A Very Short History of Coffee in 7 Cities

If we look at the origin of the word “coffee”, we find stories about dancing goats, mystic drinkers, a distant smell in Vienna and an ancient social network in London…

A sober wine from Arabia

The origins of this drink are lost in time, like so many important things. There is a legend in Ethiopia, where the special properties of the plant were first discovered, that tells the story of Kaldi, a goatherd, who found goats dancing after tasting coffee beans.

Apart from legend, we know that, in 15th-century Yemen, Sufi mystics began using coffee as a drink to keep them awake during long ceremonies. Rather than intoxicating drinkers, coffee seemed to sharpen their mind.

As Muslims could not — or should not — drink wine or other alcoholic beverages, this new drink fit for mystics began to spread across the Arabian Peninsula. Its use as a substitute for a forbidden drink is printed in the word itself: the Arabic name — “qahwa” — originally meant a kind of wine. Muslim clerics still debated whether coffee should also be forbidden, but the force of habit left them little room for refusing a drink that did not actually intoxicate.

Coffee from Istanbul to Vienna

From Arabia, coffee invaded the entire Ottoman Empire. The Arabic word came to be used in Ottoman Turkish with the form “kahve”. It is likely that the first European coffeehouse opened its doors in Istanbul. The idea quickly spread to the rest of the continent. Many people left alcoholic drinks for special occasions and started drinking coffee daily — it was as if we woke up from a centuries-long stupor…

Coffee invaded Europe from the south and from the north. From Istanbul to Venice it was a short hop. Some fervent Christians began to wonder if it was convenient to be drinking a Muslim drink… Pope Clement VIII was intrigued and asked to taste this thing called coffee. I imagine him opening his eyes wide, surprised by the taste. He approved it! From then on, no Christian refused coffee for religious reasons.

From Turkish, the word passed into Italian — “caffè” — and French — “café” — and ended up in many European languages in this form.

Each European capital has stories to tell about the first coffeehouse and the way coffee came to be part of their culture. One special example is that Vienna seems to have acquired the taste for coffee because of its smell from a distance. The Viennese were resisting a siege by the Ottomans, who were already quite addicted to the substance and did not refrain from preparing coffee to be drunk while waiting for Vienna to fall.

Vienna never fell. It was, however, invaded by the new drink.

Coffee from Mocha to London

In Northern Europe, it was the Dutch who brought home the first coffee samples, which they had bought in Mocha, in Yemen. The drink made the leap to England, where the first coffeeshop appeared in Oxford in 1652, even before it reached London. Coffee’s connection to academia never faded: even today, there is no symposium or conference without a coffee break.

This northern journey can be seen in the origins of the English word: bypassing the Turkish connection, the Arabic “qahwa” became the Dutch “koffie” and then the English “coffee”.

Coffeehouses became typical of London. If we read the famous Diary of Samuel Pepys, we find numerous references to coffee shops. They were the sober counterpoint to the popular taverns. Coffeehouses were the real social network of the time: scientists, politicians, merchants, aristocrats — everyone exchanged ideas and gossip in the cafés of 17th-century London, which were a kind of specialised discussion room. There were coffeehouses for astronomers, for artists, for seafarers.

London’s coffeehouses were centres of scientific, technological, academic and financial innovation. It was in coffeehouses that the London Stock Exchange and Lloyd’s insurance company were born.

Coffee from Paris to New Orleans

On the other side of the Channel, in Paris, cafés flourished. Each café had its own clientele and some of the names are still very famous today, like Café Procope and Café Parnasse, where poets and philosophers would meet, or Café Anglais, where actors would meet. It was in a café that the first cry of the French revolution was heard, when Camille Desmoulins shouted, on the terrace of Café de Foy, “Aux armes!”.

Unlike London, which gave up coffee to indulge in tea, Paris has retained the habit of reading, discussing and living in cafés. Much of the coffee culture of various cities in Europe and around the world seems to emulate the image of the Parisian café.

In the brand-new USA, meanwhile, coffee was never supplanted by tea. In fact, one of the most famous coffeehouses in the world is Café du Monde, in New Orleans.

In the late 20th century, American coffee chains reintroduced the coffee craze in England — and invaded the rest of the world, whether there was a local coffee tradition there or not. After Mocha, Istanbul, Venice, Vienna, London and Paris, Seattle is the latest city of coffee.

Coffee in Lisbon

Since I’m writing this in Lisbon, let me tell you that, in Portuguese, we use the same word for the product, for the prepared beverage and for coffeehouses: we drink café in a café. Our coffee of choice is an espresso, which nobody calls an espresso. We may call it a “bica” (in the South of the country) or a “cimbalino” (a word that was typical, a few decades ago, of Porto) — but, in fact, all you have to do is say “I’d like a café” to receive a small cup of scalding coffee on the counter.

It’s not that the Portuguese don’t have a wide variety of ways of preparing coffee. Anyone trying to learn Portuguese will be baffled by the differences between galãomeia de leiteabatanadopingadoitaliana… — but the most common way of drinking it is a simple, strong espresso (we just never call it that).

Let’s end with this fact: when we drink a cup of coffee, be it in Lisbon, in Vienna or in Seattle, we are following a tradition started by Sufi mystics many centuries ago (and there are some dancing goats in the story too).

Suggested reading

Some of the details I’ve mentioned above are in the book A History of the World in 6 Glasses, by Tom Standage. The book is well worth reading, alongside a nice cup of coffee. For a deeper understanding of the history of coffee, you can start by reading Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World, by Mark Pendergrast. I’d like to thank Jennifer King, my colleague at Eurologos-Portugal, for proofreading the text. You can find a Portuguese version of the article in Certas Palavras.

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