Coffee culture extends far beyond your local cafe, having a centuries-long history that spans the globe. Monks, theft, goats, and water buffaloes are all found in the legends and lore of coffee.
Beyond how your local cafe makes a cortado or fru-fru latte, here are some lesser known facts about the beans and beverage.
Dancing Goats and All-Night Vigils
Coffee was first discovered in either Ethiopia or Yemen (both lay claim) by priests who observed dancing goats. Before the days of YouTube videos, priests noticed that goats were particularly active and “danced” after eating berries from a particular shrub. The priests boiled these berries — which were coffee cherries of which beans are the pits — and experienced similarly energizing effects.
The first coffee boils would’ve been bitter and bad, but those energizing effects helped priests stay awake during all-night vigils. Millenia later, brewing methods have vastly improved but graveyard shift (and daytime) workers still rely on those effects to stay alert.
Machines, Factories, and the Industrial Revolution
Before the advent of coffee in Western Europe, moderately alcoholic beers and wines were the beverages of choice because they didn’t have as much bacteria as water. Having a slightly intoxicated general population was alright when people mostly farmed or worked other comparatively low-risk jobs — but intoxication isn’t good when working with automated machines.
Coffee was essential to the industrial revolution, as it provided a beverage that didn’t cause intoxication and was still safe to drink thanks to boiling. The fact that it helped workers stay alert throughout factory shifts was another major plus.
Political Discourse and Disbandment
Coffee houses have long been a gathering place for political discourse, which has at times led to them being banned when uprisings were suspected.
- Coffee houses first became popular in Mecca, where alcohol-serving bars were prohibited, during the 1400 and 1500s. From 1512 until 1524, they were banned because leaders had (not unjustified) fears of political dissent.
- Coffee houses have been in France for centuries without political interruption, even playing a role during the French Revolution. The first ones were hectic places where teaching, discourse, storytelling, and “innocent games” took place, according to Frenchman Jean Chardin.
- Coffee houses arrived in England during the 1600s, but were banned by King Charles II in 1675 due to fears of political uprisings. However, he wasn’t able to stop the coffee house movement, as there were thousands by the 1700s.
Newfangled, Abominable, and Heathenish Liquor
A year before King Charles II banned coffee houses in England, “The Women’s Petition Against Coffee” was published.
The petition documents “the excessive use of that newfangled, abominable heathenism liquor called coffee,” claiming (among other things) that it caused men to be impotent. As a result of the practice of drinking coffee and conversing, wives’ husbands had become “as fruitful as those deserts whence the unhappy berry is said to be brought” — despite the fact that coffee-growing regions are generally agriculturally rich. The petition goes on to explain that women were met with unenthusiastic husbands in the bedroom, where “she…should only meet a bedfull of bones, and hug a meager useless corpse.”
It’s not entirely clear whether the anonymous document was actually published by ignored wives, or satirically by men who wanted to make coffee shops less popular. They were banned the very next year, after all. You can read the actual petition here.
The men wrote an answer, “vindicating their own performances.”
Insurance Companies and Stock Floors
When the first coffee houses opened in England, they quickly became gathering places for conducting business — which laws sometimes prohibited in pubs.
Several coffee houses from the 1600s became known for particular sectors of business, and some gave rise to businesses that are still well-known today.
- Edward Lloyd’s coffee house was a gathering place for mariners and insurers (who frequently insured voyages). Lloyds of London is a well-known global insurance company today, offering common and specialty insurance products.
- No business name today reflects the coffee house proprietor Johnathan, but Johnathan’s Coffee House was the initial location of the London Stock Exchange. The gathering in his establishment saw some of the first widespread stock-type investing in England.
- Across the pond, the Tontine Coffee House in Manhattan was the first location of what’s now the New York Stock Exchange.
Water Buffalos Instead of Cows
Want the best milk for a latte or cappuccino? That’s going to be milk rich in both proteins and lipids (fats).
Whole milk tastes better than skim, and half-and-half (breve) better than whole milk. The best is water buffalo. Water buffalo milk not only has many proteins and lipids, but also has a variety of each.
You’ll notice that it’s much richer and smoother than cow milk — if you can find any.
Tan Monk’s Robes
The cappuccino is originally from Vienna (and not Italy, although Germany also has a claim), where St. Francis taught a group of Capuchin monks after a period of persecution.
The color of a cappuccino matches the hue of Capuchin monks’ robes, which originally was a convenient way to communicate how much milk people wanted to have in their coffees. (The lore that cappuccino stems from the Italian word for hat is rumored but unfounded.)
Global Warming and Regions
Global warming is having an effect on the coffee industry, which will probably increase in the coming years. Exactly how the effect will play out is unknown, though. While some classic coffee-growing regions might become less ideally suited for the plant, new regions are likely to emerge.
Don’t be too surprised if specialty coffees come from Nepal, Cameroon, or Cuba in the future.
A Beverage With Complex History
Coffee is a complex beverage with different characteristics and notes in every cup. As these little-known facts illustrate, the beverage’s history is as richly varied as what’s in your cup.
However, that makes us love our favorite drink even more!