The history of coffee
For us Westerners coffee is three hundred years old, but in the East it was widespread as a beverage, in every level of society, since earlier times. The first definite dates go back to 800 b.C.; but already Homer, and many Arabian legends, tell the story of a mysterious black and bitter beverage with powers of stimulation.
Once upon a time, a goat...
In the year 1000 about, Avicenna was administering coffee as a medecine. And there is a strange story, dating from 1400, of a Yemeni shepherd who, having observed some goats cropping reddish berries from a bush, and subsequently becoming restless and excited, reported the incident to a monk. The latter boiled the berries, and then distilled a bitter beverage, rich in strength, and capable of dispersing sleep and weariness.
From Africa to the World...
However the discovery occurred, the fact remains that the coffee plant was born in Africa in an Ethiopian region (Kaffa). From there it spread to Yemen, Arabia and Egypt, where it developed enormously, and entered popular daily life.
By the late 1500's the first traders were selling coffee in Europe, thus introducing the new beverage into Western life and custom. Most of the coffee exported to European markets came from the ports of Alexandria and Smyrna.
But the increasing needs of a growing market, improved botanical knowledge of the coffee plant, and high taxes imposed at the ports of shipment, led dealers and scientists to try transplanting coffee in other countries.
The Dutch in their overseas colonies (Batavia and Java), the French in 1723 in Martinique, and later on in the Antilles, and then the English, Spanish and Portuguese, started to invade the tropical belts of Asia and America.
In 1727 coffee growing was started in North Brazil, but the poor climatic conditions gradually shifted the crops, first to Rio de Janeiro and finally (1800-1850) to the States of San Paolo and Minas, where coffee found its ideal environment. Coffee growing began to develop here, until it became the most important economic resource of Brazil. It was precisely in the period 1740-1805 that coffee growing reached its top spread, in Center and South America.
And finally back to Africa...
Although coffee was born in Africa, plantations and home consumption are comparatively recent introductions. Actually it was Europeans who introduced it again, into their colonies, where, thanks to favourable land and climatic conditions, it was able to thrive.
A truly Italian story... Venice, The Pope and the "intellectual beverage"
Venice, more than the other sea towns, was "the Eastern market" and it is not a case that In 1640, the first "coffee shop" opened in Venice. Others followed in many Italian towns, among them Turin, Genoa, Milan, Florence, Rome and Naples. By 1763 Venice numbered no less than 218 outlets!
Just as coffee had been met by the hostility of devoted Muslims, so in Italy too its introduction collided with some Church representatives' beliefs. So it came about that some fanatical Christians urged Pope Clemente VII to forbid the faithful to drink the "devil's beverage" – as they called it!
The Pontiff, before giving judgment, asked for a cup of the black but fragrant beverage. They say that at its sight he cried out: "This beverage is so delicious that it would be a sin to let only misbelievers drink it! Let's defeat Satan by blessing this beverage, which contains nothing objectionable to a Christian!" Once the Pope's approval and blessing had been obtained for coffee, a "beverage for Christians, too", its success was assured! By the late XVIII century, many Italian towns had adopted the same Venetian habit. Served in elegant coffee shops or on rough common tables, the beverage was everywhere very much appreciated.
And what about a little chit chat, while you drank? To raise one's spirits, and banish worries! Seated at the table, in fact, they would drink, eye each other, and gossip about the other customers: it was another key factor in the unexpected success of these shops.
Eighteenth century men of culture so loved it that it was called an "intellectual beverage". Coffee aroused interest not only as a "refreshing infusion" but also for its healing powers; so that in a leaflet, printed in Milan in 1801, high credit was given by some physicians to coffee as a "cure-all". In Italy the temples of coffee are still open, and old and picturesque atmospheres recreated. Coffee is therefore a great invention, based on the art of processing and blending it; a specialty that has become a typically Italian tradition!