Coffee 101: Everything You Need to Learn About Coffee and Its History


The coffee tree comes from Kaffa Province, Ethiopia. Its culture however spread to neighboring Arabia, where its popularity came as a result of the prohibition of alcohol by Islam.

Called K’hawah, meaning “refreshing” its rarity has made it very expensive in Europe until the first third of the 18th century.

In the following century, the gradual abolition of slavery and then forced labor marked coffee growing, dominated by seven large producers, Venezuela, Ceylon, Cuba, Haiti, Jamaica, Indonesia, and Brazil.

We will tell you more about the growing, trade, and popularization of coffee in this in-depth historical analysis which we will spread into a timeline that dates back to the middle ages. Come with us!

The history of coffee in a timeline

Below, we will give you a detailed chronology of activities in the coffee growing and trading world in a period that spans more than six centuries.

Middle Ages

The use of coffee started in Abyssinia, the historical Ethiopia. It is originally from Kaffa, the kingdom of medieval Ethiopia.

The 15th-century author, Shehabeddin Ben, says it has been used since time immemorial.

Towards the end of the 15th century, arabica reached neighboring Yemen, which has old trade relations and culture with Abyssinia. Coffee is exported through the port of Moka.

The Arabs sold their coffee in Turkey, Persia, and North Africa. Consumption then took off throughout the Arab world: a thousand cafes were counted in Cairo in 1630.

About 50,000 hectares of coffee are cultivated in Yemen. The 12,000 to 15,000 tonnes of coffee per year produced in Yemen come from small farms with no clear commercial vocation.

Yemen retained until 1680 the monopoly of the production of coffee, distributed in Europe via Cairo and Marseilles: the Yemenis prohibited any export of plants and fertile green grains.

In 1680, however, undoubtedly transported by pilgrims, a few coffee beans reached India, on the coasts of Malabar and in the kingdom of Mysore, but the culture there remained very marginal.

Also see: The Best Ways to Store Ground Coffee and Beans

17th century (1601 to 1700)

In 1614, a delegation of Dutch merchants and horticulturalists visited Aden to study how the Arabs transformed coffee. Then in 1616, the Dutch East India Company purchased it.

Mocha cultivation was extended, timidly, by the Dutch to Ceylon in 1658. They did not attempt it in Indonesia until 1696, forty years later.

Nicolas Witsen, director of the Dutch East India Company and founder of the Amsterdam Botanical Garden, acclimated coffee from Ethiopia to Indonesia, to Batavia, an approach which was continued in 1718 in Suriname.

Coffee culture arrives in Europe    

Coffee arrived in Europe around 1600, via Venetian merchants. Clement VIII is advised to ban it because it represents a threat to infidels.

After tasting it, the Pope instead baptized the new drink, declaring that leaving it to the infidels alone would be a shame.

Its use penetrates Western Europe only in the last quarter of the 17th century. Considered expensive, the beans of Arabia received the name of coffee of Moka, port of the Red Sea which exports them, via Suez and Alexandria. Ships from Venice, Genoa, or Marseille distributed them throughout Europe.

In 1614, the Antwerp merchant Pieter Van den Broecke (1585-1640), discovered a “black and hot” beverage in the port of Moka, on the south-eastern coast of Yemen, while sailing for the oriental Dutch India Company. In 1615, Venetian ships brought back a bag of coffee beans from Constantinople, then in 1660, nearly 20,000 quintals from Turkey arrived in Marseille.

In the 1650s, “cafes” opened in Oxford and London. Philosophers and scholars meet there. Liberal ideas flourished there. In 1676, they were briefly banned for the crime of lèse-majesty (treason) against King Charles II. The reactions were strong, the closing edict were called to be revoked. Then other cities follow:

  • Venice in 1683, then in 1720 (the Caffè Florian in Piazza San Marco);
  • Paris in 1686 (the Café Procope, rue de l’Ancienne-Comédie, in the current Monnaie district);
  • Boston in 1689 (the London Coffee House).

The 18th century (1701 to 1800)

The first quarter of the 18th century was marked by years of scarcity when Europe boosts demand and after coffee rust set in. Around 2,000 cafes opened in England alone. France managed to get hold of it by force in 1708 and the Dutch later sought to appease it.

The world market then only had three major appellations: “Java”, “Moka” from Yemen, and “Bourbon pointu” from Reunion, a coffee given in 1715 by Yemen to the French, and which would break through at the end of the century in Santo Domingo.

A royal exception, Yemen prohibits any export of plants or green coffee, while Amsterdam favors an ultra-profitable monopoly. The rare coffee plants hastily transferred to Europe and then the West Indies travel without security or concern for genetic diversity.

The price of “Java Coffee” is thus very high at the beginning of the century, 3 guilders per pound, much more than in the producing areas where it comes from, which gives very high margins to the Dutch Company of East Indies.

This gap disappeared half a century later when the coffee of Santo Domingo flooded all the ports of Europe.

The merchants of Amsterdam confronted the different origins: in 1721 they imported 90% of Moka but from 1726, it is 90% of Java coffee, whose production had just taken off. The price of coffee will thus be divided by six over the course of the century.

The Java became cheaper than that of Yemen since the 1720s, and the gap is widening after five decades (10.75 coins of 5 cents per pound in 1774 against 14.5 5-cent coins). Javanese coffee is then itself beaten by that of Suriname, which costs only 6 coins of 5 cents.

In the meantime, Reunion Island broke the monopoly of the Dutch East India Company in 1735, before being itself ousted around 1750 by Suriname, which switched from sugar to coffee, which exported as much as Java from 1750 and took advantage of the first wave of a rise in world prices at the end of the 1760s.

The second wave of price increased, at the end of the 1770s, allowed the coffee of Santo Domingo to outpace that of Surinam, undermined by a financial crisis in 1771.

The war of independence of the United States indeed triggered runaway colonial prices, from 1774 to 1785, of which coffee is the big winner:

  • 70% for coffees;
  • 25% for raw sugars;
  • 30% for indigo;
  • a single product, cocoa, escapes it, seeing, on the contrary, its price drop by 38%.

The accompanying Santo Domingo Coffee Revolution led to a quintupling of the harvest in the French part of the island. In 1789, more than 80% of the world’s coffee came from the Americas.

Santo Domingo then produced five times more than Suriname two decades earlier, when the latter itself harvested 7615 tonnes per year over the period 1772-76, or as much as Java and Reunion combined, at their peaks of production.

Timeline of years of coffee scarcity at the first quarter of the century

  • 1704: Capture of Gibraltar by the Anglo-Dutch during the War of the Spanish Succession.
  • 1706: the Dutch establish coffee in Java, a plant deposited in the garden of Amsterdam.
  • 1708: 1st Moka expedition, 1,500 tonnes of coffee brought back to Saint-Malo.
  • January 1711: 2nd shipping of Moka by Antoine Crozat.
  • 1712: Amsterdam offers Louis XIV a cup of coffee.
  • 1714: a second coffee plant arrives from Holland, placed in the garden of Marly-le-Roi.
  • 1713: Antoine de Jussieu publishes a description of the café.
  • 1713: before dying, Louis XIV multiplies the coffee trees in his greenhouses.
  • 1715: Order for the 3rd shipments of Moka.
  • 1715: death of Louis XIV, who wanted more coffee trees.
  • 1715: six Moka plants, offered by the Sultan of Yemen, sown in Saint-Paul de la Réunion.
  • 1718: a Dutch plant arrives in Suriname.
  • 1720: Gabriel de Clieu imports into Martinique two of the four plants inherited from Amsterdam. Only one arrives at the destination.
  • 1725: Dutch plants from Suriname arrive in hiding in Guyana, or rule since 1724 Claude Guillouet d’Orvilliers, who colonizes Oyapock and Maroni, via tobacco and coffee.
  • 1726: Martinique still has only 200 feet of coffee, six years after the introduction.
  • 1727: harvest took off from Java.
  • 1727: harvest took off in Reunion.

19th Century (1801 to 1900)

During the wars and revolutions of the first quarter of the century, London became the center of coffee auctions.

In January 1813, the price of the quintal falls to 40 shillings whereas it was selling before at the price of 500 shillings on the Hamburg Stock Exchange, because of the shortage. 

In 1820, Java only provided 6% of the consumption of Europe, and in 1840 Yemen only 2% to 3% of world consumption, while the English and French West Indies saw slavery end. But it continues in Cuba and Brazil, two new coffee giants, which are lowering prices.

During the first of the great food crises of 1811-1812 and 1816-1817 in France, which generated hyperinflation, coffee prices doubled, due to the difficulty in obtaining coffee on the international market and speculative operations carried out in French ports.

Brazilian production exceeded that of Cuba and the British West Indies from the late. Venezuela, Cuba, and Brazil, will not abolish slavery until 1854, 1886, and 1888, taking advantage of social dumping, which arouses the indignation of the English abolitionist movement.

From 1850, Brazil produced half of the coffee on the planet, gradually eliminating other regions except Asia. In 1855, however, the Panama Railway made it possible to avoid the bypass of Cape Horn to Central America, whose plantations more often more easily accessed the Pacific, on volcanic lands favorable to a coffee culture of sweet and washed Arabica that is highly sought after.

Coffee growing in Brazil       285
Coffee growing in Indonesia 79
Coffee growing in Sri Lanka41.8
Coffee growing in Venezuela31.3
Coffee growing in Haiti30
Coffee growing in India        16.1
Coffee growing in Costa Rica12
Coffee growing in Guatemala11
Coffee growing in Puerto Rico10
Yemen and Ethiopia6.4
Coffee growing in Colombia 5
Coffee growing in Jamaica5
Coffee growing in San Salvador4

Next comes Cuba, Nicaragua, and Honduras, each with around a thousand tonnes, ahead of Guadeloupe (524 tonnes), Réunion (374 tonnes), Liberia (250 tonnes), and Ecuador (132 tonnes).

In Asia, coffee trees were decimated by the appearance in 1869 of coffee rust, a disease caused by fungi such as Hemileia vastatrix, partially wiping coffee from Ceylon and that from Java from the world map.

Indonesian coffee continued to grow despite the 1860 publication of Max Havelaar, the almost autobiographical novel by Multatuli which had a resounding echo in the Netherlands, but it was affected by this disease in the mid -1870s and declined before the end of the century.

The 20th century

The world harvest grew twice as fast in the second half of the century. The Brazilian giant controlled 73% to 80% from the first decade and learns to control world prices by “retention plans”, then the destruction of coffee trees, in 1906, 1917, and 1921 and after the crash of 1929. Suddenly, between 1927 and 1960 its market share only diminished, facing the new large producers in Africa, Central America, and Mexico.

WORLD SUPPLY (TONNES)1.02 million1.8 million2.1 million2.1 million2.05 million2.6 million3.8 million5.4 million6 million8.5 million

Brazil and Colombia largely dominated the world market according to 1927 statistics (harvest, in tonnes):

Colombia102 thousand
Indonesia79 thousand
Venezuela45 thousand
Peru35 thousand
Mexico34.4 thousand
Salvador33 thousand
Haiti32.5 thousand
Guatemala23 thousand
France4.9 thousand
Madagascar2.8 thousand
New Caledonia810
Ivory Coast    187

The relative effectiveness of Brazil’s actions on world prices encouraged the establishment in 1962 of an international agreement. This made it possible to plan long-term market stability, a solution called into question in 1989, some fifteen years after the terrible frosts of 1975, cutting Brazilian production by half.

This allowed Robusta to take root there and tripled world prices. The last decade has seen the comeback of the big traders, in a market liberated and diversified by the rise of robusta from Vietnam and Indonesia.

The 21st century

Between 2000 and 2001, surpluses in world supply caused coffee prices on the New York market to drop to their lowest level in a century, taking inflation adjustments into account. The external prices of coffee, in constant dollars, have never been so low since 1821.

The rising coffee growers, ranked by their average annual growth rate of the coffee harvest between 2000 and 2013:


In many developing countries, they fall below the cost of production. Plantation workers were laid off and the smaller producers left their produce to rot. According to the World Bank, nearly half a million jobs were lost for Central America and Mexico alone in 2000-2001, as a direct result of this coffee crisis. In Colombia, cultivated areas suffered a sharp drop, and in 2006 returned to 15% less than in 1991, despite the increase in yields and the installation of harvesting machines. In Brazil, the harvest is a real roller-coaster.

On the contrary, other Latin American countries, Peru and Honduras, have sharply increased their areas cultivated with coffee:

PERU163,000  hectares301,000  hectares
HONDURAS146,000  hectares238,000  hectares

At the beginning of the 21st  century, three of the top six global producers, Vietnam, Indonesia, and India are Asian, an act of well-taken revenge on pest outbreaks that had relegated Asia to only 5% of world coffee production exactly one hundred years early, as the production statistics for 2002-2004 show:

Brazil2,367,000 tonnes of coffee
Vietnam760,000 tonnes of coffee
Indonesia701,000 tonnes of coffee
Colombia691,000 tonnes of coffee
Mexico312,000 tonnes of coffee
India289,000 tonnes of coffee
Guatemala229,000 tonnes of coffee
Uganda187,000 tonnes of coffee
Ethiopia220,000 tonnes of coffee
Honduras170 tons of coffee
Peru172,000 tonnes of coffee
Ivory Coast138,000 tonnes of coffee
Costa Rica133,000 tonnes of coffee
Philippines115,000 tonnes of coffee
Salvador92,000 tonnes of coffee

In 2005, four major roasters dominated the world coffee market. The largest is Nestlé, which controls more than half of the global instant coffee market.

Kraft, owned by Philip Morris, accounted for 14% of global coffee sales through brands such as Maxwell House, Kaffee HAG, Kenco, and Jacobs. Sara Lee, owner of the Douwe Egberts brand and the American brand Superior, accounted for 11% of total consumer coffee sales, while Procter & Gamble occupied 8% of the market, offering its products primarily in North America.

With spectacular coffee growth, Ethiopia rose in 2005 to 5 th place worldwide, although its share in exports is relatively low due to local consumption absorbing half the harvest of coffee plants.

The evolution of major world producers over 2010

The development of the world’s major coffee producers over the 2010s remains dominated by the Brazilian giant, and more broadly by producers in Latin America, Colombia, Mexico, Peru, and four Central American countries appearing among the fifteen first coffee crops in the world, nearly one in two.


Coffee growing supports 125 million people on the planet, in more than 75 tropical countries, with 5 million farms and 25 million small independent producers, who have often made and defeated political majorities, sparked wars, and accelerated decolonizations.

In the 21st century, coffee is grown on an area of 10 million hectares according to FAO. It represents 61% of exports in Burundi, 37% in Ethiopia, 35% in Rwanda, 21% in Uganda, 18% in Nicaragua, and 17% in Honduras.

Cultivated at altitude, sensitive to frost, forest density, and soil depletion, coffee has an unpredictable price because the shrub takes 4 years to give and only two decades to run out. Hence with a century of price support to farmers, agronomic training, and distribution of fertilizers by public enterprises and cooperatives unparalleled in other crops in 1900, coffee was the third most traded commodity in the world, behind grains and sugar. In the 21st century, the industry is only second to oil, valued at $466 billion and with over 500 billion cups of coffee drunk per year.

home > Perfect your Brew > Coffee 101: Everything You Need to Learn About Coffee and Its History

Evelyn J Stafford

Evelyn is a Coffee enthusiast and writer for Wins Coffee Bar. Her work has appeared in Bean Scene, The Home Kitchen and other publications.

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