Monday, May 19, 2008

How Coffee Changed the World

The latest from Livescience on items/events that changed the world examines the role and history of the little bean that changed the world, coffee. I've always said the productivity of the American economy is probably more dependent on drinking coffee than any other piece of technology or substance. Coffee is the second most important commodity worldwide (oil is the first) and employes nearly 500 million people worldwide. Coffee was discoverd almost one thousand years ago in Ethiopia by a farmer whose goats kept him up all night after eating a quantity of the beans. A monastary then began to brew it into a hot drink, aiding the monks to stay awake during long prayer vigils, then the drink crossed the Red Sea into Yemen, where it spread like wildfire throughout the Islamic world, and then on to Europe.

"Romantic exaggeration or not, by A.D. 1000 the bean with a buzz was a favorite among those needing a boost in East Africa as well as across the Red Sea in Yemen, where the crop had migrated over with slaves.

If Ethiopia was the birthplace of coffee, Yemen was where it grew up. The brew first took hold among clerics there too, but spillover into the secular crowd didn't take long and skyrocketing demand soon led to the world's first cultivated coffee fields there in the 1300s. The entire Arabian peninsula became a hotbed of coffeehouse culture, with cafés – called kaveh kanes – on every corner.

By the 15th-century, Mecca resembled a medieval incarnation of Seattle, men sipping steaming mugs over games of chess and political conversations. Coffee houses were such an important place to gather and discuss that they were often called Schools of the Wise. Coffee had much the same effect in Europe when it was introduced there in the 1600s. Cafés were the center of social life, where people with similar interests could gather and talk. The British insurance company, Lloyd's of London, began as a café popular with sailors who often discussed insurance matters."

The Muslim world had careful export restrictions for hundreds of years preventing the the export of mature beans until an intrepid pilgrim to Mecca arrived from India and smuggled some out of the country back home, leading to an agricultural revolution on the subcontinent. The Dutch later managed to acquire a plant, from which they cultivated crops in their colonies in Southeastern Asia islands like Java and Sumatra. Beans followed European conquests worldwide, entering areas such as Brazil, Central America, Jamaica, and Hawaii. There are as many as 25 million small farmers world wide raising coffee today.

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