The reality behind today’s average global consumption of 2 billion ‘cups of joe’ stems from the 14th century. The raw product – the cherry and bean – was initially networked through religious medians in the early stages of its finding yet its trade and consumption was restricted partly due to the scarcity and remoteness of the coffea plant. The manner in which it was made into a consumable good and its social, cultural and physical importance rests in the versatility of the cherry and bean as well as the areas and societies it was and is exposed to. Knowing the history of the production, exchange and usage of coffee is then integral to understanding the history of global connections due to the manner in which ideas, cultures and lifestyles were dispersed along with the trade.
It was in the southern forests of Abyssinia (present-day Ethiopia) where the first wild coffea arabica was identified and used – mainly by grounding the cherry and bean together with animal fat – at an increasing rate amongst the Islamized people of south-eastern Ethiopia. Throughout the 15th century, coffee was introduced into Yemen through cultural and commercial connectivity between Muslim kingdoms where consequentially the ports of Aden, Mocha and Zabid were established. In Yemen the raw product was first processed into a beverage called cascara: a tea made from the pulp of the cherry, the beans being neglected until around 1475. The Sufi Muslim brotherhood seemed to be the first advocates of the caffeine rich drink we know today as coffee due to its stimulating properties which eased staying awake during long spiritual exercises. This promotion of coffee connected the drink from Yemen to the Holy Places of Islam, implicitly classifing it as a trading commodity, although production was limited as a result of Ethiopia being the only coffee source which exported to the countries bordering the Red Sea. Wars between Christians and Muslims in the mid-16th century destabilized Ethiopia and affected the output of coffee – particularly to the Ottoman Empire – which left a gap in the market that was filled by Yemen in 1543-44, however Yemeni production only took off after 1571. By the 17th century, trade in the Red Sea area was prosperous and included ships with silver arriving from New World colonies through the Mediterranean and over to the Ottoman Empire: the Red Sea connecting West to East as ships carried on to India and China. The passing of trading ships and merchants through the Red Sea meant coffee was propelled into a global trading market and dispersed further than ever before.
An implication of the expanding trade of coffee was the emergence of competition between European colonies and Red Sea merchants. In the 1690s, the Dutch were able to propagate coffea trees from stolen seeds in greenhouses in Amsterdam before transferring them to Java and the Caribbean, along with the French. Though Arab, Turkish and Indian tradesmen dominated the scene in the Red Sea area, Europeans began to threaten the future of the area’s coffee economy. Imperial plantations across the Americas and Asia produced enough coffee to combat the inevitability of seasonal declines in production thus began exporting by demand. This was partly due to the fact that throughout the 18th century, Yemeni farmers were working on small-scale subsistence farms amongst which coffee was grown but yields weren’t as high as what was coming out of the Americas. According to Tuchscherer, ‘despite much competition, Yemeni coffee’s reputation for high quality enabled it to retain a niche among a clientele of connoisseurs, prepared to pay markedly higher prices,’ whereas in areas such as Brazil, cheap arable land and slave labour enabled prices, and arguably quality, to decline thus creating a supply-induced demand. In the early 19th century, coffee was considered a luxury item of bourgeois distinction yet it became instrumental during the Industrial Revolution as a method to combat fatigue in rapidly industrializing societies and eventually available to all. As a result, the nature and control of the international market changed dramatically from the 16th century direct farm to exporter exchange to the market today being controlled by multinational corporations and chains of intermediaries.
As mentioned above, while societies evolved and markets reinvented themselves, the exclusivity of the beverage as well as its value and association also shifted. The main consumers of coffee in the 18th century Middle East were most likely Muslim. The drink was usually confined to urban coffeehouses where it was served both as a secular drug and a religious drink closely associated with Islam as a result of its’ earliest proponents, the Sufi brotherhood. However, there were many Islamic critics of the drink who tried to prohibit the consumption on the basis of health: the sharī’a forbids the intake of certain food stuffs that are seen as harmful to one’s body which placed the legality of coffee into question due to the effects caffeine has on the nervous system. Nonetheless, coffee was not objectively prohibited, rather subjectively limited as it was not deemed illegal in the Qur’an. The ideas of an association between coffee and physical health spread from the Middle East to Europe where physicians seemed to base opinions from Muslim sources of knowledge, thus not only connecting the globe by manner of trade but also of thought. Coffeehouses started emerging throughout Europe, especially in Britain. The first coffeehouse, namely “Penny Universities”, was established in Oxford in 1650 and was a place for virtuosi to gather, converse, and learn. The coffeehouses (today known as ‘cafés’) throughout Britain and moveover throughout its colonies was shaped by the interests, attitudes and discussions of the virtuosi, creating an accessible space where culture and debate was nurtured. The legacy of coffeehouse culture in the present world is still prevalent as they continue to be spaces of sociability and symbols of globalisation.
The popularity of coffee can be attributed to several factors across different spheres of life – such as social and economic – which needs to be considered in terms of global connections due to the intrinsic nature and presence of the commodity in the global markets and thus in everyday life. Furthermore, the history of coffee is of utmost important to recognise the societal structures we see today since it is inseparable from the history of colonialism, imperialism and the rise of global capitalism. There has been a growing demand for transparency and sustainability by consumers who are morally invested in the trade, thus igniting the intervention of block chains and humanitarian organisations that ensure the process is fair and the physical, symbolic, and economic linkage through production, distribution, and consumption of the product is visible. By consuming a cup of coffee, one is connected to another place which consequentially integrates one into a symbolic narrative of cultures and traditions while simultaneously driving the growth of a global coffee system.
Written by Megan Sickmueller
Cowan, B., The Social Life of Coffee. New Haven: Yale University Press (2005)
Tucker, Catherine M., Coffee Culture Local Experience, Global Connections. Routledge Series for Creative Teaching and Learning in Anthropology. New York, N.Y.: Routledge (2011)
Tuchscherer, M., “Coffee in the Red Sea Area from the Sixteenth to the Nineteenth Century” in The Global Coffee Economy In Africa, Asia and Latin America, 1500-1989. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press (2003)
Hattox. R. S., “The Coming of Coffee to the Near East.” In Coffee and Coffeehouses, 11. University of Washington Press (2014)