How Coffee Came To The West

Coffee! How did the human race get along without it for so long? How remarkable it is to think of all the great minds of the past who lived and worked with no coffee. Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, the Caesars, all the prophets of the Bible, Cleopatra and all the Pharoahs, Jesus and his disciples, the fathers of the early church, St. Aquinas and all the Scholastics – and not a cup of coffee among them. How strange it seems.

It was due to the incessant wars of Christianity and the Moslem world in the Middle East that coffee came to the West, not directly as a result of the Crusades, but of the later wars between the Venetians and Austrians and the Turks of the Ottoman Empire. The Prophet Mohammed forbid his followers from drinking alcohol; but human nature demands a way to gather sociably around a drink, and coffee and tea filled that void in the Moslem world.

Tea, of course, came from China, overland along the Silk Road. Coffee came originally from Ethiopia, at a time when that area of the world was not a backwater, but a vital part of a trading society centered around the Red Sea, where Solomon traded with the Queen of Sheba, who brought apes and ivory and peacocks – but apparently no coffee, let alone coffee makers. What a change it might have made in the Bible and in classical history!


But it was left to a later era to make an art of roasting and brewing the dark coffee berry, and to cultivate it in Arabia Felix, as Yemen was known then, along with frankincense and myrrh. The Sufis consumed it for their all night rituals, and it was regarded as a medicine by Arab physicians. The Venetians brought coffee back in their trading galleys, in the days when Venice was at its height. Pope Clement VIII gave his approval in 1600, allowing this heathen drink to be consumed by Catholics, and it became a favorite of the wealthy – the only ones who could afford it.

first-venice-coffeehouseThe first public coffeehouse in Europe was opened in Venice in 1645, nearly 40 years before its introduction into Austria after the Battle of Vienna in 1683, when the coffee beans left behind by fleeing Turks were acquired by an Austrian army officer who had learned the secrets of preparing coffee in the Turkish style, establishing the first coffeehouse in Vienna. From there, coffee became a fad and eventually a commodity and daily staple. Like any fad, its introduction was accompanied by heated controversy. Wherever coffee was introduced, attempts were made to ban or at the very least to regulate its consumption. It was, after all, a dangerous drug. It kept the mind clear and active; and to some in the royal and religious establishment, that was not at all a good thing.

Alcohol consumption might have its problems. Drunkenness interfered with work and family life; it was costly; and it invariably led to quarrels and violence. But drunks were not known for thinking. And coffee, from the time of its introduction onwards, was known for inducing just that. From the coffeehouses of Vienna and Prague, to those of the French Enlightenment, to London, to New York and the days of coffeehouses crowded with European immigrants, to the postwar heyday of the Beats, wearing black, reciting poetry to the beat of bongo drums, to the tech geeks of today sitting with their laptops in Starbucks, coffeehouses have been the domain of the intellectual.

In their early days, they found a ready favor with Protestants, especially those strict Calvinists whose religious views frowned upon alcohol. Like the Moslems before them they found substitutes in coffee and tea, and coffeehouses became places of religious and philosophical ferment; dangerous indeed. It was those Dutch Calvinists who first spread the cultivation of coffee into their new possessions in the Dutch East Indies, now called Indonesia; and the French who first introduced its cultivation to the New World.

Coffee was so popular among the Puritans in London that a half-hearted attempt was made to ban it there, and England’s oldest surviving coffeehouse is not in the City of London, but near the University of Oxford. Fraternities may be known for their beer busts, but for the true student, it’s coffee that is indispensable for sociable disputes and for late-night study.


What university can exist without coffee, be it on the Left Bank in Paris, the dreaming spires of Oxford, or the coffeehouses of Boston and Berkeley? Could Seattle have gone from a lumber town to a technology capital without its simultaneous addiction to coffee? Could there be a Microsoft without a Starbucks, any more than a hippie without hair? No, wherever there is coffee, there the smartest and quickest minds of the day will be gathered in debate. And wherever there is a need for coffee maker reviews, there is!

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