Espress Yourself


Being invited to coffee, to discuss business or for attending a social gathering is normal. Today we conduct a lot of things without so much as a second thought or a further consideration but meeting in a cafe to drink coffee was not always easy, cheap or safe. Prior to detailing it’s interesting journey, it’s important to recognise that coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world, behind petroleum. The most expensive coffee, Kopi Luwak, can cost up to $500 per pound, this coffee has it’s own interesting story, which I will not be discussing any further in this article, although I can vouch that it is worth investing a few moments to research about this particular coffee separately.

While the origin of coffee is not totally clear, some research indicates that it was exclusively only available in Ethiopia and was undiscovered by other peoples for approximately 500 years although many Yemenites disagree with this. As for it’s date of discovery, the research estimates discovery was circa 100 A.D.

It is widely believed that coffee only migrated northward across the Red Sea into Yemen, circa 575 A.D. The Ethiopians had been defeated by the Yemenis during this period and they gained the plant as the ‘Spoils of War’ thus starting the fantastic and enlightening journey of this highly used commodity.

Not long after the Persians had the coffee plants, the Arabs and Ottomans had also become aware to it’s existence and had gained access to it. These regions were volatile with wars and war could have once again been the reason for it’s further migration to this new empire. As for the Ottomans and Arabs, they had several trading activities together and it’s highly likely they were passed on via these trading posts (this is assumed not evidenced). What is known and recorded during this era was that many Yemenis successfully escaped to and settled in India, it is reasonable to assume they might have taken their coffee and plants with them, thus introducing the plant further to the East.

I have read that coffee first appeared in Europe via Malta (the Ottomans had brought it to the Island in the 16th century). It was, however, distributed westward and northward to the rest of Europe and the wider world via the merchants of Venice. These merchants had previously created their wealth by trading Pepper with the rest of Europe, Pepper that had been collected from the Egyptians. They had been in fierce competition with the Italian region of Genoa. Once the Venetians had successfully defeated their main rivals, they struck a trade deal with the Ottomans (1585) to trade with their coffee and other spices. Almost 100 years after the coffee was first ever traded in Venice, the first Cafe was opened (1683). Today, there are over 200 cafes lined along its’ canals.

‘Bunchum’ was the name of the coffee when it arrived for European Trade, advertised for medicinal purposes due to it’s stimulating effects, it did not take long to be popular and as milk/ sugar/ cream was added, it became known as ‘Cappuccino’ – receiving this name because the liquid colour had matched the brown Habits of the Capuchin Friars. Later, as it reached Vienna it had received another name change, ‘Kapuziner’.

The consumptian of coffee in Europe started out similar to how it was served in Constantinople, black with only water added. Vienna ended up with as many variants of coffee, new recipes required new names. Some of these names (eventually becoming brands) were and are still known across entire Europe today. Examples are: Melange, Franziskaner (after the Franciscans Friars’ lighter brown colour of Habit), Einspänner, Biedermeier, etc.

Throughout the next 200 years as more spice and other commodities became available, the socialites attending the coffee houses wished for more exotic flavours and additional goodies to be added. Innovators added liquers, cream and foamed milk, etc. This process occurred across most of Europe and further afield. Some flavours that were available were: Pharisäer; Fiaker; Kaisermelange; Maria Theresia – all of these luxuries and many more became synonymous with Vienna. Gloria was given to the name of the coffee and spirits mix that were available in France.

The Dutch were less interested in trading with Venice for this commodity. The Dutch Trading Company managed to obtain the actual plant to manufacture their own Cash-crop. They tried, on several occasions, to grow their own coffee in various places after some failed attempts, they eventually succeeded planting and cultivating on Java Island (Indonesia), then it was onto the islands of Sumatra and Celebes, respectively.

In 18th century Holland, the Mayor of Amsterdam presented a gift of a young coffee plant to King Louis XIV of France. Louis ordered it to be planted in the Royal Botanical Garden, Paris. Nine years later a mariner, Gabriel de Clieu obtained a seedling from this exact plant and despite a challenging voyage through life endangering weather, a saboteur attack who had tried to destroy the seedling too, and a full-on pirate attack — he successfully managed to transport it to the Island of Martinique.

After planting the seedling not only did it grow, but it’s really created the spread of over 18 million coffee trees on the remainder of the island, during the next half century. More importantly is, that it is the parent of all coffee trees throughout the Caribbean, Central and South America.

Francisco de Mello Palheta was sent by the the Portuguese to neighbouring French Guiana to get some coffee seedlings. The French were unwilling to share, but the French Governor’s wife, captivated by Francisco’s charm gave him a large bouquet of flowers before he left— buried inside were enough coffee spikes to start, the rest translates into the 5th largest coffee producer in the world today. Missionaries and traders were responsible for distributing to the rest of the world.

One of the largest coffee drinking countries in the world is Italy. The Italians are credited with creating the ‘Espresso’, the ‘Macchinetta’, also for designing and producing superior coffee machines such as the Espresso by Bialetti in 1933, which is likely to be found in practically every Italian kitchen.

Italy even have their own laws concerning coffee, for example, no drinking cappuccino after 11am, etc. They also offer wonderful coffee traditions too – a Neapolitan, this is the practice of ‘caffè sospeso’, which means suspended coffee: this is the practice of paying for two coffees but only consuming one, the other is left for another person, who receives it free of charge. This is sharing and caring, Naples style.

Surprisingly though, Ireland’s most famous ‘Irish Coffee’ was only recently created middle of the 20th century.

candy canes chocolate christmas coffee
Photo by Pixabay on

It started in the year 1943 when a Pan Am flight to NY city had to return to land in Foynes Airport, County Limerick. Due to bad weather a local chef, Joe Sheridan, was instructed to ready hot food and drinks for the incoming passengers. Joe did as ordered, deciding to add some good old Irish Whisky, sugar and cream to the coffees, which he served. It is stated that he was asked if it was Brazillian coffee and replied “No, this is Irish coffee”.

It was 9 years later before Irish coffee was made famous by a San Francscico journalist, Stanton Delaplane. This pullizer prize journalist had met Joe whilst transitting Foynes Airport, after returning to America he concocted many drinks to perfect and find the measurements for what is now, ‘Irish Coffee’. Asked if he still drank them in 1952, his response was a very distinct, ‘No thanks, I have drunk enough to last a lifetime’.

Historically and globally as people gathered and shared ideas in coffee houses, powerful players attempted to impose restrictions on their use. Attendance was seen as a threat by the local rulers, who were afraid that their failings were being discussed collectively. Some of these incidents, are as follows:

Meccan Madness – The Meccan Governor, Khair Beg, in 16th century Persia, placed a ban on coffee as he felt people gathered in coffee houses to conspire to overthrow him and discuss his failings, however the Sultan at the time overruled the decision, excecuted him and the ban was finally rescinded after 13 years in 1524.

Demon Espress – Again in 16th century, Venetian clerics had declared the espresso, ‘Evil’ and demanded a ban. The clerics were almost successful until the Pope, Pope Clement VIII tried the drink himself, he liked it so much it received his personal blessing, ban prevented.

Turkish Coffee Pot – the Ottoman ruler Murad IV Ghasi enforced his ban on coffee using capital punishment, if he caught people drinking it he would personally brandish his broadsword and strike them, this lethal approach still didn’t prevent the urge for coffee.

There are many other incidents in history of bans against coffee, e.g. the womens petition against coffee; King Charles II very personal attempt to ban coffee; King Gustav III attempt to ban coffee and to confiscate all of the peoples’ cooking utensils and worst of all, he ordered researchers to identify how many cups of coffee it would take to cause fatality to prisoners on death row.

Apart from the previous suggestions, it is worth mentioning that if Prussia’s ‘Fredrick the Great’ had been successful in his coffee ban attempt that one might be waking up to a beer for breakfast instead of a coffee.

Medical studies declare drinking coffee has been linked to longer living. Safe to say, coffee houses were the first connected and social interaction points. Of course there are the down sides associated to coffee: it can keep one awake and is linked to an increased blood pressure.

Good or bad, coffee is here to stay. I believe one needs to think about the history of items, perhaps only for the shortest time, to recognise how far we have come, to identify how better of we are today than yesterday and maintain a positive global outlook and be thankful people were and remain curious, adventurous and most of all, sharing.

Here is hoping your next cup of coffee can bring a smile to your face, as an Irish I highly recommend one of ours.

by: Alan Houston Cree

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