May 20, 2008

How Coffee Changed the World

Each Monday, this column turns a page in history to explore the
discoveries, events and people that continue to affect the history
being made today.

Did you hear the one about the goat, the monk and the Indian pilgrim?

There's no crass punchline to this story, just a punchy drink that is the world's second most important commodity, after oil.

Discovered more than 1,000 years ago by goats roaming the hills of Ethiopia, coffee
today employs 500 million people, from the workers toiling in the
fields of Kenya to the teenage baristas at your neighborhood Starbucks.

In a world of more than 6 billion people, enjoying a good cup of joe is one of the few fixtures of everyday life common to cultures on every continent.

Buzzed goats make important discovery

It is only fitting that the history of a beverage so associated with
good conversation starts with a storybook-like tale. Native only to
parts of subtropical Africa, the stimulating effects of wild coffee
beans are said to have been first discovered in about A.D. 800 by an
Ethiopian shepherd named Kaldi, whose goats kept him up at nights after
feasting on red coffee berries.

The shepherd shared his find with the abbott at a local monastery,
where monks first brewed the beans into a hot drink, reveling in the
way it kept them awake during long hours of prayer.

Romantic exaggeration or not, by A.D. 1000 the bean with a buzz was
a favorite among those needing a boost in East Africa as well as across
the Red Sea in Yemen, where the crop had migrated over with slaves.

If Ethiopia was the birthplace of coffee, Yemen was where it grew
up. The brew first took hold among clerics there too, but spillover
into the secular crowd didn't take long and skyrocketing demand soon
led to the world's first cultivated coffee fields there in the 1300s.

The entire Arabian peninsula became a hotbed of coffeehouse culture, with cafes - called kaveh kanes - on every corner.

By the 15th-century, Mecca resembled a medieval
incarnation of Seattle, men sipping steaming mugs over games of chess
and political conversations. Coffee houses were such an important place
to gather and discuss that they were often called Schools of the Wise.

Coffee had much the same effect in Europe when it was introduced
there in the 1600s. Cafes were the center of social life, where people
with similar interests could gather and talk. The British insurance
company, Lloyd's of London, began as a cafe popular with sailors who
often discussed insurance matters.

Caffeine becomes a cash crop

Arabia controlled the lucrative coffee industry for several centuries, exporting only roasted, infertile beans to their new trading partners
in Europe and Asia. Caffeine junkies the world over were hooked, but
couldn't grow their own crops or buy beans at reasonable prices.

It took one intrepid Mecca pilgrim to break the Arab monopoly,
according to legend, by smuggling some intact beans back to his native
India, initiating an agricultural explosion. The Dutch also managed to
get one plant back to Amsterdam and began cultivating in their
Southeast Asian colonies in the 17th century. Europe now had a new,
direct source for its daily coffee fix.

Coffee plants went everywhere that European empires did, taking root in such famous bean-growing
regions as Jamaica's Blue Mountains, the Kona district of Hawaii,
Indonesia's Java Island and the rainforests of Brazil, which remains
the world's biggest producer.

The coffee industry is the main source of income for 25 million small farmers, it is estimated.