The story of coffee involves Dutch traders, mystics, and royalty. This is a tale of deception and thievery, but against unbelievable odds, the popular commodity eventually found it’s way from the court of Europe to far-flung places around the globe.

The love of the bitter brew would drive one man to risk storms, pirates, and even death to bring this product to coffee lovers today.

Coffee. It’s a Shrub. It’s a Tree.

The humble and wild shrub (genus Coffea, family Rubiaceae) was first discovered hundreds of years ago growing in Ethiopia, then known as Abyssinia, in an area called Kaffa.

A legend tells of the berries of a small tree that made goats dance. Another colorful version tells of how eating the fruit kept a priest, Omar the Dervish, alive after his exile from Mocha.

A more plausible explanation for the origins of coffee comes from the nomadic Galla tribe, also known as the Oromo or “free men”, who wrapped the ripe berries of the plant in animal fat. These round balls were carried on their migrations as food as well as a stimulant.

The dates and timeline are a subject of some debate, and the early history is shrouded in mystery. Facts are impossible to verify and some are now being disputed.

In Mecca and Cairo, a weak brew from the raw berries was made in a vessel known as an Ibrik. By the 12th century, Arabs began making a drink called qahwa by placing the green beans in boiling water, and then later they added roasting to the recipe.

From these humble beginnings, a never-ending love affair began that spread across the globe and created a modern $23 billion market.

The Rise of the Plantation

Coffee plantations started on the subcontinent of Asia in the region today that encompasses Yemen, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

While we tend to think of the Arabian Peninsula as rich in petroleum reserves, it is also the birthplace of one of the top traded products in the world.

Istanbul: Where Your Local Coffee House Got its Start

Strong, unfiltered Turkish coffee made in an ornate Cezve coffee pot is one of the
oldest coffee brewing methods still in use today. Istanbul, Turkey, Pedro Szekely, CC BY-SA 2.0

The first recorded historic coffee house was located in Constantinople — today’s Istanbul. It was called theKiva Han, and people gathered there for conversation and entertainment. Public coffee houses called qahveh khaneh popped up in the Near East sometime around the 13th century. The first baristas were known as kahveci usta.

Tired of going to Ethiopia for their caffeine fix, Arabs began cultivating coffee by the 14th century. Plants were smuggled out of Ethiopia and grown in the region that is Yemen today.

Theft and smuggling became an integral part of coffee’s fascinating history.

Smuggling was the Means Which Brought Coffee to the World

As coffee grew in popularity, the Arabs sought to protect their precious commodity. The powerful Ottoman Empire enjoyed a monopoly and they weren’t too keen to give it up. To protect their corner on the market, the coffee growers boiled the seeds. Still, green beans would eventually be smuggled out and the plants spread to other areas.

A Sufi saint named Baba Budan is said to have smuggled seven coffee seeds out of the Yemen port of Mocha by hiding them in his beard. These were planted on the slopes of the Chandragiri Hills in Kadur district of present-day Karnataka. From there, the Dutch carried the descendants of these seven seeds to Ceylon in what is today Sri Lanka. The plants spread to Java where coffee growing was established on a commercial basis.

Coffee was imported to Europe from Mocha or Java and became an exotic luxury for the nobles and the wealthy. The two strains blended together became Mocha Java.

Thank King Louis XIV for Your Next Cup

The Ottoman ambassador to France, Suleiman Aga, introduced coffee to the court of King Louis XIV. The king, who loved all things opulent and luxurious, would have an important role in the history of coffee. The bitter beverage was not an instant hit, but soon the drink caught on and taxing the commodity looked like a way to replenish the kingdom’s coffers.

The Mayor of Amsterdam gifted Louis with a coffee plant of his own which demonstrates how those in power resorted to great lengths to possess the tree. Dutch traders procured it from the Arabian port of Mocha through some difficulty. It then it sailed to Java and was finally brought to Holland. From there, it traveled overland to Paris to fulfill its destiny to bring coffee to the world.

Understanding the importance of this gift, Louis had the first greenhouse in Europe constructed to house the plant, which flowered and bore fruit. This humble tree would later become the progenitor of billions of Arabica plants in the New World.

How Coffee Plants Arrived in America

Like Baba Budan, Chevalier Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu is an important figure in the history of coffee.

In 1723, after unsuccessful attempts to obtain plants from the authorities, the Frenchman stole a shoot and fled by ship across the Atlantic.

During the arduous crossing, de Clieu endured a near-sinking during a storm, pirates, and an attack from a Dutchman wanting to prevent the French from competing in the coffee industry. De Clieu kept the tender shoot alive, nurturing it on the journey. His love of coffee was so great, he shared his water ration with the plant, drinking only half his daily allotment.

The thief became history’s hero. Upon landing in Martinique, the plant was cultivated. Some 50 years later, more than 18,000 trees had been established in Haiti, Mexico, and the Caribbean islands.

Some recent claims say Dutch seedlings had been planted in Surinam prior to the arrival of de Clieu. It is likely a viable explanation given how strongly this trader group figures in the history of coffee, but that explanation doesn’t seem a worthy story for the origins of today’s popular beverage.

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