Of the world’s three most popular hot beverages, coffee is the youngest, with a history about one-third as long as those of hot chocolate or tea. Since the first people brewed and drank it around 800 years ago, coffee has more than made up for lost time—fueling revolutions, altering religious practices, making some rich and some poor and keeping others up all night. Its importance can be traced across the centuries through the names we’ve come to know it by.
Although it was possibly consumed as a food or drink in its native Ethiopian highlands, the evergreen shrub Coffea arabica was first cultivated on a large scale in Yemen, around the 15th century. Many of its earliest adherents were Sufi Muslim mystics, who used the plant’s roasted seeds to make a replacement for the traditional wine used in some of their lengthy religious ceremonies. Sufis traveling from Mocha, Yemen’s chief Red Sea port, took beans and brewing knowledge throughout the Islamic world. The drink quickly gained adherents—and garnered controversy. In 1511 the governor of Mecca ordered the city’s coffeehouses (where men sometimes gathered to write poetry mocking his regime) shut down. His edict, however, was quickly reversed by the coffee-loving Sultan of Cairo.
When the Ottomans occupied Yemen in 1536, they tried to maintain a monopoly on production of the beverage, banning the export of coffee beans that hadn’t first been sterilized. Seeds were smuggled out by intrepid traders; first by Muslim pilgrims headed to southern India and later to Java, Indonesia, by the Dutch, who cultivated it for export. Because coffee is native to equatorial Africa, it only grows easily in the tropics, so European colonial interests pushed for increased coffee production in Latin America, Africa, Southeast Asia and Oceania. In Brazil, slave labor was the backbone of the coffee industry until the late 1800s. In Central America and Southeast Asia, colonial governments often imposed quotas that forced native populations to produce solely coffee, leaving them vulnerable to poverty and famine.
The first cafes and coffeehouses in Europe opened in the 17th century. By 1663 there were 82 coffeehouses in London; 40 years later there were more than 500. For Europeans, coffeehouses quickly became vital places for the exchange of news and ideas and for doing business. The London Stock Exchange and the insurance underwriter Lloyd’s both got their start in 18th century coffeehouses. In France, cafes were central for the exchange of revolutionary ideas. Camille Desmoulins gave his compatriots a famous call to arms at Paris’s Cafe de Foy, two days before the storming of the Bastille.
The source of much overdone American coffee, the percolator—which endlessly cycles bubbling coffee through ever-more-bitter filtered grounds—was invented in the 1780s by Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford, an American-born scientist who fled to Europe during the Revolutionary War. The percolator’s American heyday stretched from about 1870 (when it began to supplant boiled coffee) until 1972, when Mr. Coffee introduced the first popular consumer drip-filter coffee maker.
In 1861 British explorers found a small splotchy fungus on the leaves of some wild coffee plants near Kenya’s Lake Victoria. Over the next decades the fungus, Hemilia vastatrix (coffee rust), spread to plantations worldwide, ruining whole crops of Coffea arabica and, in places like Ceylon, forcing a wholesale switch to the production of tea. In 1898 horticulturalists in the Belgian Congo discovered that a related species, Coffea canephora, was rust-resistant and in general heartier, faster-growing and more productive than arabica. Nicknamed “robusta,” the species quickly gained popularity. Robusta had downsides, though: its roasted beans were generally more bitter and less flavorful, but contained significantly more caffeine. Robusta beans were soon used alongside more expensive arabica beans to create cheaper blends.
Although associated with longstanding European cafe traditions, espresso is a resolutely modern invention. Using machinery developed in Italy around the turn of the 20th century, the process brews coffee at “express” speed—about thirty seconds per cup—by forcing hot water through finely ground coffee at high pressure. The result is a small shot of very strong coffee that masks the defects of cheaper robusta blends. By the 1930s, Italian manufacturers were producing machines that could produce 1,000 cups an hour. A bevy of espresso-based drinks, from caffe lattes to macchiatos and cappuccinos—were perfected in European cafes but only belatedly introduced to the American market.
After the Boston Tea Party and the War of 1812 helped sour America’s taste for tea, coffee became something of a national drink, consumed by Wall Street businessmen, small-town shop owners, Civil War soldiers in their camps and cowboys on the range. Coffee’s use as a staple of military rations was also the source of an oft-repeated but unlikely story; that the phrase “Cup of Joe” can be traced back to Josephus Daniels, a U.S. Naval Secretary who banned drinks stronger than coffee from every officers’ mess. More likely, “joe” comes from a shortening of jamoke, itself a hybrid of java and mocha.
Caffeine, a bitter crystalline alkaloid compound that serves as a natural pesticide for the coffee plant, gives coffee both its kick and its controversy. Ever since it was first isolated in 1820, caffeine has been the focus of speculation and scientific experimentation concerning coffee’s potential health hazards. In 1906 Ludwig Roselius, a German merchant, patented the first process for extracting caffeine from green coffee beans. He sold his tamed, decaffeinated beans under a series of different names; in Germany as “Kaffee Hag,” in the United States as “Dekafa” and in France as “Sanka” (from the French “sans caffeine”). “Decaf” was quickly followed by the first instant coffees, made by industrially drying brewed coffee. The resulting powders and flakes joined the cylindrical canned grounds that defined the 20th-century American coffee landscape, with brands like Nescafe, Folgers, Taster’s Choice and Maxwell House.
Coffee, combined with international politics and global trade, has sometimes produced a bitter brew. Cartels, stockpiles, quotas and competitive pricing shaped the coffee industry from the late 19th century onward. Nations such as the United States worked to secure stable, cheap supplies while the governments of producing countries, with Brazil in the lead, sought to maximize their profit. In Central America, many coffee producers profited from vast landholdings but created poor working conditions that left the region ripe for revolutionary activism. By the mid-1980s, a number of specialty coffee producers in the United States and Europe began to investigate ways to ensure their beans were grown in ways that supported the workers who picked them. In 1985 American roasters formed Equal Exchange, which sourced coffee from the pro-worker Sandanista party in Nicaragua. The first Fair Trade certification initiative for coffee was launched in the Netherlands in 1988. The certification first gained popularity with smaller roasters and buyers, but in 2009 Starbucks became the world’s largest buyer of Fair Trade coffee.
Although associated with the global Starbucks coffee chain, the frappuccino, a milkshake-like blend of coffee, sugar, milk and ice, was invented in 1992 at the Boston chain Coffee Connection—who played off a local term for milkshake. Two years later, the chain was bought by expanding coffee powerhouse Starbucks. Founded in Seattle in 1971, Starbucks was a successful local roaster and spice shop when it opened its first espresso bar in 1984. Three years later, Howard Schultz, a former marketing director for Starbucks, bought out the chain and began its renaissance as an espresso-fueled national chain offering comfortable neighborhood gathering places. Over the next 25 years Starbucks expanded across the U.S. and around the world, operating nearly 21,000 shops by 2013.