Haiti (1715), Santo Domingo (1715), Réunion (1715-7) and Martinique (1723).8 The English tried growing coffee in Jamaica in the 1730s, but they were too late getting into the act: the headstart enjoyed by the Dutch and French ensured their control of colonial production and importation into Europe. Resigning itself to this fact, the British East India Company took to promoting tea with particular zeal, the effects of which can be seen in the English penchant for tea to this day. 9

      In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, however, coffee was be far the most popular of the three “temperance beverages” in England (the other two being tea and chocolate). Some 2000 coffeehouses, it is estimated, existed in London alone in the late seventeenth century. Each house, of course, had its own character, according to the class or interest of its regular clientele, but for the most part coffeehouses were associated with sympathy for Cromwell’s Commonwealth, or later, with the anti-Stuart cause. In France, too, coffeehouses often operated as conduits for the spread of Enlightenment and Revolutionary ideals. They tended to be the progressive establishments of their age, and any opposition to “coffee” at the time was usually opposition to the perceived political orientation of the coffeehouses. 10

      Why did coffee become so popular, and come to fulfill a “progressive” social function? Why not tea or chocolate, or, as alcohol was never banned in Christendom as it was under Islam, wine or beer? One suspects that coffee may have become “fashionable” somewhat randomly. It was cheaper than tea and more caffeinated than chocolate (as contemporaries observed, it tended to be more caffeinated than tea as well). It is of course a stimulant rather than a depressant, which makes it more conducive to conversation (and some regulars at coffeehouses, like Voltaire, would consume up to fifty cups a day), and does not leave one with an alcoholic hangover. Coffee did have its detractors (who claimed it was nothing more than a slow poison), but its proponents were equally willing to extol its benefits, such as its ability to ward off plague or to dispel noxious odors. 11

      Coffee followed European conquests, and not the other way around. As popular as the beverage was in Europe, no wars were fought explicitly over good coffee-growing land the way they were over access to other colonial resources, such as beaver. In that sense coffee is not symbolic of the European expansion that occurred in the early modern period. What is symbolic of the age is the desire to cut out the Muslim middleman and produce coffee on one’s own land, suing one’s own labor, slave or free. The fact that coffee and coffeehouses could even become conduits or symbols of ‘progressive’ thought, and that a majority of urban dwellers found such thought desirable, is surely also indicative of the early modern period.


      1. Encyclopedia Britannica Macropedia, “Beverage Production”.
      2. William H. Ukers, All About Coffee. (New York, 1935), pp.6, 10.
      3. Ukers, pp. 13-16.
      4. Ukers, p. 22.
      5. Ukers, p. 734.
      6. Ukers, pp. 45-6.
      7. Ukers, p. 54
      8. Ukers, p. 68.
      9. Antony Wild, The East India Company Book of Coffee. (London, 1994), p. 23.
      10. Ralph S. Hattox, Coffee and Coffeehouses: The Origins of a Social Beverage in the Medieval Near East. (Seattle, 1985), pp. 30-5.
      11. Ukers, pp. 54-5.


Desmet-Gregoire, Helène. Les objets du café dans les sociétés du Proche-Orient & de la Méditeranée. Paris: Presses du CNRS, 1989.
Jacob, Heinrich Eduard. Coffee: the Epic of a Commodity. New York: Viking Press, 1935.
Hattox, Ralph S. Coffee and Coffeehouses: The Origins of a Social Beverage in the Medieval Near East. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1985.
Ukers, William H. All About Coffee. New York: Tea & Coffee Trade Journal Company, 1935.
— — -. The Romance of Coffee. New York: Tea & Coffee Trade Journal Company, 1948.
Wild, Antony. The East India Company Book of Coffee. London: Harper Collins, 1944.