A Brief History of Coffee

By Tim Lambert

The coffee plant is native to Ethiopia. According to legend coffee was discovered by an Ethiopian goatherd called Kaldi. He noticed that goats who ate certain beans became very lively. Coffee was drunk in Yemen by the 15th century. By the 16th century, coffee had spread to Persia (Iran) and Turkey. There were many coffee houses where people could drink and also socialize.

Coffee reached Europe in the late 16th century through trade. Coffee was introduced in Italy first. (Today coffee is still a very popular drink among Italians). Coffee became popular in Europe in the 17th century. In the 1600s coffee houses opened across Europe. The first coffee house in England opened in Oxford in 1651 and by the late 17th century there were many coffeehouses in English towns where merchants and professional men met to drink cups of coffee, read newspapers, and chat.

The first coffee house in London opened in 1652 and by the end of the 17th century, there were hundreds of them. Lloyds Coffee House opened in London in the 18th century and soon became a center of marine insurance. However, by the mid-18th century coffee houses were past their heyday in England. Merchants met to do business in specialist exchanges and gentlemen’s clubs took over as the places where well-to-do men met to socialize and chat.

Meanwhile, the first coffee house in America opened in Boston, Massachusetts in 1689. Merchants Coffee House opened in New York in 1737 and it became an important meeting place. In America drinking coffee rather than tea became patriotic after the Boston Tea Party of 1773 (a protest against a British tax on tea).

In the early 18th century the Dutch began growing coffee in Indonesia. Also in the 18th century, people began growing coffee in Brazil. By the early 19th century coffee plantations in Brazil were booming. In the 20th century, a vast amount of coffee was grown in Uganda. The modern coffee percolator was invented in 1889 by Hanson Goodrich.

Instant coffee was invented by New Zealander David Strang in 1889. Freeze-dried coffee was invented in 1938. Meanwhile, decaffeinated coffee was invented by Ludwig Roselius in 1903. Melitta Bentz invented the coffee filter in 1908. Achille Gaggia invented the modern espresso machine in 1946. The first pump-driven espresso machine was made in 1960. Meanwhile, in the early 20th century, the coffee table became a popular item of furniture.

During the Second World War, coffee was rationed for a short time in the USA. Coffee rationing was introduced in November 1942 but it only lasted until July 1943.

Today coffee is still one of the world’s most popular drinks. Brazil is still the world’s largest producer of coffee.

Last revised 2024