Back in the day, Coffee wasn’t just a drink. It stood for something more as it travelled the world, gaining love from the commoners and threatening political leaders – from Yemen to Europe!
“One of the most interesting facts in the history of the coffee drink is that wherever it has been introduced it has spelled revolution. It has been the world’s most radical drink in that its function has always been to make people think. And when the people began to think, they became dangerous to tyrants and to foes of liberty of thought and action.”
Coffee was more dangerous than alcohol because the latter just got people drunk; in case of Coffee, it made people think. It kept them sober and they plotted against the Government.
In 17th century Turkey, the Sultan Murad IV, declared coffee-drinking a capital offence. His successor was kinder, but had people beaten for drinking coffee. If they still persisted, he had them put into leather bags, sealed and thrown into the sea!
Around the same time, in England, Charles II attempted to ban coffeehouses. He had found damning evidence of seditious poetry that had it’s roots in the coffee house.
In the late 18th century, Prussia’s King Frederick II released a “Coffee and Beer Manifesto” to ban consumption of coffee and encouraged his subjects to drink beer instead.
In the early 1900s, Finnish women hosted coffee-sessions to meet and plan civil disobedience and resistance against the Tsarist regime that ruled Finland at the time.
But Coffee survived, and made it’s way to the 21st century, keeping it’s place firmly grounded in culture.
Coffee: The Story of its Origin
A popular story about the origin of Coffee is about the 9th-century Ethiopian goat-herder named Kaldi. He is said to have first discovered the potential of coffee beans after noticing that his goats became energetic & didn’t want to sleep at night after they ate the red, cherry-like beans of a plant. He took the berries to the monastery, where the Sufi monks roasted them and discovered that drinking the liquid helped them stay awake for prayers throughout the night.
But According to Yemenite legend, Ali bin Omar al-Shadhili – a holy man, was banished to Yemen after he fell in love with the King’s daughter. He was about to die of starvation when he saw the berries on some bushes. Omar tried to eat these berries but found them bitter so he roasted them, and eventually boiled the berries. He found that drinking the resulting liquid revitalized him. Stories of this “miracle drug” reached the town from which Omar had been banished and he was asked to come home. On his return he made them coffee and he was honoured as a saint!
In either case, it is safe to say, that Coffee originated in the Red Sea area, and was cultivated as far back as the 6th century.
Coffee Houses around the World
Coffeehouses were known for shaping poetry culture of the time, storytelling & folktale performances; artists often brought drawings / poetry to show & even used those as “payments” for their drinks !
Coffee & the Ottoman Turks
The world’s first coffee shop, ‘Kiva Han’ opened in Constantinople in 1475. According to Turkish law then, a woman could divorce her husband if he failed to provide her with her daily quota of coffee.
By the 1500’s coffee had become a rage across the Arab World. In about 150 years from then, coffee took over Europe.
In the 1600s, the Sufi saint Baba Budan went on a pilgrimage to Mecca. While returning from the port of Mocha, it is believed, that he “smuggled” some beans back home to Chikmagalur in South India.
“The origin of Indian coffee is saintly. It was not an empire builder or buccaneer who brought coffee to India, but a saint, one who knew what was good for humanity”R.K Narayanan – Indian Author
In Britain, the first coffee house opened around the 1650s. By the 17th century though, there were around a 100 coffee houses in London!
Interestingly the culture of tipping also began in London’s coffee shops. “TIPS” stood for “To Insure Prompt Service”. You could put in extra pennies in a can with that label, for better seating and service!Turns out that brewing "startups" in coffee shops isn't a 21st century thing! #DidYouKnow : The 'Lloyd's of London' a premier insurance market today (not the banking group) has it's roots in a #coffeeshop? Click To Tweet
The coffee shop opened by Edward Lloyd at the corner of Abchurch Lane in the 1680s became a popular meeting point for merchants and ship owners, who met there each day to discuss and exchange shipping-intelligence, to auction cargoes and to report maritime disasters.
Take a look at this graphic made in 2013 by artist Adam Dant capturing the different kinds of coffeeshops that mushroomed in London.
But who would’ve thought that England’s women would turn against coffee!
Apparently, the men enjoyed their coffee and conversations much more than the activities of the bedroom, and this enraged the women. It’s another matter that we don’t know for sure if it was women who wrote these petitions. Perhaps it was a propaganda aimed at making coffeehouses unpopular? Find out more here.
Coffee in Europe
In Europe, Venice became the first to receive a coffee-shipment. In Italy, Pope Vincent the III though was convinced by his advisors that coffee was “Satan’s Drink” (tracing it’s origins to the Muslim world). But he fell to the charms of coffee as well, and instead, “baptized” the drink, making it an acceptable Christian beverage. Ever since, Italian coffee has been the rage.
In Rome, the Caffè Greco was a famous meeting spot for artists & intellectuals for about two centuries & was quick to become a hotspot for photographers’ meetups.
But it was in 1773, with the Boston Tea Party in America, that made coffee-drinking a patriotic duty.
And then, coffee got a “sensual” twist, with the Lavazza calendars!
In 1992, the Italian coffee brand Lavazza (founded in 1885) decided to use photography to communicate the culture and story of coffee. This culminated into the famous ‘Lavazza Calendars’. Helmut Newton, the German-Australian photographer known for his work with Vogue worked on the first two editions that would equate coffee with passion, sensuality and vitality. In 1999, the calendar surprised everyone by turning away from the “erotic” photography and instead, focused on culture. Photographers such as Steve McCurry (from National Geographic), and Elliott Erwitt were called in and the spotlight moved from the cafes of Paris & Milan to countries like India, Turkey, and Ethiopia.
[Updated in July 2021] : here’s our favourite from the 2021 Lavazza calendar.
The theme for the 2021 calendar is “a new humanity”. Read more about this particular work by Spanish photographer Eugenio Recuenco and other works at this link.
Who would’ve thought that an unassuming cup of coffee could have shaped history and culture over the years!