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From Ethiopia to Your Cup: Uncovering the Fascinating History of Coffee

Updated: Jun 1

Coffee Beans
Coffee Beans

The history of coffee dates back to the 15th century, and possibly earlier, with several reports and legends surrounding its first use.

The native (undomesticated) origin of Coffee beans is Ethiopia. The earliest substantiated evidence of either coffee drinking or knowledge of the coffee tree is from the early 15th century in the Sufi monasteries of Yemen, spreading soon to Mecca and Cairo. Coffee spread to the Balkans, Italy, the rest of Europe, Southeast Asia, and then to America, despite bans imposed during the 15th century by religious leaders in Mecca and Cairo and later by the Catholic Church. By the 16th century, it had reached the rest of the Middle East, South India (Karnataka), Persia, Turkey, the Horn of Africa, and northern Africa.

Coffee had a major influence on the geography of Latin America. Gabriel de Clieu brought coffee seedlings to Martinique in the Caribbean in 1720. Those sprouts flourished, and 50 years later, there were 18,680 coffee trees in Martinique, enabling the spread of coffee cultivation to Saint-Domingue (Haiti), Mexico, and other islands of the Caribbean. The French territory of Saint-Domingue saw coffee cultivated starting in 1734 and, by 1788, supplied half the world's coffee. The French colonial plantations relied heavily on African slave laborers. However, the dreadful conditions the enslaved people worked in on coffee plantations were a factor in the soon-to-follow Haitian Revolution.

The coffee industry never fully recovered there.

Coffee also found its way to the Isle of Bourbon, now known as Réunion, in the Indian Ocean. The plant produced smaller beans and was deemed a variety of arabica known as var. Bourbon. The Santos coffee of Brazil and the Oaxaca coffee of Mexico are the progeny of that Bourbon tree. Circa 1727, the King of Portugal sent Francisco de Melo Palheta to French Guiana to obtain coffee seeds to become a part of the coffee market. Francisco initially had difficulty obtaining these seeds, but he captivated the French Governor's wife, and she sent him enough seeds to commence the coffee industry in Brazil.

However, Cultivation did not gather momentum until independence in 1822, leading to the clearing of massive tracts of the Atlantic Forest, first from the vicinity of Rio and later São Paulo, for coffee plantations. In 1893, coffee from Brazil was introduced into Kenya and Tanzania (Tanganyika), not far from its place of origin in Ethiopia 600 years prior, ending its transcontinental journey.

After the Boston Tea Party of 1773, many Americans switched to drinking coffee during the American Revolution because drinking tea had become unpatriotic.

Conditions led to many uprisings, coups, and bloody suppression of peasants. For example, Guatemala started producing coffee in the 1500s but lacked the workforce to harvest the coffee beans.

Many countries took up Cultivation in the latter half of the 19th century, and in almost all of them, it involved the large-scale displacement and exploitation of indigenous people. As a result, the Guatemalan government forced indigenous people to work in the fields. This led to a strain in the indigenous and Guatemalan people's relationship that still exists today. A notable exception is Costa Rica, where a lack of ready labor prevented the formation of large farms. Smaller farms and more egalitarian conditions ameliorated unrest over the 19th and 20th centuries.

In the 20th century, Latin American countries faced a possible economic collapse. Before World War II, Europe was consuming large amounts of coffee. Once the war started, Latin America lost 40% of its market and was on the verge of economic collapse. Coffee was and is a Latin American commodity. The United States saw this and talked with the Latin American countries, and as a result, the producers agreed on an equitable division of the U.S. market. The U.S. government monitored this agreement for the period this plan was followed, and the value of coffee doubled, greatly benefiting coffee producers and Latin American countries.

Brazil became the world's largest coffee producer by 1852 and has held that status ever since. It dominated world production, exporting more coffee than the rest combined from 1850 to 1950. The period since 1950 saw the widening of the playing field due to the emergence of several other major producers, notably Colombia, Ivory Coast, Ethiopia, and, most recently, Vietnam, which overtook Colombia and became the second-largest producer in 1999 and reached 15% market share by 2011.

Around the turn of the century, an organization named Fair Trade emerged. In the past 20 years, Fair trade coffee has become very popular. The idea of fair trade is to pay the farmers more money so that the farmers can have better lives. Most fair Trade farmers come from Latin America. There is controversy about the effectiveness of Fair Trade. The proponents argue that Fair Trade helps farmers receive a larger salary, allowing them to live better lives. Opponents argue that Fair Trade does not keep records and cannot be accountable.

A recent change to the coffee market is lattes, Frappuccinos, and other sugary coffee drinks. The rise of lattes and Frappuccinos becoming more popular has caused coffee houses to be able to use cheaper coffee beans in their coffee, which has hurt the Latin American economy. The cheaper coffee beans are called Robusta and contain more caffeine than the more expensive beans. The cheaper beans' higher caffeine content also influences their popularity. These cheaper beans hurt the Latin American economy because the producers receive less money for producing the cheaper beans than they do for producing the higher-quality beans. Since the producers get paid less, they are receiving a smaller income, which in turn hurts the economy of Latin America.


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