She wasn’t far off. The advent of modernity correlates to a large extent with the explosive popularity of coffee. In the United States alone, Americans drink over 140 billion cups of coffee every year. And globally, 2.25 billion cups of coffee are consumed each day.
Brazil—just one of the major producers of the bean in South and Central America—produces a staggering 7.2 billion pounds of coffee annually.
What’s most surprising about this is that coffee was first introduced into the American diet in the eighteenth century, when coffee began replacing alcohol as the safe drink of choice (yes, really).
As a cash crop in the old world, I can guarantee that coffee history is more fascinating than you think.
Brew yourself a strong cup of coffee and let’s start with Columbus.
Coffee History Starts with the Legend of Kald
Coffee is not native to the Western Hemisphere. The origin of coffee goes much farther back to circa 700 AD, as coffee originated in Ethiopia or Yemen.
But the mainstream legend says that coffee’s story began in the highlands of Ethiopia, where a young goat herder named Kaldi first discovered coffee.
One day, Kaldi noticed his goats behaving unusually energetically after eating red berries from a certain tree. Curiosity piqued, he tried the berries himself and experienced a newfound sense of alertness.
Kaldi was intrigued by this peculiar phenomenon, so he shared his discovery with a local monk, who experimented with the berries and found that they could be used to create a stimulating beverage.
The monk’s experimentation led to the birth of coffee as we know it today. He roasted coffee beans, which transformed the plump coffee cherries into a flavorful brew.
Word of this invigorating elixir and magical roasted beans spread, and soon coffee became a popular drink among the monks, who’d get coffee to stay awake during long hours of prayer and meditation.
The Coffee Bean Migrates From Ethiopia to Yemen
As the fame of coffee grew within Ethiopia, traders and travelers from neighboring regions learned of its existence.
Coffee also began to be traded along the ancient routes of the Arabian Peninsula—particularly in the port city of Mocha (now known as Al-Makha).
It’s believed that coffee beans were originally exported from Ethiopia to Yemen. Yemeni traders brought coffee plants back and, by the 15th century, coffee had firmly established itself in Yemen.
There it was cultivated and enjoyed in the first coffee houses called “qahveh khaneh.” Indeed the word coffee comes from the Turkic term kahve, which in turn comes from the Arabic qahwah, meaning ‘wine’.
The First Coffee Houses Opened in Istanbul
Coffee’s allure continued to spread, reaching the bustling city of Istanbul (formerly Constantinople) in the 16th century. The first coffee house opened was known as the Kiva Han, sparking a culture that soon swept across the city.
These Middle Eastern coffee houses became intellectual hubs, attracting scholars, artists, and poets who engaged in lively discussions over cups of Turkish coffee. The practice of drinking coffee had become a social affair, bringing people together and fostering a sense of community.
Unfortunately, there was a backlash from ruler Murad IV, whose attempt to ban coffee ultimately failed. You’ll see this theme with coffee; it’s become inextricably linked with free thinking, debate, and even straight-up revolution.
Italians Import Middle Eastern Coffee to Europe
Coffee’s history in the Americas only begins following Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Caribbean in 1492. And then continues when Europeans arrived in America from the late fifteenth century onwards.
By that time coffee was also a recent arrival in Europe. Coffee trees had been widely cultivated in the Arab world by the time Italian merchants began importing them into Italy from the Eastern Mediterranean in the fifteenth century.
By the mid-sixteenth century, coffee was a well-known beverage in places like Italy, Hungary, Austria, and Malta. Though, hardly part of the daily ritual of the average European and the rest of Europe.
By the late sixteenth century, the new beverage had reached the most westerly and northerly parts of Europe. The word coffee reached England by the 1580s.
The Columbian Exchange Introduces European Coffee to the Americas
The Columbian Exchange gets its name after Christopher Columbus and is a crucial chapter in the history of coffee. It refers to the trade of resources between Europe and the Americas.
Europeans introduced plants and domesticated livestock to America, like pigs. Unfortunately, they also left many diseases that wreaked havoc on the native peoples.
Species that were unknown to the continent before soon changed daily life.
Importantly, Europeans introduced coffee to the Americas as part of the Columbian Exchange, too. Though, it took centuries before a major industry emerged around selling coffee across the continent.
It’s worth noting that from the 1490s onwards, Europe also received staple foods from the Americas, including:
The Sixteenth Century: A Faltering Start
In the sixteenth century, Spain was the primary European country colonizing the Americas. World powers like England and France were still busy exploring and mapping out the North American coast.
Thus, the government in Madrid was the only one in a position to promote the cultivation of coffee in America as a cash crop.
The Spanish made a slight effort to do so by planting young coffee plant saplings from Europe in Guatemala in the sixteenth century. But this proved a short-lived effort.
Because of the discovery of massive silver and gold mines in Mexico and Bolivia in the 1520s and 1540s.
Coffee is one opportunity that feels more like a gamble at the time. Gold is a sure thing. So, Spain then concentrated its colonial energies on exploiting new mineral wealth.
In the process, the Spanish abandoned the nascent coffee industry in Central America before it ever got going.
The Seventeenth Century: Tobacco and Sugar Beat Coffee
Despite Spain’s early efforts to introduce coffee to Central America in the sixteenth century, the country did not make any major efforts in the seventeenth century.
In the eventful history of coffee in the Americas, this is a somewhat peculiar age. It was during the seventeenth century that coffee’s popularity began to skyrocket in countries like the Dutch Republic and England.
Plus, anyone who imported coffee into Western Europe stood to earn sizeable profits. In fact, the first ships to bring coffee into Europe were run by the Dutch East India Company and British East India.
Nevertheless, even as the English, Dutch, and French joined the Spanish in colonizing parts of America in the seventeenth century, they still preferred to cultivate tobacco and sugar cane crops over coffee growing.
Thus, tobacco and sugar cane went through massive booms during this period. Europeans developed a sweet tooth. They also became addicted to smoking the North American plant.
Sadly, both these cash crops drove the development of slavery in the Americas at this time.
The result was that colonial powers didn’t introduce coffee to their plantations across the North American east coast or the Caribbean in any major way.
Martinique and the Eighteenth-Century Coffee Trade
The history of coffee in America really gains steam in the eighteenth century. By that time sugar was being mass-produced all across the Caribbean and countries like Brazil.
With increasing supply, prices fell in Europe.
And as they did, the owners of large-scale plantations in the New World began to diversify into other cash crops.
Coffee cultivation was one of these.
In 1714, Amsterdam’s Mayor gifted King Louis XIV of France a coffee plant. The French king fell so in love with coffee, he began personally tending to the plant himself and ended up cultivating them.
Here’s a short explainer of how it happened:
Then in 1720, a French naval officer by the name of Gabriel de Clieu arranged for some coffee plants to be taken from the Jardin Royal des Plantes (‘Royal Garden of Plants’) in Paris to the French colony on the island of Martinique in the Caribbean.
Over the next several decades, the saplings flourished. Tens of thousands of coffee trees were cultivated on the island. And Martinique was not alone.
Around the same time that de Clieu arrived with his plants in the Caribbean, other French and Dutch colonists had begun growing coffee in Surinam (modern-day Dutch Guiana) and Saint Dominique.
It proved enormously successful in the latter region. By the 1780s, historians believe Saint Dominique was responsible for producing half of the coffee in the world.
Changing Attitudes Towards Alcohol, Tea, and Coffee
The coffee trade in the Americas was off to a strong (if not late) start. But changes in consumption patterns soon resulted in a massive expansion of coffee production across the New World.
In the medieval and early modern periods, westerners primarily drank alcohol—both in Europe and in the American colonies.
The water was unclean and unsafe to drink in most towns and cities, whereas alcohol was more sanitary. So, the average European consumed six or seven pints of beer a day.
Yet, heavy drinking patterns began to shift considerably in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Tea and coffee were discovered to be safer to drink because they involve boiling water, and therefore became more widely consumed.
In the shift, nineteenth-century temperance movements—within the Protestant churches in particular—emerged to extoll the virtues of drinking tea and coffee instead of beer or wine.
Moreover, the rise of coffee houses as places of social interaction gained steam. In the seventeenth century, coffee houses were places to swap ideas about politics and society. Thus, coffee houses quickly became social destinations. Thanks to them, coffee had made its way into the fabric of Western society.
In fact, coffee houses became known as “penny universities” because one could engage in intellectual conversations and exchange ideas for the price of a cup of coffee.
These cultural developments fueled an ever-growing need for more coffee from colonies like Saint Dominique and Martinique in the Caribbean.
The Boston Tea Party and the American Revolution
As significant as these changing consumption patterns were, tea was the new in-vogue beverage in North America.
Tea was drunk in huge quantities in cities like Boston and Philadelphia.
However, an event was to occur in 1773 that profoundly altered this, inspiring an almost overnight switch from tea to coffee.
However, an event was to occur in 1773 that profoundly altered this, inspiring an almost overnight switch from tea to coffee.
That year, the British government—which then ruled the Thirteen Colonies that would soon become the basis of the United States—introduced the Tea Act, a tax on tea imports into North America.
The Tea Act aroused widespread unrest in the colonial community. On the 16th of December 1773, angry Bostonians boarded several anchored British ships in the Boston harbor. Bostonians threw their vast cargoes of tea into the water.
This event became known as The Boston Tea Party.
And the American Revolutionary War broke out a year and a half later. Drinking coffee became a symbol of resistance to British rule in North America.
If there is a single act that initiated the US’s love affair with coffee, it surely was the Boston Tea Party of December 1773. Coffee became something of a rallying cry, helping to ignite the first sparks of Independence.
Café in Brazil: Where the Coffee is Grown
Soon the coffee consumed in the United States—or indeed almost any other country in the world—was coming from a very specific source: Brazil.
Rio de Janeiro established the first major coffee plantation in 1770. The industry boomed in the early nineteenth century. Coffee exports grew from under 2,000 pounds in 1800 to over 12 million pounds in the 1820s. By the middle of the nineteenth century, exports exceeded 130 million pounds.
An ever-growing thirst for coffee in countries like the United States and Mexico drove the boom.
Coffee was ubiquitous across the American West. A campfire and a pot of coffee were never far away in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Whether it was a cowboy rustling cattle in Wyoming, a gold prospector panning rivers in Montana, or an oil speculator in Oklahoma, coffee was a comfort.
Yet there was an evil, sinister, and brutal edge to this era in the history of coffee:
Brazil was the world’s biggest producer of coffee at the time—and Brazilian slave labor powered the global coffee boom.
As a consequence, Brazil was a major laggard in abolishing slavery, only doing so in 1888.
By then, roughly five and a half of the twelve million slaves conveyed across the Atlantic Ocean between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries had arrived in Brazil.
Two million of these were brought with the express purpose of using them as labor on coffee plantations.
The establishment of coffee plantations across eastern and northern Brazil also birthed the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest. Unfortunately, it’s a process that continues unabated two centuries later.
Latin America and the Coffee Trade in the Nineteenth Century
After they acquired independence from Spain in the early nineteenth century, many other countries in South and Central America soon began to emulate Brazil—despite the ethical issues associated with coffee production.
In particular, coffee plantations began to appear in large numbers in Costa Rica and Guatemala. This was driven by a major expansion of global trade in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Consequently, many Latin American coffee producer nations benefited economically from emerging coffee markets in countries like Russia, Japan, and the European colonies in Africa.
But there was another problem.
New companies headquartered in places like London and New York began muscling their way into the market to meet increased coffee consumption demands.
They realized how lucrative it was to cultivate coffee in countries like Costa Rica and Columbia. Bigger companies wanted in. So, the Western world effectively dealt in economic imperialism.
This would characterize much of the coffee industry in the Americas for decades to come.
American Imperialism’s Impact on the History of Coffee
By the late nineteenth century, coffee and coffee competitive cash crops—like bananas, cocoa, and sugar—were generating large profits for Latin America.
As a result, many of these countries were booming economically.
Argentina, for instance, became one of the ten wealthiest nations on earth in the early twentieth century. And Brazil was also prospering.
Yet the wealth generated by coffee and other crops was significant. In fact, it was so significant, the United States adopted an active policy to keep countries like Brazil engaged in agriculture—rather than using the coffee boom profits to establish industrial centers.
The industrial expansion would have made these countries rival US hegemony in the Western Hemisphere.
Accordingly, coffee, bananas, and other cash crops became the basis for wealth creation in Latin America during the nineteenth century.
But it was a strange double-edged sword. Cash crops also kept these countries in an arrested economic state for much of the twentieth century.
As pro-US military juntas gained power in countries like Brazil, coffee production continued to form a central part of their economies.
Yet, market saturation ensured that the price obtained for coffee cash crops were nowhere near what they had been in earlier times.
Thus, the price plunged even as people across the Americas began to drink ever greater quantities of caffeine.
Coffee Houses and Companies: From Folgers to Starbucks
In tandem with these developments, the Western Hemisphere saw the first major coffee companies emerge. Especially in the United States of America, large companies on the scene signaled that the history of coffee had turned another chapter.
In 1850, for instance, Pioneer Coffee and Spice Mills opened in San Francisco. On the back of the California gold rush of the late 1840s, demand for coffee was through the roof.
Its founder, William Bovee, was the first individual to begin selling pre-roasted and ground coffee ready for brewing.
Previously, Americans had to roast and grind their own beans. The Pioneer Coffee and Spice Mills became Folgers Coffee when an employee, James Folger, bought out the other partners in 1872.
Today, Folgers is one of the world’s largest coffee companies, with over one billion dollars in annual revenue. Others followed.
Then in the twentieth century, the concept of companies that sold ready-to-drink coffee emerged—along with a selection of food to go with it.
Some are well-known. Bull Rosenberg founded Dunkin’ Donuts in Massachusetts in 1948. Further to the north in Canada, Tim Horton’s emerged in the 1960s as a major restaurant and coffeehouse chain.
But these were soon eclipsed by Starbucks, which Jerry Baldwin, Zev Siegl, and Gordon Bowker established in Seattle in 1971.
It was successful, but it was only once Howard Schultz bought the company in the 1980s that it mushroomed into the business we know today. They opened a coffee shop on every corner with branded bags of coffee decorating window displays and grocery shelves.
Today there are over 15,000 Starbucks in the United States alone. The company generates an astonishing thirty billion dollars in annual revenue, placing it just outside the top 100 on the Fortune 500 list.
There are few more conspicuous signs of how coffee has conquered America than the success of the famous Seattle coffeehouse.
The Specialty Coffee Culture of Twentieth-Century America
Coffee culture is everywhere in the Americas today. It is unfathomable to imagine social congress without the concept of ‘meeting for a coffee’.
As society becomes soberer and people meet in bars less frequently, people are meeting in coffee shops more than ever.
And references to coffee houses are an inextricable part of American popular culture.
Try to imagine how the television series Friends, Frasier, or Seinfeld would have looked without the Central Perk, Café Nervosa, and Monk’s Café. Or what walking down a city street would look like without strangers holding their coffee in paper cups, clutching them to their chests like water in a desert.
Can’t do it, right?
And it isn’t just the US. Coffee is an essential part of life around the globe.
Cities like Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Sao Paulo, and Rio de Janeiro have thriving coffee cultures.
Many Italians immigrated to these cosmopolitan-feeling cities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The Italians brought European ideas about cafés with them. Indeed, European ideas about the café persist down to the present day.
And from the history of coffee, an entire modern culture has arisen around coffee consumption in the Western Hemisphere.
Infographic: A History of Coffee Timeline
Download the PDF version here.
So there we have it: a brief history of coffee in the Americas.
Coffee’s origin story is a tale that intertwines folklore, trade, culture, and innovation. From its mystical discovery in the Ethiopian highlands to its transformation into a global phenomenon, coffee’s journey is a testament to the power of human curiosity and ingenuity.
Coffee was long marginalized in America, pushed out by tobacco and sugar which fetched a far higher price. But as society became soberer in the eighteenth century, coffee became king. Nowhere was this truer than for coffee bean farmers in countries like Brazil.
Such is the scale of the Brazilian coffee industry today:
Over five million Brazilians—roughly one in every twenty—work producing coffee in one capacity or another.
By the same token, the amount and type of coffee consumed in countries like the United States have expanded exponentially.
Today, coffee is everywhere in society. It has become the beverage of choice globally and is the second most-traded commodity in the world, representing a $100 billion market.
Walk down the street of any major American city and you will soon pass a Starbucks. A coffee in a Starbucks-branded cup even accidentally found its way into an episode of Game of Thrones!
In the end, cups of tea built the British Empire. But coffee made the Americas.
Coffee History – FAQs
When was instant coffee invented?
Is coffee really from Ethiopia?
- Mauricio A. Font, ‘Coffee Planters, Politics and Developments in Brazil’, in Latin American Research Review, Vol. 22, No. 3 (1987), pp. 69–90
- Ruth Waldo Newhall, The Folger Way: Coffee Pioneering Since 1850 (San Francisco, 1961).
- Nathan Nunn and Nancy Qian. ‘The Columbian Exchange: A History of Disease, Food, and Ideas’, in The Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol. 24, No. 2 (Spring, 2010), pp. 163–188.
- Mark Prendergast, Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How it Transformed Our World (London, 2001).
- Carol Robertson, The Little Book of Coffee Law (Chicago, 2010).
- Ole-Jorgen Skog, ‘Studying Cultural Change: Were the Change in Alcohol and Coffee Consumption in the Nineteenth Century a Case of Beverage Substitution?’, in Acta Sociologica, Vol. 49, No. 3 (Sept., 2006), pp. 287–302.