The story of coffee is also the story of our civilization: a beverage that has its origins in East Africa from where it spread across the Red Sea to Arabia, and from there on a global journey, spreading firstly through the Islamic world and then into Europe and Asia, and subsequently taken during the European age of exploration and colonization to the Americas, Australia and New Zealand.
Along that geographical and historical journey, coffee houses became the domain of the social disrupters, and provided the fora for intellectual discourse and political dissent. During the years of the Ottoman Empire there were frequent and unsuccessful attempts to ban coffee consumption, somewhat reminiscent of the era of prohibition of alcohol in 1920s in the United States. In 1633, Sultan Murad IV decreed coffee drinking to be a capital offence in an attempt to suppress political dissent.
In Europe, as in the Islamic States, coffee houses were the social levelers in which people of whatever social background could meet and read newspapers and pamphlets facilitated by the advances in printing, which took place in the 17th Century.
Charles II of England (whose father had been beheaded) was so concerned that coffee shops were fermenting revolution that he proclaimed a ban on them in 1675 – a ban that lasted just 10 days. French revolutionaries gathered in Parisian coffee shops to plan the storming of the Bastille, and Americans chose coffee over tea as a political action in the days before the American War of Independence.
Coffee houses were also the home of intellectual endeavors, and in 17th Century England they became known as the ‘Penny Universities’, with the proprietors providing lecture courses for those willing to pay a penny for a cup of coffee. Coffee houses were also the chosen domain of scientists, philosophers and artists throughout the last five hundred years, a tradition which surely continues within the coffee shops of New Zealand.
While bread may sustain the body, undoubtedly coffee feeds the mind. High value nutrition indeed.
Coffee as we know it is made from the roasted seeds of plants for the genus Coffea that are found growing wild in the highlands and forests of Ethiopia (Abyssinia) and elsewhere in tropical Africa. While it is likely that Coffea fruits were consumed by native peoples of Africa for hundreds or maybe thousands of years , the first documented accounts of coffee cultivation and coffee drinking are those from Yemen (Arabia Felix) in the 13th and 14th Century. It is said that the Mufti of Aden, Muhammed Ibn Said Al Dhabhani had enjoyed coffee on one of his trading visits to Abyssinia and imported it to Yemen where it rapidly gained popularity both for its use within religious ceremonies and within more secular coffee houses. It spread to Mecca, Medina and Cairo and onwards to Persia and Turkey.
The Yemenis cultivated Coffea arabica and strictly controlled the trade in coffee largely through the port of Mocha (the importance of which is celebrated on every coffee shop menu board) and prevented the export of fertile coffee seeds and plants. An Indian Sufi Monk Baba Budan is often credited with being the first person to smuggle fertile coffee seeds out of Yemen concealed in his beard.
However, the best documented account is of the Dutch cloth trader Pieter van den Broecke who managed to acquire coffee plants in Mocha in 1616 and established them in the Amsterdam Botanic Gardens. Seeds from descendants of these plants were used to establish coffee plantations in Sri Lanka (Ceylon) and subsequently Java and Surinam which became the major suppliers of coffee to Europe. In the early 20th century coffee returned to its African origin with coffee becoming a major export crop of many East Africa countries.
Coffea arabica is known to plant scientists as an ‘amphidiploid’ species, formed by the rare and probably single hybridization of two species, Coffea canephora and Coffea eugenioides, so that it contains the complete genomes of both species. This single hybridisation event is thought to have occurred relatively recently (about 10,000 years ago) and has severely restricted the extent of genetic variation in Arabica coffee – indeed it has the lowest level of genetic diversity of any major crop species.
This inherent low level of diversity combined with the establishment of coffee plantations from very few plants to produce a crop that was destined for disaster; and that came in 1869 when there was the first outbreak of coffee rust disease caused by the fungus Hemileia vastatrix in Sri Lanka.
Coffee rust rapidly spread to all coffee growing areas of the world. The survival of coffee cultivation in many Asiatic countries was due to the switch to cultivate the diploid parent of arabica coffee Coffea canephora which we know as robusta coffee. This species contained source of resistance to coffee rust, and now makes up about 40% of global coffee production.
Robusta coffee contains higher levels of caffeine and has a coarser taste than the more complex and finer flavour of arabica coffee, which is many people’s preference. However, robusta is favoured by baristas for the making of the finest espresso coffees.
Coffee is the major source of the most widely consumed legal psychoactive drug – the alkaloid caffeine, and this is why it has been drunk in religious gatherings and coffee houses for several hundred years. Caffeine is a neuro-stimulant that probably has its main activity through blocking the action of adenosine, which is known to cause drowsiness, although it is likely to have many other modes of action.
Along with caffeine comes a host of other chemicals from the coffee beans, which may have a variety of health benefits. Foremost amongst these is the relatively high level of chlorogenic acids (and related compounds), some of which degrade during roasting to provide bitter flavours, and the alkaloid trigonelline which contributes to flavour and aroma of brewed coffee.
There is evidence that consuming coffee may be good for our health, and this is more likely to be due to the chlorogenic acids as opposed to caffeine, as decaffeinated coffee seems to offer similar health benefits.
A meta-analyses of epidemiological studies published in the BMJ provided evidence that high levels of coffee consumption (such as 3 – 4 cups per day) were associated with lower risk of cardiovascular disease and cardiovascular mortality, several forms of cancer, and neurological, metabolic and liver conditions.
The major negative association was related to consumption during pregnancy, which was associated with low birth rate. While epidemiological studies such as these are hugely complex to interpret due to confounding factors – other life style and dietary factors that may be associated with coffee consumption – it does seem that drinking coffee may not only wake us up in the morning but may also benefit our general health.
Where does Aotearoa New Zealand fit into this glorious global story of coffee? Apart from of course making the finest coffee in the world…it has a contentious claim to have invented the ‘Flat White’, either by Fraser MacInnes in the Café Bodega in Wellington or by Derek Townsend and Darrell Ahlers of Cafe DKD Espresso in Auckland in the 1980s, with a counter claim that it was actually invented in Australia, either in Sydney, or somewhere in Queensland. 
New Zealand can also claim to have had the first instant coffee, invented and patented by David Strang of Invercargill in 1890. But to date, New Zealand coffee shops do not seem to have been the focal point for popular uprising or revolution, although no doubt plenty of political scheming goes on in the coffee shops around the Beehive in Wellington.