On the suggestion of a family member, I have been looking back at the history of coffee, from its humble beginnings in Africa to the multi billion pound industry it is today. I was particularly interested in its introduction and adoption into England in the mid 17th Century.

Below is a whistle stop tour of the origins and history of coffee, hope you find it interesting.

So our story starts with this guy here

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Around the 10th Century a goat herder named Kaldi spotted that his herd of prized goats were chewing on the red berries of a strange plant and frolicking around even more happy than your usual Ethiopean goat might be! He sampled the coffee berries, and with a new found buzz ran to the local monastery to talk to the chief Monk.

After an initial period of hesitation and no doubt some strong words about un-godly behaviour etc, a young monk decided to try this out and discovered that with some of these berries they could stay up all night praying (rock and roll!).

So this is the first we hear of coffee and its medicinal uses. However it is about another 150-200 years later when traders from the Middle East, specifically Yemen, start to import coffee home from Africa. They also started the technique of extracting the bean, roasting and boiling with water to create they called “qahwa” or that which prevents sleep. Today this is still the name used for coffee in the Middle East.

It took another couple of hundred years, but by the mid 15th Century coffee had started to spread around the middle east and by the time it hit Constantinople in around 1450 there was no stopping it. The Turks added in spices to create the Turkish Coffee served today, and in 1475 (approx) the first recorded coffee shop opened up in Constantinople, looking something like this


We know that coffee was introduced into England towards the end of the 16th Century, mainly through the East India Trading Company who imported this from the East. It was however a man called Pasqua Rosee who we can thank for really starting the English love affair with coffee who in around 1652 set up the first Coffee Shop in England, situated in St Michaels alley, Cornhill (near Bank and Leadenhall Market). Today this coffee shop is now a pub (obvs) but there is a plaque commemorating it:


Many more followed including Oxford’s Queen’s Lane Coffee House, established in 1654, which is still in existence today.

By 1675 there were more than 3,000 coffee houses throughout England (there are probably that many in Shoreditch alone now!), and their popularity continued to grow.


(Hogarth Depicts Tom King’s Coffee House (later Moll King’s Coffee House) in his painting Four Times of the Day.)

These were places you could go for a lively political discussion, or to find out the latest news and gossip and enjoy a cup of coffee. The historian Brian Cowan describes English coffee houses as “places where people gathered to drink coffee, learn the news of the day, and perhaps to meet with other local residents and discuss matters of mutual concern”. They even became so popular and powerful that the King of the time Charles the 2nd (the friendly looking fellow below) tried to have them all destroyed

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Rules were key in English coffee houses and extremely unusual for the time, class was not a factor in fact in the ‘Rules and Orders of the Coffee House” illustrated and printed in 1674 it states that “no man of any station need give his place to a finer man”.


Historians confirm that a diverse demographic of customers frequented English coffeehouses, and social status was somewhat ignored, as one could participate in conversation regardless of class, rank, or political leaning. If one should swear, they would have to forfeit a twelve-pence. If a quarrel broke out, the instigator would have to purchase the offended a cup of coffee. The topic of “sacred things” was barred from coffeehouses, and rules existed against speaking poorly of the state as well as religious scriptures. The rules forbade games of chance, such as cards and dice, as well (Ellis, M., The Coffee-House )

Coffee can also be thanked for the creation of the Insurance behemoth Lloyds of London which started as a Coffee House, as well as the Spectator and Tatler which both started distribution within Coffee Houses in London.

Many in this period believed coffee to have medicinal properties. The following from an amazing 1661 tract entitled “A character of coffee and coffee-houses”, written by one “M.P.”, lists some of these perceived benefits:

‘Tis extolled for drying up the Crudities of the Stomack, and for expelling Fumes out of the Head. Excellent Berry! which can cleanse the English-man’s Stomak of Flegm, and expel Giddinesse out of his Head.


This new commodity proved controversial among some subjects, however.  In 1674 the following was printed and distributed around England


To quote some choice lines from this:

the Excessive Use of that Newfangled, Abominable, Heathenish Liquor called COFFEE …has…Eunucht our Husbands, and Crippled our more kindGallants, that they are become as Impotent, as Age.

But despite this coffee continued to boom across Europe, even Bach wrote about it in one of his ‘hits’ of the day with the following lines (it sounds better in German – I think!)

“Oh! How sweet coffee does taste, Better than a thousand kisses,

Milder than muscat wine.

Coffee, coffee, I’ve got to have it,

And if someone wants to perk me up,

Oh, just give me a cup of coffee!”

However it wasn’t destined to last and by the end of the 18th Century coffee houses had all but disappeared from England. Coffee was swiftly replaced as the nations favourite drink (after beer of course) by Tea, facilitated by an influx from China and India through the East India Company and encouraged by the governments of the day. Tea houses replaced coffee houses and tea became popular in court – mainly due to the ease and low cost of preparation. “To brew tea, all that is needed is to add boiling water; coffee, in contrast, required roasting, grinding and brewing.” (Bramah, 1972. p 50).

However as you know this wasn’t to last and in the last 100 years coffee has gained huge popularity again. Coffee is now the most popular beverage in the world, with more than 400 billion cups consumed worldwide. It is a global industry employing more than 20 million people, and as a commodity ranks second only to petrol in terms of dollars traded worldwide.

So there you have it, a whistle stop tour of coffee from a humble goat herder to a billion dollar industry.

[All pictures borrowed from Wikipedia].