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F - 79 : The Unintended Consequences of Coffee


Turkish coffee is boiled slowly, not filtered. Sugar is mostly added during Boiling


How coffee was discovered has become well known folklore. The story of the Ethiopian boy who saw his goats going crazy after eating red coffee beans is funny indeed. I can imagine the scene knowing that goats effortlessly jump over a high fence. When the boy brought the beans to his village elder, the man threw them into a fire and that is how the roasting of coffee started – apparently. Wonder why the beans did not burn. I burn it in the summer to keep wasps away. It works well - just try. Coffee took its name from Kaffa, the southern Ethiopian region. But it also grew in Yemen, on the eastern side of the Red Sea.

A Bucket of Fresh Coffee Beans in front of Coffee Plantation in Yemen


How coffee made its way from the Ethiopian Highlands into our coffee cups is less well known. Coffee was consumed in Yemen and Ethiopia for centuries before it was “discovered” by out-siders but nobody bothered to introduce the drink to the Mediterranean. There is no good explanation why this did not happen. Vessels coming from India brimming with exotic goods stopped at the port of Aden in Yemen since the time of the Pharaohs. The merchants and sailors must have noticed the customs of drinking coffee. But given that they transported high value items, they probably thought dealing in roasted beans was below their standards. Nobody really knows.

Coffee Break in Yemen - Note that the Coffee is Filtered, not Boiled as in Turkey


All this changed with the arrival of the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean. In 1498 Vasco da Gama reached the Calicut Coast in India via the Cape of Good Hope. The Portuguese ships were excellent platforms for guns. Thanks to their firepower, they quickly came to dominate the sea and imposed a monopoly in spice trading. Suddenly every merchant in the Indian Ocean needed a Portuguese license. A large part of the spice trade was re-routed to Portugal. The Mamluk Empire lost a significant part of its tax revenue – almost over-night.

Portuguese Galleys Attacking Suez in 1541 - They were part of Portugal's Indian Fleet


Of course the Mamluk Sultan had to react. In 1506, he sent 19 ships and 3’000 men from Suez to the Indian Ocean to kick the Portuguese out. The expedition failed. The Mamluk admiral squandered his initial victory and attacked Yemen instead. In 1508 his fleet was sunk by the Portuguese. The action started the Portuguese – Mamluk war which lasted to 1517 when the Mamluk Empire was taken over by the Ottomans. They inherited the conflict for dominance in the Indian Ocean. The war continued for several decades and was fought as far away as Aceh in Indonesia with no clear winner except the Dutch. With their innovative ships of the line they push both Ottoman and Portuguese out of the Indian Ocean.

Ottoman Imperial Reach 1536 - 1590 - for more than 50 Years the Ottoman Navy was active in the Indian Ocean

The officers and sailors of the Mamluk fleet must have been introduced to coffee on their campaign. Caffeine keeps people awake and alert. A welcome property for the endless nights of being on guard or look-out. The mariners must have loved it. I speculate to be honest – nobody really knows. But shortly after the naval expedition, the first coffee shops are set up in Cairo. We know that the Ottoman governor in Yemen was an active supporter of coffee and sent samples to the Sultan in 1534. By the middle of the 16th century, there were more than 600 coffee shops in Cairo alone. The first coffee houses in Istanbul were set up in 1554. Within less than 50 years, there were more than 1’000 in the Turkish capital alone. Next to mosques and markets., coffee houses became the third public place where men gathered. They met for a chat, a smoke (sheesha), a coffee and to listen to music as we seen in my blog on belly dancing.

Traditional Coffee House in Istanbul - Men drink Coffee, Smoke Sheesha and Chat


From Istanbul the customs of drinking coffee spread quickly to Europe. It was first brought by Venetian merchants to Italy in 1615. Sultan Mehmet IV brought it to France in 1657 on his state visit to Louis XIV and in 1683 the Turkish Army left dozens of coffee bags in their camp before Vienna which they had unsuccessfully besieged . By the mid 17th century, coffee houses were opened in London, Paris and Amsterdam.

The First Coffee House in London opened in 1651


Drinking coffee became firmly established in western society. The demand for coffee was so big that Yemen and Ethiopia could not supply enough. Dutch Merchants brought coffee plants to Java in Indonesia, the Portuguese to Brazil and the Spanish to Columbia. Today, the world drinks 2 bn cups of coffee every day. 450 million cups in the USA alone. What a path for a bean that excited goats to becoming the world’s 2nd most popular beverage.

American Commercial Coffee Advertisement - the USA is today the largest Coffee Consumer


The establishment of coffee houses had other lasting but unintended consequences. People meeting in coffee houses were not busy and had time to chat. They swapped their daily life stories but also talked about their grievances and how life could be made better. In short, the coffee houses became places for new ideas on how to organize life, business and society. The Ottoman Sultan’s realized this early and sent spies to the coffee houses to find out about their subjects’ moods and intentions. But they could not control the public dialogue any longer and in 1656 had to close them. The coffee houses had become politically dangerous. Wonder how they survived. A few years later, they were open again.

Turkish coffee House in the 19th Century - the Waiter at the Back prepares Turkish Coffee


In Western Europe, the same development happened but closing coffee houses was no option. The merchant class was too powerful. The European monarchs depended on their money to finance the endemic dynastic wars in the 17th and 18th century. Coffee shops became the birthplace for liberal ideas, for setting up new businesses, for the society as we know it today. In the Balkans. Coffee houses became the birth places for nationalist movements who wanted independence from the Ottoman Empire. They were the base for the many wars of independence that ravaged the Balkans in the 19th century and let to the birth of new nations like Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Macedonia, Albania, Croatia and Bosnia. The coffee bean was indeed a powerful bean. As the Economist aptly put it in an article in 2019: “How Turkish Coffee destroyed an Empire.”

The Exotic Reputation of Coffee made it quickly popular - Everybody wanted one


By the way, Turkish People believe we do not drink coffee properly. In their view, coffee needs to be slowly boiled not filtered. Only boiling will extract the entire aroma from the beans. But I love them all. American coffee in the morning, Italian ristrettos and Turkish coffee during the day. In the evening though I drop it. Caffein has a half-way life time of 6 hours. We sleep better without caffein in our bodies.


Our friend Ibrahim, to the right, textil merchant in the

Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, is an expert-connaisseur on

Turkish Coffee. All we know comes from him!



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