Coffee plant

Plants that changed the world: coffee

Calum Wiggins finds out how a legendary goatherd, Pope Clement VIII and an unfaithful wife made coffee the world’s second most popular drink

The story of the coffee plant, and the drink we make from it, is pretty remarkable, but no one is really sure when or where it was first discovered. The best-known rumour is about a goatherd called Kaldi.

Giddy goats

Legend has it that one day, many hundreds of years ago in the Ethiopian highlands, Kaldi’s goats started eating some berries they found on a tree and became so energetic that they wouldn’t go to sleep that night. Intrigued, Kaldi collected some of the berries and the following morning took them to his local monastery and explained the effect they had on his goats. The monks roasted the berries and mixed them with water, creating a delicious drink.

The coffee plant

We know that all of the world’s coffee originated from plants in Ethiopia. Coffee plants are evergreen, meaning they have green leaves all year round. It takes three to five years for coffee plants to start flowering. The small white flowers then produce green berries, which take almost a year to ripen and turn red. These berries are home to two small pits, and these pits are what we know as coffee beans.

Whether from Kaldi’s monastery or some other source, by the 15th century both coffee beans and excitement about their energising effects spread from Ethiopia to the Arabian Peninsula. The beverage initially met with controversy and was banned on religious grounds. But soon people realised that coffee would help them stay alert during long prayer and study sessions, and the bans were reversed.

The first known public coffee houses, which weren’t that different to today’s high-street coffee shops, were founded in Arabia. They were very popular and, as well as drinking coffee, customers would listen to music, watch performers and keep up to date on the news.

How coffee affects the body

Probably the main reason coffee became so popular was because of the buzz you get when you drink it. This effect is due to the caffeine in the coffee beans.

As our cells do work they produce a molecule called adenosine. Adenosine enters the bloodstream and travels around the body until it binds to brain cells. This sets off a series of reactions to tell the brain we are tired.

Caffeine binds to brain cells in the place of adenosine. This means that when we drink coffee, the brain doesn’t get the message that we’re tired. Instead the brain releases adrenaline, a hormone which makes our heart beat faster, dilates our pupils and releases sugar into our blood. This is what causes coffee’s energising effect.

Coffee travels west

Thousands of people from Europe travelled to the holy city of Mecca on the Arabian Peninsula each year on religious pilgrimages, and in the 17th century some of them took coffee back home with them. Again the drink was met with suspicion and fear as priests called it the “bitter invention of Satan”. Pope Clement VIII was asked to intervene, but when trying coffee for himself he found it so delicious he decided to baptise it, meaning Catholics were free to enjoy it.

Soon coffee houses sprung up across western Europe and became centres of social activity and conversation. A number of businesses grew out of coffee houses, including Lloyd’s of London from Edward Lloyd’s coffee house. The custom of tipping also emerged from the coffee houses of England. To make sure they were served quickly, customers would put coins in boxes labelled “To Insure Prompt Service”, or TIPS for short.

A stolen seedling

In 1714, the Mayor of Amsterdam presented King Louis XIV of France with a young coffee plant as a gift, and Louis ordered it to be planted in the Royal Botanical Garden in Paris. Eleven years later a young naval officer, Gabriel de Clieu, stole a seedling from the King’s plant and took it with him on a voyage to Martinique, in the Caribbean.

It was a terrible journey. A fellow crew member attacked Gabriel with a dagger and tried to destroy the small plant, but Gabriel was able to fight him off. Later, pirates attempted to take over the ship and the crew spent a whole day defending themselves. Then a terrible storm nearly sank the ship and almost all of the fresh water supplies were lost. Gabriel shared his water ration with the seedling for the rest of the journey.

After finally reaching Martinique, Gabriel grew the plant and within 50 years there were over 18 million coffee plants on the island. Incredibly, all of the coffee plants across the Caribbean – and South and Central America – originated from this seedling. The resulting coffee harvests were so profitable for the French that eventually Louis forgave Gabriel for his thievery and made him Governor of the Antilles.

The bunch of flowers

In 1727, the Brazilian government sent Colonel Francisco de Melo Palheta to French Guiana to get hold of some of the moneymaking beans. The French Governor was reluctant to give any away, but his wife was a little more generous. Rumour has it she had an affair with the Colonel, and when the time came for him to return to Brazil, she gave him a bunch of flowers, secretly sprinkled with fertile coffee seedlings. Brazil’s coffee industry soon took off and it now is the globe’s largest producer, growing around 30 per cent of the world’s coffee.

Coffee plants can only thrive in tropical climates, because they can’t survive winter frosts. There are two species of coffee plant that are used to produce all of the coffee drank today: Arabica and Robusta. Arabica plants produce the best-tasting drinks but can only be grown at altitudes higher than around 600 metres above sea level. Robusta plants can grow at lower altitudes, but the better taste of Arabica beans means that around 80 per cent of the world’s coffee is produced from them.

Boston Tea Party

The Europeans first took coffee to New York (which at the time was called New Amsterdam) in the 1600s, but at first the settlers preferred to drink tea. This was until King George III imposed expensive taxes on tea, leading to a protest called the Boston Tea Party. In December 1773, angry protesters boarded ships and destroyed a whole shipment of tea being transported to Boston’s harbour. This led to coffee becoming America’s preferred drink, and also escalated the American Revolution, eventually leading to the War of Independence, which began near Boston in 1775.

Coffee continues to change the world today. In 1991, workers at the University of Cambridge became frustrated at making trips to the coffee pot only to find it empty. They set up the world’s first webcam to allow them to monitor the amount of coffee in the pot from their desks and avoid pointless trips.

Coffee beans are now the second most traded raw material worldwide, after crude oil, with sales of over £40 billion a year. With its widespread popularity as the world’s second favourite drink, after water, and the special effect it has on the drinker, it seems likely coffee is here stay.

Lead image:

Martin Diepeveen/Flickr CC BY NC


About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Plants’ in May 2016.

Ecology and environment, History
Education levels:
14–16, 16–19, Continuing professional development