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History of Coffee: Part I - Africa and Arabia

The coffee plant originates from the highland forests of Ethiopia. It is believed that the first plants were found growing wild in the region of Kaffa, from where coffee derives its name. A popular legend tells of a goat herder named Kaldi. One day he noticed his goats behaving in a strange manner. They were full of energy, playfully chasing each other and bleating loudly. He noticed they were eating red berries from the bushes nearby. Feeling tired and slightly curious, Kaldi decided to try some of the berries. To his delight, his fatigue quickly faded into a fresh burst of energy. At the monastery, Kaldi told the Abbot how these berries had had a miraculous energising affect on himself and his goats.

Kaldi was so impressed by the berries, that he filled his pockets with them and ran home to show his wife. “They are heaven-sent,” she declared, “You must take them to the Monks in the monastery.” The Abbot, clearly displeased, hurled the berries into the fire, proclaiming them as the “Devil’s work”.

Coffee In England

The first person recorded in history to brew coffee in England was an international student named Nathaniel Conopios from Crete, who was studying at Balliol College, Oxford.

This simple act, which happened in May 1637, was recorded by both scholar John Evelyn and historian Anthony Wood. Although shortly afterwards Conopios was expelled from college, his influence had a lasting effect on Oxford, as it was here that the first English coffeehouse was opened in 1650 by Jacob, a Lebanese Jew, according to Samuel Pepys’ Diary in 1650. It still stands today (right).

Even though Jacob moved to London a few years later to repeat his success, he had begun a trend that saw many more coffeehouses open in Oxford during that decade.

The Grand Cafe, Oxford
The Grand Cafe, Oxford - credit: www.thegrandcafe.co.uk/

The most significant of these coffeehouses was the one opened by Arthur Tillyard in 1655. Tillyard’s coffeehouse became a meeting point for a group who were known as the Oxford Coffee Club. This group was made up of Oxford’s leading scientists, including Sir Robert Boyle, and their students, who would meet to discuss their theories and research and share ideas. It is from the Oxford Coffee Club from which the world famous Royal Society, one of the leading scientific societies in the world, evolved.

The first coffeehouse in London was opened in 1652 by an Armenian man named Pasqua Rosée. Originally brought to London as a servant by the merchant Daniel Edwards, Rosée served coffee each morning to Edwards’ house guests. Curiosity about the new drink soon spread through Edwards’ friends, and the number of visitors to Edwards’ house steadily grew over time. There was so much excitement created by Rosée’s brew that Edwards eventually decided to back Rosée financially in opening a coffeehouse at St Michael’s Alley in Cornhill. As with Oxford, the idea soon took off, and by 1715 there were as many as 2,000 coffeehouses around London.

Lloyd’s Of London

One of the world’s largest insurance companies, Lloyds of London, started as a coffeehouse on Tower Street in 1688. Opened by Edward Lloyd, it primarily served seafarers and merchants. Lloyd would circulate amongst his customers creating a list of what ships were carrying, their schedules, and their insurance needs. This list drew underwriters to his coffeehouse to sell insurance to those who needed it and merchants so they could keep track of the ships.

Tipping Money


It is thought that the custom of tipping originated in English coffeehouses. There would often be a small box hung near the counter in establishments with the words “To Insure Promptness” (TIP) inscribed on them. Customers would drop a coin in the box to encourage swift service.

Healing Properties

The early growth of coffeehouses was largely due to support by doctors, promoting coffee for its supposed healing abilities. Before the introduction of coffeehouses, there was a widespread problem with public drunkenness as beer was consumed with almost every meal. But with public knowledge of the health benefits of coffee, and with coffee being significantly cheaper then beer, coffeehouses began to replace the tavern as the meeting place of choice. 


Needless to say, tavern owners were not going to let their profits dwindle without a fight, and many of the most aggressive attacks against coffee came from them. They claimed that coffee was an Arabic drink not suitable for well-mannered Christian men, unlike beer which had been brewed by Monks’ for centuries.

Tavern owners were not the only group to attack coffee. Women, upset that their man would spent more time at the coffeehouse then at home with them, soon started to protest. In 1674, the ‘Women’s Petition against Coffee’ was published. In this document women protested that coffee reduced the male sperm count and would lead to a decline in the population: “coffee makes a man as barren as the dessert out of which this unlucky berry has been imported; that since its coming the offspring of our mighty forefathers are on the way to disappear as if they were monkeys and swine.”

It was understandable that women were aggrieved as, at the time, they were banned from setting foot in a coffeehouse. However, this did not stop the ‘Men’s Answer to the Women’s Petition against Coffee’ being published later that year. The document defended coffee, claiming that women should be thankful for coffee, as it was in fact an aphrodisiac.