A Potted History of Coffee

Highlights from the fascinating history of Coffee - one of the world's favorite drinks - and one of its biggest businesses.
White cup on its side with coffee beans spilling out onto white background
Coffee – One of the World’s Favorite Drinks © Linette Simones / Pixabay

Coffee is an amazing success story:  Today, one-third of the world’s population drink coffee regularly, and it’s the third most popular drink in the world, behind only water and tea.

As well as being one of the world’s favorite drinks, coffee has an amazing story, from an unremarkable plant in rural Africa to one of the world’s most traded commodities and the basis for a multi-billion dollar business employing millions of people around the world.

Humans have been drinking coffee for more than 1,300 years – here are just a few of the highlights from the history of coffee.

700 A.D. – Goats get Over-Excited

Coffee beans are the fruit of small trees that are native to Ethiopia.

According to an Ethiopian legend, it was a goat-herder named Kaldi who first discovered the amazing properties of coffee:

Flock of white goats looking at the viewer
Goats © Snapwire / Pexels

Kaldi noticed that the goats that ate the berries from coffee trees became more energetic and didn’t want to sleep at night.

Kaldi told the abbot of a nearby monastery what he had discovered, and the abbot created a drink made with the berries which he found helped him to stay awake during evening prayers.

Word of these amazing berries and their energy-giving properties soon began to spread.

1400s – First Documented Evidence

Ornate silver tray with candle and decorated metal cup with lid.
Coffee Served with Ceremony © Engin Akyurt / Pexels

Legends aside, the first well-documented evidence of coffee beans being roasted, and a drink that we would recognize as coffee, comes from modern-day Yemen and the accounts of Ahmed al-Ghaffar.

The drink was first used as part of religious rituals in Sufi shrines.

1400s – World’s first Coffee Shop

The first coffee houses appeared in the Ottoman Empire.  Coffee houses opened in Damascus in what is now Syria, and in Mecca (now in Saudi Arabia).

Corner of ornately decorated room with gold decorative ceiling and Turkish rug on floor
Ottoman style room © Anton Lecock / Unsplash

Coffee houses quickly spread throughout the Arabian Peninsula and soon arrived in Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman Empire.

1526 – Coffee comes to Europe

In 1526 the forces of the Ottoman Empire, led by the superbly named Suleiman the Magnificent, invaded Hungary and won the Battle of Mohács.

This battle marks the end of Hungary as a great European power, but also the point where coffee was introduced to Europe by the Ottoman forces.

Coffee at this time was strong and black, served without milk or sugar.

1600 – Thumbs Up from the Pope

Although becoming more popular in Europe, coffee was regarded with suspicion by many (perhaps because of its Eastern origins), and was often scathingly referred to as “Satan’s drink”.

News of this drink reached Pope Clement VIII when his advisors tried to persuade him to ban it altogether.

Basilica of Saint Peter with a fountain in the foreground
Basilica of Saint Peter, Rome © Carlo Armanni / Pixabay

The pope insisted on trying the drink first.  He obviously enjoyed it, because he said

“Why, this Satan’s drink is so delicious that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it.” – and proceeded to give it his blessing.

This may be because he thought it would be healthier for people than alcoholic drinks, or perhaps he just fancied another cup!

With this Papal seal of approval, it wasn’t long before coffee houses appeared in Rome.

1633 – Thumbs Down from Sultan Murad IV

Meanwhile, back in the Ottoman Empire, Sultan Murad IV was taking quite a different view.

Thinking (probably correctly) that coffee houses were places where men would congregate and plot against him, he made drinking coffee a capital offense.

There are even tales that he wore a disguise and visited coffee houses, and personally decapitated anyone he found drinking coffee, with his broadsword!

1675 – King Charles II of England Tries to Close Coffee Houses

Murad wasn’t the only ruler to feel threatened by coffee house culture.

In England too, since the first coffee house opened in Oxford in 1650, coffee houses had become places for political discussion and debate.

King sitting on throne holding orb and sceptre and wearing red and white robes of state
King Charles II – Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

King Charles II feared his enemies were plotting against him in coffee houses, and he too tried to have them closed down saying they were “places where the disaffected met and spread scandalous reports concerning the conduct of His Majesty and his Ministers”.

But by 1675 there were already more than 3,000 coffee houses in England.  The public had shown their enthusiasm for coffee and debate, so it was too late to stop the rise of the coffee house.

1727 – Coffee from the Governor’s Wife

In 1727 the King of Portugal sent an envoy to French Guiana to obtain some coffee seeds so that Portugal could start growing coffee and get into the lucrative coffee business.

Hand holding fresh coffee beans growing on a stem. The beans are green, yellow and red.
Fresh Coffee Beans © StockSnap / Pixabay

Unfortunately, the envoy didn’t have much luck getting the seeds he needed until he tried chatting up the French Governor’s wife.

This must have worked, as she sent him enough seeds to start the coffee industry in (Portuguese colony) Brazil – which is still the world’s largest producer of coffee.

1773 – After Boston Tea Party Americans Choose Coffee

Coffee originally came to America much earlier than this – in 1607 Captain John Smith brought coffee to  Jamestown in the colony of Virginia – but it didn’t become popular until much later.

In 1773 King George III of England introduced the Tea Act, stating that tea could only be bought from the British East India Company and would be heavily taxed by the English Government.

For many colonists who favored independence, this was the final straw, and during the subsequent revolt, many people gave up drinking tea altogether in protest.

painting of Boston tea party showing men emptying tea chests from a sailing ship
Boston Tea Party – Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Needing an alternative beverage not imported from England, they turned to coffee instead, sewing the seeds of coffee’s enormous popularity in the USA which persists to this day.

1890 – Instant Coffee Invented

In 1890 New Zealander David Strang patented a process for making instant “soluble coffee”, which he marketed as “Strang’s Coffee” – the first instant coffee brand.

Nescafé brand instant coffee didn’t appear until 1938 but used a more advanced process.

A teaspoon of instant coffee granules on a white background
Instant Coffee © PublicDomainPictures / Pixabay

Freeze-dried coffee was developed just after World War II as a spin-off of high-vacuum processes developed for use with medical supplies.  The company changed its name to Minute Maid.

1906 – Decaf Coffee Invented

In 1906 German coffee salesman Ludwig Roselius patented a process for removing the caffeine from coffee beans.

He believed his father had died from drinking too much caffeine and wanted to create a “safer” coffee.

His method involved steaming the coffee with acids and then removing the caffeine with benzene – so it’s debatable how much of a health improvement this actually was.

Modern processes use a carbohydrate solvent and charcoal filter to remove the caffeine.

Efforts are also being made to develop a type of coffee bean that doesn’t contain caffeine but still has the taste we all love.

1948 – Achille Gaggia Launches his Espresso Machine

Achille Gaggia worked in the family coffee business Cafè Achille in Milan – but he wasn’t satisfied with the quality of the coffee he was serving, which was very bitter.

Achille teamed up with engineer Antonio Cremonese and together they worked late into the night when the coffee bar was closed, trying to create a new coffee extraction process.

Close up of coffee pouring out of an espresso machine
Espresso Machine © Wow Phochiangrak / Pixabay

Finally, in 1938 they succeeded, inventing the “Lampo” process which uses hot water under pressure instead of steam, and gives the barista more control over the extraction process resulting in a delicious espresso.

Further developments and patents followed until in 1948 Achille launched his own design of Espresso machine onto the market with great success.  And of course, you can still buy Gaggia brand coffee machines today.

1971 – First Starbucks Opens in Seattle

Starbucks, founded by Jerry Baldwin, Gordon Bowker, and Zev Siegl, opened its first store in 1971 near the historic Pike Place Market in Seattle, but you couldn’t drink a cup of coffee there!

The first Starbucks store (named after the first mate “Starbuck” in the novel Moby Dick), sold high-quality coffee beans and equipment. but it wasn’t a coffee house.

Howard Schultz was hired as head of marketing in 1982, and on a business trip to Milan, he was impressed by the Italian coffee houses and their enormous success (there are more than 1,500 coffee houses in Milan alone).

Starbucks store frontage with black building with wooden sign saying Starbucks and another sign with the Starbucks logo
Starbucks Store © Şahin Sezer Dinçer / Pixabay

Unable to persuade the founders that transforming Starbucks into a coffee house was a good idea, he left the company to start his own coffee houses.

When the founders sold Starbucks in 1987, Schultz bought it and began turning it into the largest coffee house chain in the world with more than 32,000 stores.

1986 – Nespresso Launch First Capsule Coffee Machine

Ever wondered who invented coffee pods?

Swiss engineer Éric Favre came up with the idea after extensive (but probably quite enjoyable) research into coffee brewing at the best coffee houses in Rome.

Department store display of Nespresso machines
Nespresso Display in a Department Store © Gregor / Pixabay

His employers, Nestle were unimpressed with his invention, as sales of their instant coffee Nescafe were booming.

Attempts to sell the machines to coffee shops were unsuccessful, and it wasn’t until they targeted up-market consumers that sales of Nespresso capsule coffee machines and their unrecyclable coffee pods really took off.

How Your Favorite Coffee Originated

We all have our favorite type of coffee, but do you know where it comes from, and when it was first brewed?


Espresso coffee with crema in a cup with Espresso written on it and a spoon in the cup
Espresso Coffee © moritz320 / Pixabay

Espresso is probably the simplest coffee drink, that all the others are based on.  About one ounce of strong black coffee.

Originating in Italy in the late 1800s, the name “espresso” means “to press out” in Italian.


Black coffee in a white cup against a dark background.
Americano Coffee © StockSnap / Pixabay

One shot of Espresso added to 2/3 hot water, Americano is thought to originate from Italy in World War II where American troops found Italian espresso too strong for their taste, so they added more water.

Café Latte

Plan view of a cup of coffee with thick layer of foam with a pattern in a white mug on a dark wooden surface
Café Latté © Pexels – Pixabay

One shot of espresso served with steamed milk, and a layer of foam on top, latte has a sweeter less intense flavor than espresso or americano.

Coffee with milk has been served in Europe for centuries, though the term “latte” is more recent, first used in English in 1867 by William Dean Howells in his essay “Italian Journeys”.


Coffee in a white cup with chocolate powder sprinkled on top and a design in chocolate sauce on white milk foam
Cappuccino © sharon ang / pixabay

A cappuccino is similar to a latte as it is also made with steamed milk, but a cappuccino typically has a thicker layer of foamed milk and usually has chocolate powder sprinkled on top.

Cappuccino means “small capuchin” and is named for the distinctive red-brown color of the hooded robes worn by monks and nuns of the Capuchin order.

Coffee drinks with milk and sugar have been served in Viennese coffee houses since the 1700s, but coffee drinks with frothed milk called Cappuccino first appeared in northern Italy in the 1930s and have been refined and improved ever since.


White cup of coffee with cream and chocolate sauce an chocolate shavings on top
Café Mocha © young soo park / pixabay

A mocha consists of espresso mixed with chocolate powder before adding steamed milk and a good layer of foam and chocolate powder sprinkled on top.

The name mocha is taken from a city in Yemen that was a center for coffee trading early in coffee’s history.

You won’t be surprised to learn that mocha is thought to originate in Italy, but it’s older than you might expect, with a coffee and chocolate drink popular in Turin in the 18th Century.

Flat White

Coffee in a blue cup with a heart shaped design in milk
Flat White Coffee © pasrasaa / pixabay

At last – a coffee drink that didn’t originate in Italy!

The flat white is a coffee made with lots of steamed milk – like a cappuccino without the foam or chocolate powder.

Originating in Australia in the mid-1980s, the flat white soon spread to the UK and has since become popular in the US and Canada.

Coffee Facts

Coffee is the Third Most Popular Drink in the World

Water is obviously the world’s most popular drink, followed by tea.  Coffee is in third place, comfortably beating beverages like orange juice, beer, Coca-Cola and even milk.

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, about one-third of the world’s population drink coffee – that’s more than 2.5 billion people!

Source: https://www.britannica.com/summary/coffee

Brazil is the Largest Coffee Growing Country in the World

Coffee beans growing on a coffee plant
Coffee Growing in Brazil © vandelino dias junior / pixabay

Although the coffee plant originated in Ethiopia, Brazil is now the world’s largest coffee-growing nation, growing more than 2,500,000 metric tons of coffee every year – that’s more than any other country.

Coffee is the Second Most Traded Commodity in the World

Make no mistake, coffee is big business – only oil is a more valuable commodity on international markets.

Americans Drink About 400 Million Cups of Coffee Every Day

That’s a lot of coffee, but if you’re looking for the world’s biggest coffee drinkers, the Scandinavians drink more per head than anyone else.

A Cup of Black Coffee has only One Calorie

Glass bathroom scales with a blue tape measure
Scales and Tape Measure © vidmir raic / pixabay

That makes coffee a great choice if you want to lose weight.  But don’t forget that adding milk, cream, sugar or chocolate will soon boost that calorie number.

Go crazy and order a Starbucks Java Chip Frappuccino Venti, and you’re looking at 560 calories!

US Coffee Drinkers Tip an Average of 11.4%

According to Entrepreneur magazine, the tips left by coffee drinkers in the USA vary widely depending on which state they’re drinking in.

A barista in Alaska can expect 17.5% yet one in New Jersey will have to settle for only 7.5%

Coffee History FAQs

Q. Why is Coffee called “Coffee”?

A. The name “coffee” probably comes from the Arabic word “qahwah”, meaning “the dark one”. As coffee became popular around the world this became “kahvie” in Ottoman Turkish, “koffie” in Dutch and “Coffee” in English.

Plan view of white cup of black cofee with beans in saucer, a pair of white headphones, and a sign saying What's Your Story
The Story of Coffee © Arshad Sutar / Pexels

Q. When was Coffee Discovered?

A. Coffee plants have grown in Ethiopia for many thousands of years, but the earliest evidence of a drink that we would recognize today comes from Yemen where a drink prepared from the coffee plant was used as part of religious ceremonies in Sufi shrines in the 15th century.

Q. When was Coffee Introduced to Europe?

A. It is believed that the army of the Ottoman Empire first brought coffee to Europe when they invaded Hungary and fought the Battle of Mohács in 1526. It quickly became popular and spread right across Europe over the next hundred years or so.

Q. How Many People Work in the Coffee Business in the USA?

A. According to the National Coffee Association, the coffee business in the USA employs 1,694,710 people. (Source: https://www.ncausa.org/Research-Trends/Economic-Impact)

Q. What are the top Coffee Growing Countries in the World?

A. The top 10 coffee-growing nations in the world are:

Rank Country 60Kg Bags (2020)

Source: International Coffee Organization – https://www.ico.org/prices/po-production.pdf

Q. Is Coffee Grown in the USA?

A. Only two states have soil and weather conditions suitable for growing coffee:  Hawaii and California.  A little coffee is grown in each state but the business is small by international standards.

Q. Which Nationality Drinks the Most Coffee?

A. The Finns are the world’s biggest coffee drinkers, getting through an amazing 26lbs of coffee for every person in Finland!

Other Nordic countries are also big coffee fans as you can see from this top 10:

RankCountry (lbs / person)

Source: World Atlas: https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/top-10-coffee-consuming-nations.html

From a simple (but observant) goat-herd to Kings of England, the Pope, a murderous Sultan, and millionaire businessmen, coffee has a history as rich and dark as the drink itself.

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