Coffee is so commonplace nowadays that it is hard to imagine there was a time when the only people who knew of its existence were Ethiopian shepherds. And even then, they viewed the shrub only as a source of fruit whose juice could be turned into alcohol. It was only when awareness spread across the Red Sea to modern-day Yemen that a use was developed for the seeds inside the fruit. Thus, in the fifteenth century, long before it became the war-plagued disaster it is today, Yemen became home to the world’s first coffee culture.
The drink quickly spread across the Arabian peninsula and found a launchpad in the holy city of Mecca. It’s said that the Muslims arriving for their hajj pilgrimage were quick to embrace coffee because its stimulating effects proved to be a big help when it came to late-night and early-morning prayers! So coffee went home with the pilgrims and made its way into every corner of the Islamic world throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In the Ottoman capital Constantinople (Istanbul), urban socialites pioneered the concept of the coffeehouse. Meanwhile, merchants in Venice began importing coffee beans and laying the foundation for Italians’ love of the drink (though it would be over two hundred years before the espresso machine was developed).
Some countries were attracted to coffee more for its economic opportunity than for its flavor or caffeine. The French, for example, found the tropical climate of their newly established Vietnamese colony to be profitable for coffee production. The British, likewise, discovered the same in India. As the British themselves were not big coffee-drinkers and North America is largely unsuitable for coffee cultivation, we here in America initially inherited the British taste for tea. But high tea ended as soon as the crates splashed into Boston harbor. The American colonists quickly had to find a solution to their caffeine predicament, and thus the road was paved for the likes of Folgers and Starbucks.
Most major crops exist mainly as a form of sustenance, but coffee is different. Coffee brings with it a host of cultural traditions and rituals – so much so that we actually call it ”coffee culture.” If you’re a coffee-drinker as I am, coffee culture is a fun aspect to explore while traveling. And when you’re not traveling – because of covid or otherwise – it can be just as fun to relive exotic coffee traditions at home.
In the upcoming posts, we’ll take a tour of some of the unique coffee traditions I’ve encountered during my travels. Some of them are a little complicated, so maybe don’t try them until you’ve had your coffee first! 🤔
In the next post, we’ll head to Europe for the first stop, a country in the mountains of the former Yugoslavia.