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A drink for the devil: 8 facts about the history of coffee

Coffee is the second-most traded commodity in the world, behind only petroleum, and has become a mainstay of the modern diet. Believed to have originated in Ethiopia, coffee was used in the Middle East in the 16th century to aid concentration. But did you know it also sparked a social revolution in Britain in the 17th century? Here are eight facts about the history of coffee…

Men enjoying a drink and a chat in a coffee house, 1674. Coffee houses became known as ‘schools of the wise’, where people would gossip, argue and discuss the breaking news of the day. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Published: May 28, 2019 at 8:18 am
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Coffee has had many uses through history, from spiritual intoxicant to erotic stimulant. Diarist Samuel Pepys often wrote of the coffee houses of 17th-century London, and the drink also inspired a ‘women’s petition’ which described coffee as “bitter, stinking nauseous puddle water”. Here, Paul Chrystal, author of Coffee: A Drink For the Devil, shares eight facts about the discovery of coffee and explores Britain’s love affair with the ‘sinful’ beverage…

Coffee may have been discovered by 'excited goats'

Legend has it that Kaldi, a lonely goat herder in ninth-century Ethiopia, discovered the energising and invigorating effects of coffee when he saw his goats getting excited after eating some berries from a tree. Kaldi told the abbot of the local monastery about this and the abbot came up with the idea of drying and boiling the berries to make a beverage. He threw the berries into the fire, whence the unmistakable aroma of what we now know as coffee drifted through the night air. The now roasted beans were raked from the embers, ground up and dissolved in hot water: so was made the world's first cup of coffee.


The abbot and his monks found that the beverage kept them awake for hours at a time – just the thing for men devoted to long hours of prayer. Word spread, and so did the hot drink, even as far afield as the Arabian peninsula.

A Yemenite Sufi mystic named Ghothul Akbar Nooruddin Abu al-Hasan al-Shadhili also has a claim to the discovery of coffee: he is said to have spotted berry-eating birds flying over his village unusually energetically. On tasting some jettisoned berries he too found himself unusually alert.


It was brewed by a saint from Mocha

An alternative story has us believe that coffee was first discovered by a sheik named Omar, disciple to the Sufi mystic cited above. While in exile from Mocha (Arabia Felix in present-day Yemen), Omar, who was famous for his ability to cure the sick through prayer, lived in a desert cave near Ousab. Somewhat hungry, Omar one day chewed some berries only to find them bitter. He roasted them but this only made them hard; finally he tried boiling them, resulting in a fragrant brown liquid which, in an instant, gave him unnatural and exceptional energy and allowed him to stay awake for days on end. His ‘miracle discovery’ was held in such great awe that he was allowed to return home to Mocha and elevated to the sainthood while coffee percolated throughout the Arab world.

By the 16th century, coffee was the beverage of choice in Persia, Egypt, Syria and Turkey, its reputation as the ‘wine of Araby’ boosted no end by the thousands of pilgrims visiting the holy city of Mecca each year from all over the Muslim world. Yemeni merchants took coffee home from Ethiopia and began to grow it for themselves. It was prized by Sufis in Yemen who used the drink to aid concentration and as a spiritual intoxicant. They also used it to keep themselves alert during their nighttime devotions.

From the Middle East the popularity of coffee soon spread through the Balkans, Italy and to the rest of Europe, east to Indonesia and then west to the Americas, largely through the Dutch.

Cafés on a branch of the Barrada River (the ancient Pharpar), Damascus, Syria, 1841. From ‘Syria, The Holy Land and Asia Minor’, volume I, by John Carne, published by Fisher, Son & Co., London, 1841. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)
Cafés on a branch of the Barrada River (the ancient Pharpar), Damascus, Syria, 1841. From ‘Syria, The Holy Land and Asia Minor’, volume I, by John Carne, published by Fisher, Son & Co., London, 1841. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Coffee forged a social revolution

Coffee was so powerful a force that it forged a social revolution. Coffee was drunk in the home as a domestic beverage but, more significantly, it was also drunk in the ubiquitous public coffee houses – qahveh khaneh – which sprang up in villages, towns and cities across the Middle East and east Africa. These coffee houses soon became all the rage and were the place to go to socialise. Coffee drinking and conversation were complemented by all manner of entertainment: musical performances, dancing, games of chess and, most crucially, gossiping, arguing and discussing the breaking news of the day (or night). These coffee houses soon became known as ‘schools of the wise’, the place you went to if you wanted to know what was going on in your world. The link between coffee and intellectual life had been established.


It was believed that coffee is 'sinful'

Coffee, like alcohol, has a long history of prohibition, attracting fear and suspicion and religious disquiet and hypocrisy. Had the zealots (of all religions) got their way then there would not be very many coffee houses open today.

Coffee drinking was banned by jurists and scholars meeting in Mecca in 1511. The opposition was led by the Meccan governor Khair Beg, who was afraid that coffee would foster opposition to his rule by bringing men together and allowing them to discuss his failings. Thus was born coffee’s association with sedition and revolution. It was decreed sinful (haraam), but the controversy over whether it was intoxicating or not raged on over the next 13 years until the ban was finally rescinded in 1524 by an order of the Ottoman Turkish Sultan Selim I, with Grand Mufti Mehmet Ebussuud el-İmadi issuing a fatwa allowing coffee to be drunk again. Beg was executed for his troubles by command of the Sultan himself, who further proclaimed coffee to be sacred. In Cairo there was a similar ban in 1532; coffee houses and coffee warehouses there were ransacked.

Portrait of Selim I. (Photo by Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images)
Portrait of Selim I. (Photo by Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images)

Coffee was known as 'the devil’s cup'

It did not take long for coffee to travel the short distance to the European mainland where it was landed first in Venice on the back of the lucrative trade the city enjoyed with its Mediterranean neighbours. Initially, however, coffee met with the suspicion and religious prejudice it had suffered in the Middle East and Turkey. The word on the street, filtering back from intrepid European travellers to the mysterious and mystical lands of the east, was of an equally mysterious, exotic and intoxicating liquor. To Catholics it was the ‘bitter invention of Satan’, carrying the whiff of Islam, and it seemed suspiciously like a substitute for wine as used in the Eucharist; in any event, it was outlawed.

Such was the consternation that Pope Clement VIII had to intervene: he sampled coffee for himself and decreed that it was indeed a Christian as well as a Muslim drink. On tasting it he wittily declared: “This devil's drink is so delicious… we should cheat the devil by baptising it!” From then on, coffee has been dubbed the devil’s drink, or the devil’s cup.

Pope Clement VIII, c1600. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Pope Clement VIII, c1600. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Coffee came to England in the mid-17th century

According to Samuel Pepys, England’s first coffee house was established in Oxford in 1650 at The Angel in the parish of St Peter in the east, by a Jewish gentleman named Jacob, in the building now known as The Grand Cafe. London’s first coffee house opened in 1652 in St Michael’s Alley, near St Michael at Cornhill’s churchyard. It was run by Pasqua Rosée, a Greek man who in 1672 also set up a coffee stall in Paris. Pepys visited the London coffee house on 10 December 1660: “He [Col. Slingsby] and I in the evening to the Coffee House in Cornhill, the first time that ever I was there, and I found much pleasure in it, through the diversity of company and discourse.”

The Grand Cafe, Oxford. (Carolyn Eaton/Alamy Stock Photo)
The Grand Cafe, Oxford. (Carolyn Eaton/Alamy Stock Photo)

Coffee houses became 'the first internet'

For Pepys – and for many other literate men – the coffee house was his newspaper, his internet. In his diaries he refers to the latest news of the conflict with the Dutch, “the comet seen in several places” (15 December 1664) and the “threat of the plague growing upon us… and of remedies against it” (24 May 1665). In his entry for 3 November 1663 Pepys refers to diverse discussions on the Roman Empire, the difference between being awake and dreaming, and a discourse on insects.

By 1675 there were more than 3,000 coffee houses in England alone. Some even had bed and breakfast for overnight guests. Many seemed to follow the Turkish coffee house business model, if their exotic names are anything to go by: there were up to 57 different Turk’s Head coffee houses; The Jerusalem Coffee-house; various types of the Blackamoor or Ye Blackmore’s Head; The Oriental Cigar Divan; The Saracen’s Head (of Dickens fame); The Africa and Senegal Coffee-house; The Sultaness; The Sultan’s Head; Solyman’s Coffee House and Morat Ye Great.

Debate in a coffee house in Bride Lane, Fleet Street, London, 1688. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Debate in a coffee house in Bride Lane, Fleet Street, London, 1688. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)


Coffee was claimed to be a 17th-century 'Viagra'

Unless they were prostitutes, women were excluded from coffee houses and they let their resentment be known: in An Essay in Defence of the Female Sex in 1696, an indignant Mary Astell wrote: “A coffee house habitué is someone who lodges at home, but he lives at the coffee-house. He converses more with newspapers, gazettes and votes, than with his shop-books, and his constant application to the publick takes him off all care for his private home. He is always settling the nation, yet cou’d never manage his own family.”

Astell was merely chiming with all the other wives left at home with their chores and cups of tea; in 1674 there had been the vitriolic The Women’s Petition Against Coffee, in which wives argued that their husbands were forever absent from the home and family, neglecting their domestic duties – “turning Turk”, and all for “a little base, black, thick, nasty, bitter, stinking nauseous puddle water”.

(Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
(Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Coffee, she said, “made men as unfruitful as the deserts whence that unhappy berry is said to be brought, so much so that the offspring of our mighty ancestors would dwindle into a succession of apes and pigmies”. She was referring here to erectile dysfunction brought on by the “noxious puddle”.

These claims were further outlined in the 1663 The Maiden’s Complaint Against Coffee pamphlet. Men’s Answer to the Women’s Petition Against Coffee was the retort – it protested that it was “base adulterate wine” and “muddy ale” that made men impotent. Coffee, on the other hand, was the Viagra of the day, making “the erection more vigorous, the ejaculation more full, add[ing] a spiritualascendency to the sperm”. Pfizer could never have found a better opinion leader.

Paul Chrystal is the author of Coffee: A Drink for the Devil, published by Amberley Publishing, 2016.


This article was first published by History Extra in October 2016


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