Drunk and enjoyed the world over, coffee is very much a part of everyday life. From home brewed instant or ground coffee to the plethora of varieties available in coffee shops, bars and restaurants across the country, the humble cup of coffee has evolved over the years into a necessity, a special treat and a work of art.
The origins of this fascinating bean are not completely known. It is thought that the plant itself originated from Ethiopia, with a number of stories in existence that claim to explain why the bean was first turned into a drink.
The first – and one of the most common – tells of a 9th century goat herder named Kaldi, who noticed that his goats seemed to have more energy after eating the beans from the coffee bushes. Kaldi himself tried the coffee beans and, after experiencing the same effects, took them to a nearby monastery to share his discovery. The monk disapproved and threw the beans into the fire, and, attracted by the smell, the other monks removed the roasted beans and ground them into the first ever coffee.
Other accounts tell similar stories, and in around 1000AD, it is thought that Arab traders used to boil up whole coffee beans to create a drink called qahwa, meaning “that which prevents sleep”. In the mid-fifteenth century, evidence shows that the Sufi monasteries in the Yemen enjoyed drinking coffee – a drink which quickly spread to wherever Islam spread. When exporting coffee, however, the Arabs were quite clever: they are reported to have boiled the beans to destroy their fertility before exporting, meaning that they could not be grown elsewhere.
Stories, however, tell of an Indian named Baba Budan who smuggled seven fertile beans back to India, enabling the plant to be grown in his own country for the first time. From here, it was only a matter of time until coffee made its way to European shores, with those who had visited the Near East for trade talking of this mysterious dark drink with its enlivening properties. By the 17th century, coffee had made its way to our shores and was becoming more and more popular across the whole continent. However, there were opponents to the drink, with some Europeans calling it “the bitter invention of Satan”, and clergy condemning the drink when it made its way to Venice in 1615. Pope Clement VIII was called upon to determine the fate of the controversial beverage… and enjoyed it so much that he gave it his seal of approval.
Thanks to various international traders, coffee made its way over to England in the 16th century. It wasn’t until 1652 that the country’s first coffeehouse opened, with Pasqua Rosée having developed a taste for coffee while trading in Turkey. Located on St. Michael’s Alley in Cornhill, the venue attracted customers from all walks of life, with Rosée’s business expanding to sell over 600 dishes of coffee every day.
Just ten years later, London already boasted no fewer than 82 coffeehouses, and the trend was also being seen in other parts of the country. In 1654, the Queens Lane Coffeehouse opened in Oxford – and is the oldest surviving coffeehouse in the country today. Coffeehouses in England – particularly in London – became known as “penny universities”, as a penny was the cost of a coffee, and the conversation was quite erudite. Because of the religious and political discussions that took place in these coffeehouses, Charles II made a failed attempt to ban them in 1675.
All coffeehouses were different in style, and became known as places where people could get together, relax after a working day, chat and drink coffee – much like the coffee shops of today. They were also important for business, with companies such as Lloyds of London founded in London’s coffeehouses.
Nowadays, it seems somewhat unbelievable that the humble coffee bean has had such a chequered history. Coffee, for many, has overtaken tea as the drink of choice, and for many, it is the mandatory start to the day and end to a meal. Chain coffee shops have popularised different methods of serving up the coffee bean, from the Americano to the more recent trend of the flat white, along with various iced coffee options during the warmer months.
For those drinking at home, the amount of choice available in supermarkets alone is staggering, including whole beans, ground coffee to suit different machines, freeze dried instant coffee and even capsules to use with specific home coffee makers. Many coffee makers and coffee shops are educating their customers on different blends and styles of coffee, with tasting notes approaching those used in the wine industry. Despite its chequered history, it is a drink that is very much here to stay.
There is great variety in the flavour and taste of coffee. This is due, not only to the type of coffee plant from which the beans come, but also the altitude at which the plant is cultivated. Even more variety and effect on the flavour is due to the country and area in which the beans are cultivated, harvested and processed. The soil, water and the climate will effect on the finished taste and aroma of a cup of coffee.