National Geographic Presents : Coffee
Coffee Legends: Follow coffee’s progress from rare indulgence to everyday elixir.
AFRICAN ORIGINS (Circa A.D. 800)
Goats will eat anything. Just ask Kaldi the legendary Ethiopian goatherd. Kaldi, the story goes, noticed his herd dancing from one coffee shrub to another, grazing on the cherry-red berries containing the beans. He copped a few himself and was soon frolicking with his flock.
Witnessing Kaldi’s goatly gambol, a monk plucked berries for his brothers. That night they were uncannily alert to divine inspiration.
History tells us other Africans of the same era fueled up on protein-rich coffee-and-animal-fat balls—primitive PowerBars—and unwound with wine made from coffee-berry pulp. Coffee later crossed the Red Sea to Arabia, where things really got cooking.
ESCAPE FROM ARABIA (Circa 1000 to 1600)
Coffee as we know it kicked off in Arabia, where roasted beans were first brewed around A.D. 1000. By the 13th century Muslims were drinking coffee religiously. The “bean broth” drove dervishes into orbit, kept worshippers awake, and splashed over into secular life. And wherever Islam went, coffee went too: North Africa, the eastern Mediterranean, and India.
Arabia made export beans infertile by parching or boiling, and it is said that no coffee seed sprouted outside Africa or Arabia until the 1600s—until Baba Budan. As tradition has it, this Indian pilgrim-cum-smuggler left Mecca with fertile seeds strapped to his belly. Baba’s beans bore fruit and initiated an agricultural expansion that would soon reach Europe’s colonies
EUROPE CATCHES THE BUZZ (1615 to 1700)
“The Turks have a drink of black color….I will bring some with me…to the Italians”. Thus a merchant of Venice introduced Europe to coffee in 1615. But the end product didn’t amount to a hill of beans to many traders—they wanted the means of production. The race was on.
The Dutch cleared the initial hurdle in 1616, spiriting a coffee plant into Europe for the first time. Then in 1696 they founded the first European-owned coffee estate, on colonial Java, now part of Indonesia.
Business boomed and the Dutch sprinted ahead to adjacent islands.Confident beyond caution, Amsterdam began bestowing coffee trees on aristocrats around Europe.
A SWASHBUCKLING SCHEME (Circa 1714 to 1720)
Louis XIV received his Dutch treat around 1714—a coffee tree for Paris’s Royal Botanical Garden, the Jardin des Plantes. Several years later a young naval officer, Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu, was in Paris on leave from Martinique, a French colony in the Caribbean. Imagining Martinique as a French Java, he requested clippings from his king’s tree. Permission denied.
Resolute, de Clieu led a moonlight raid of the Jardin des Plantes—over the wall, into the hothouse, out with a sprout. Mission accomplished, de Clieu sailed for Martinique. He might have thought the hard part was over. He would have been wrong.
CROSSING THE ATLANTIC (Circa 1720 to 1770)
On the return passage to Martinique,wrote de Clieu, a “basely jealous” passenger, “being unable to get this coffee plant away from me, tore off a branch.”
Then came the pirates who nearly captured the ship; then came a storm which nearly sank it. Finally, skies grew clear. Too clear. Water grew scarce and was rationed. De Clieu gave half of his allotment to his stricken seedling.
Under armed guard, the sprout grew strong in Martinique, yielding an extended family of approximately 18 million trees in 50 years or so. Its progeny would supply Latin America, where a dangerous liaison would help bring coffee to the masses.
COFFEE BLOOMS IN BRAZIL (Circa 1727 to 1800)
1727: Brazil’s government wants a cut of the coffee market; but first, they need an agent to smuggle seeds from a coffee country. Enter Lt. Col. Francisco de Melo Palheta, the James Bond of Beans.
Colonel Palheta is dispatched to French Guiana, ostensibly to mediate a border dispute. Eschewing the fortresslike coffee farms, suave Palheta chooses a path of less resistance—the governor’s wife. The plan pays off. At a state farewell dinner she presents him a sly token of affection:a bouquet spiked with seedlings.
From these scant shoots sprout the world’s greatest coffee empire. By 1800 Brazil’s monster harvests would turn coffee from an elite indulgence to an everyday elixir, a drink for the people.