Coffee has a long, interesting, and disputed history—one that leads to and through the Ottoman Empire and a city now known as Istanbul. In fact, it is safe to say that were it not for the Turks, coffee would not be the world’s favorite caffeinated beverage. Let me explain.
The most popular rumor on the discovery of coffee is that of Ethiopian goat herders who noticed hyperactivity in their goats after they ate a strange bean. The goat herders passed the beans on to the local monks who, for fear of becoming intoxicated by the bean, threw it in a fire to dispose of it. They quickly noticed the delightful aroma emanating from the now-roasting coffee beans. The monks dug the beans from the fire, ground them up, and mixed them with hot water to make the world’s first cup of coffee. By the Middle Ages, coffee had spread throughout the Middle East and Africa thanks, in large part, to Sufi Muslims who noticed the drink made them stronger and more awake for their rigorous religious ceremonies.
Much like the discovery of coffee itself, the arrival of coffee to Istanbul is hotly debated. The Greeks claim a Greek opened the first coffeehouse in Constantinople. Others claim two Syrian men first brought coffee to the city. Still others assert it was the Ottoman governor of Yemen who, upon discovering the local beverage in his province, brought beans from Yemen to serve to the Ottoman sultan. The sultan was so impressed that he hired a personal barista, the Chief Coffee Maker. From the palace, the love of coffee spread to the social elites, and eventually to the common man.
Love for coffee spread throughout Constantinople and became such an important part of the culture that at one point it was legal under Ottoman law for a woman to divorce her husband if he didn’t provide enough coffee for her. Coffee houses quickly popped up all over the city and became the preferred meeting places of the public. Men of all social strata gathered in coffee shops to discuss business, politics, and daily life.
So popular were the coffee houses that they were shuttered and banned multiple times throughout history. In some cases, it was the political authorities who feared a social uprising from those who gathered in the coffee houses to discuss their displeasure with the Empire’s elites. At other times, it was the religious authorities who envied the popularity of the coffee houses. Antoine Galland, 17th century French orientalist, described the situation, "The number of coffee-houses increasing prodigiously in Constantinople and their attractions also with the habit of frequenting them, it was soon found that the imams and expounders of the law were left to keep company with their beards, the mosques remaining nearly empty…” Much like prohibition in the US, the ban was not effective. Many coffee houses moved “underground” and became the forerunners for 20th century American speakeasies. Not long after each ban, the government decided the loss of tax revenue from the coffee houses was too great and they were reopened.
The Ottomans were the first to introduce coffee to Europe and the West. In the 17th century, Turkish merchants sold coffee beans in Venice, and, later, in England. In 1657, Ottoman Sultan Mehmet IV gifted coffee beans to King Louis XIV. In 1683 following the unsuccessful siege of Vienna, retreating Turkish troops left behind numerous bags of coffee beans, which were later discovered by the pillaging Austrians. Not knowing what the strange beans were, the Austrians decided to destroy them, but rumor of their existence reached a Polish man named Jerzy Franciszek Kulczycki who was familiar with coffee from his travels through the Ottoman Empire. A war hero himself, Kulczycki was given the beans and used them to open the first cafe in Vienna.
After receiving the beans from the Turks, Europeans began spreading them all over the world. The Dutch took them to the Dutch East Indies (present-day Indonesia) and planted the first trees in Southeast Asia (my favorite coffee region). The Spanish and Portuguese likewise in Central and South America. Soon, the Italians began mixing small concentrated shots of coffee with steamed milk, and the cappuccino was born.
Fast forward a couple centuries, US soldiers stationed in Italy after WWII discover this wonderful variation of the beverage and realize that coffee does not always come freeze-dried in a can. It’s not long before Americans, as we typically do, take something as simple and beautiful as steamed milk and coffee, mix it with white chocolate and caramel syrup, top it with whip cream and drizzle, and transform it into a 1,200-calorie mouthwatering diabetic nightmare in a cup. The rest is delicious coffee history.
Read about a 5th-generation century old coffee shop in Istanbul's Grand Bazaar in The Keeper of the Coffee.