Brief history of coffee

While this course is primarily about how to be a better home barista, we believe knowing at least a little bit of the history of coffee helps appreciate the centuries of development that have gone into modern specialty coffee. While not as often talked about as beer and liquor, coffee shares a very similar trajectory to alcohol in history, being alternately praised and condemned by different leaders and cultures. Consider this a very, very quick overview of how coffee got to where it is now.

Early Coffee

The earliest brewed coffee dates back to Islamic cultures in the 15th century where it was used as a medicine and in religious ceremonies. The plant itself likely originated in Ethiopia and was also commonly grown in Yemen for trade. Europeans were first exposed to the drink by Muslim slaves brewing it, and it quickly caught on. Coffee beans flowed into Europe through trade with the Turks who were considered the experts of coffee brewing. 

Coffee’s Popularity

Despite the quality of coffee being subpar by today’s standards, interest in the drink took off everywhere it reached. By the 1700s, thousands of coffee houses opened all across Europe and Asia. Certain religious and political figures attempted to ban coffee at various points for either its physiological effects, or its effects on society as coffee houses became gathering places for discussions that were often subversive. However, these bans never lasted very long, and subsequent leaders actually endorsed the consumption of coffee. 

The rise of coffee is also linked somewhat to the popularity of tobacco, both sharing certain flavor characteristics. Also like tobacco, coffee relied on plantation slave labor for mass production. This mass production allowed coffee to go from an upper class, expensive indulgence to a relatively commonplace drink.

Coffee Brewing Methods

For most of history, coffee was simply roasted and boiled over fire. However, brewing coffee this way usually creates an incredibly harsh tasting drink which gave rise to spiced coffee (more common in the Middle East) and sweetened coffee (more common in Europe). Both these trends survive at least partially even to this day, although they have become less necessary as the quality of coffee has increased. 

This increase in quality began in earnest in the 19th and 20th centuries as drip brewers became popular and coffee filters were invented. This helped remove the harsh tasting sediment and oils that often collected in older methods of brewing, leading to much cleaner and crisper tasting coffee. Many coffee inventions in the 20th and 21st centuries have been further refinements of the drip brewing method. 

Espresso machines also came about during this time period in Italy, but they were originally batch brewers for many cups at a time. The design was soon refined to work with individual group heads and more delicate temperature control, giving rise to the espresso we know today. 

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