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A brief history of coffee
Coffee is a beverage obtained by grinding the seeds of small trees (of the Coffea genus). The etymology of the word ‘coffee’ is unclear. The most reliable version, however, is that it derives from the name Caffa, an area of south-western Ethiopia.
There are more than a hundred species of this plant. However, the three main coffee species cultivated in the world are:
- the Coffea arabica. It is traditionally the oldest and, as its name suggests, the Arabs spread it around the world;
- Coffea canephora or C. robusta, as its name suggests, is very resistant to plant diseases, as well as being cheaper.
- C. liberica, originally from Liberia, is the rarest.
The legend behind the first Coffee of human history
There are several legends about coffee. The best known is that of a shepherd who took his goats to graze in Ethiopia. One day, the animals began to eat the berries and leaves of a plant they had never seen before. At night, instead of sleeping, the goats began to wander about, more energetic and lively than ever before. The shepherd associated this strange behaviour with the plant. So he took the seeds of the plant, roasted them and then ground them into an infusion, thus obtaining the first coffee. There are many versions of this legend.
The spread of coffee: from Ethiopia to the Arab world
Some writings from the 10th century mention its use as a medicine, but more precise evidence is only available from the 15th century onwards. Soon, Coffea plantations from the Ethiopian plateau were transplanted across the Red Sea to Yemen, where the climate was more favourable. From there, and especially from the city of Mokha, an important Red Sea port, coffee spread throughout Islam. Mokha is the origin of the current name of the Moka coffee machine, invented by Italian Alfonso Bialetti in 1933.
The drink was in tune with the Muslim religion. It kept people awake, excited and invigorated, thus helping to sustain fasting, meditation and prayer vigils. After the Ottoman conquest, cafeterias sprang up, places where coffee was served and which became meeting places and places for discussion.
Authorities didn’t like cafè. They considered them dangerous places, where heated discussions took place and men could plan subversive acts. For this reason, they were often subject to repressive measures.
By the 16th century, coffee had already spread to the Middle East, southern India, Persia and present-day Turkey. Through the Ottoman Empire, it then spread to the Balkans, the Italian peninsula and the rest of Europe. It later spread to South-East Asia and the Americas and eventually became known worldwide.
Coffee in Europe
For a long time, coffee was a luxury product in Europe. The prices were exclusively within the reach of the nobility and the rich bourgeoisie.
Many members of the clergy considered it to be ‘the devil’s drink’ since it was an exciting substance. According to an anecdote, Pope Clement VIII tasted a cup of this drink, liked it and decided not to ban it.
In the 18th century, every European city had at least one coffee house. Noble residences were usually equipped with special buildings for the consumption of coffee and chocolate in a cup, which were inspired by those in the royal gardens of Saxony. For this reason, the coffee areas of houses were commonly referred to by the German term Kaffee Haus regardless of which European country they were located in.
According to legend, the first coffee house to open in Europe was in Vienna, around 1683, thanks to Jerzy Franciszek Kulczycki. Kulczycki had come into possession of a large supply of coffee left behind by the retreating Ottoman army under the city walls of Vienna.
In Europe, too, rulers viewed coffee houses with suspicion. In 1675, for example, King Charles II issued an edict to close them down, but this only lasted a few days. The strong protests of the people became more dangerous than the cafés themselves.
Today, many of the cafés created then still exist. They have retained the fact that they were places to meet and socialise, but have lost the revolutionary connotations of the time. However, coffee is now a widely consumed beverage all over the world. For many coffee-producing nations, and particularly for developing countries, it is one of the most important sources of income.
Three different ways of preparation
- The first is the so-called ‘Turkish coffee’, one of the oldest ways of preparing coffee, whose origin and date are unknown.
- The second is ‘espresso coffee’, now known throughout the world, which was born in Turin in 1884 following the invention of the machine patented by Angelo Moriondo.
- The third is the so-called ‘filter coffee’ and is the most popular way of drinking coffee in the world. The water is brought to a boil, then poured over a filter, which is usually made of disposable paper and contains powdered coffee.
- This type of coffee is often confused with the so-called ‘American coffee’, an espresso coffee diluted with boiling water.
In 1908, Melitta Bentz invented paper coffee filters in Germany. In 1954, Gottlob Widmann patented the first electric filter coffee machine in Germany.
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