The Business of Coffee: From Exotic Curiosity to Economic Force

The Business of Coffee: From Exotic Curiosity to Economic Force

The story of coffee is not just a story about a drink – it is, more a story of human curiosity, about the discovery of a new world, about the understanding of botanicals and the scientific urge to innovate and the human interest for the exotic... But above anything else, the story of coffee is about business.

It must have been around the end of the sixteenth century when an exotic curiosity - a coffee bean - appeared in Europe. The appearance of the first coffee beans awakened a curiosity for exotic plants – creating a new scientific discipline in the living laboratories of botanical gardens for studying and cultivating plants, herbs and trees. And while earlier centuries some exotic plants may have been cultivated in medieval monasteries, they were now, for the first time, studied for their usefulness as medicine, food, dye and more.

As a result, botanical gardens were established all over Europe. 

The oldest botanical garden, established in 1544 was the Botanical Garden of Pisa (better known as the Orto Botanico dell'Università di Pisa). According to the Guinness Book of World Records this is the “oldest botanical garden” in the world and is considered a part of the legacy left behind by Cosimo I de’ Medici)

Less than 50 years later, in 1590, a botanical garden was brought to life in Leiden, the Netherlands.  These new botanical gardens were became centers for science and discovery. And among the studied plants was coffee.

In 1574 the Flemish pioneer botanist, humanist, and physician, Carolus Clusius, the latinized version of Charles de l'Ecluse (1526–1609) drew detailed sketches of coffee beans which he included in the “Aromatum et simplicium aliquot medicamentorum apud Indos nascentium historia,” a publication considered the first account of Indian materia medica and the first textbook on tropical medicine written by a European.

Born in Aras (now Northern France), Clusius studies in Leuven, worked as a botanist at the court of Maximilian II in Vienna. He received the coffee beans from his friend and colleague Alphonsus Pancius a court physician for the Duke of Ferrara.

Clusius described the ‘grain’ he had received as this “Buna* is the size of a bean, or slightly larger, is somewhat more elongated, ash black in color. With a thin shell and a longitudinal groove on bath sides of the berry. This makes it easy to split it into two halves. Each halve resembles an elongated bead, flat on one side. Yellowish, sour in taste.”

From Leiden to Amsterdam

In addition to his scientific discoveries, Clusius also developed the botanical garden at the University of Leiden, an enchanted garden were some of Europe's first tulips were cultivated (but that's the subject of a different story). The original garden contained over 1,000 different plant species and introduced several new plant specimens received from the Dutch (United) East India Company (de Generale Vereenichde Geoctrooieerde Oostindische Compagnie or VOC, established in 1602).

Due to the plague epidemic (1634-1637) in Europe, which resulted in thousands of victims, a new botanical garden, called Hortus Medicus (now Hortus Botanicus) was established in 1638 in Amsterdam as an herb garden with medical plants for doctors and pharmacists. In the second half of the 17th century, with growing interest in the science behind plants, the Botanical garden in Amsterdam featured a rich collection of plants which were, at that time, completely unknown in Europe.

Today, some of the plants still in the Amsterdam botanic garden, including one single coffee plant, Coffea Arabica, and two small oil palms in pots brought to Hortus Botanicus, are considered the parents for the entire cultures of these plants which later expanded throughout the whole continents.

Beyond Science

And while botanists, doctors and scientists were interested in the properties and potential medicinal use of coffee, it took more than a century after the first accounts of coffee were published that the general public heard about it.  Nor did they show any interest in the new plant.

This changed however, after the 1650’s, when Europeans started to consume coffee. And a century later coffee was as well-known as beer and wine.

Interestingly, the popularity of coffee was, in part, promoted by a growing number of (scientific) publications about the plant and drink, how to prepare it as well as the perceived health benefits. 

The first coffee houses

In England, the first coffee house to open in Oxford at the Angel Inn at around 1650. Here, coffee, the new bitter drink, was sold to both students and professors. 

At the same time a certain Daniel Edwards, a London merchant who frequently traveled between London and Smyrna in the Ottoman Empire (now Turkey), hired a Ragusean Greek named Pasqua Rosee

Rosee's assignment to prepare a dark and bitter ‘Liquor’ for Edwards called coffee.  The newness of this ‘bitter drink’ became so popular that it attracted too many guests and friends troubling Edwards to serve them the new drink at his house. To end this, Edwards allowed Rosee, along with his son-in-law's coachman, to set up a shop. According to historians, in 1652, Rosee became the proprietor of the first coffee-house in London in St, Michael’s Alley in Cornhill.

After opening his coffee house, the number of coffee-houses grew rapidly.

Rosee helped popularize coffee by 'educating' people about coffee. A handbill (advertisement) he published in 1655 included an overview of the health benefits of coffee, as well as where to get this miraculous drink. The handbill noted that "The grain or berry called coffee, groweth upon little trees only in the Desert of Arabia... Coffee must "be taken hot as possibly can be endured the which will never fetch the skin off the mouth or raise any Blisters, by reason of that Heat."

Other handbills, circulating in London, refer to coffee as a panacea for all illnesses.

In 1657, a handbill for the Bartholomew Lane Coffee-House suggested that coffee was good for the eyes, "and better if you hold your Head over it, and take in the Steem that way." Coffee would also "prevent Drowsiness and make one fit for business."

Not much later similar handbills were circulated in Paris where a more conservative leaning public could read about controversial issues of the pros and cons of coffee for human consumption and how to respond tom the establishment of new coffee-houses.

The growing popularity of coffee was also helped along by contemporary literature, in which coffee houses provided the setting, and by plays and musical compositions, including Carlo Goldoni’s “La Bottega del Café (Venice; 1750) and Johan Sebastian Bach’s “Kaffee-Kantate (composed in 1732).

Pasqua Rosee in London and others in Paris were not the first to discuss the health benefits of coffee. Muhammad al-Razi (Abū Bakr Muḥammad ibn Zakariyyā al-Rāzī,) born in 854, in Rayy, Persia (now in Iran) was a physician, philosopher and alchemist who lived during the Islamic Golden Age.  According to historical accounts al-Razi was first writer to mention the properties of the coffee, which he calls bunn, and a drink he referred to as bunchum. al-Razi notes that  "bunchum is hot and dry and very good for the stomach." 

Centuries later, the Dutch physician Cornelis Bontekoe (1647-1685), whose real name was Cornelis Dekker and is generally known for his promotion of tea, confirms this observation, writing that coffee offers “an effective means of oral hygiene and good breath, it stimulated the appetite and aids digestion.”

A growing concern

With the growing popularity of coffee, the number of neighborhood coffee housed also grew. This was also partly since these coffee houses offered something new, a place to spend leisure time where men would regularly go to sit and talk about the issues of the day, the latest plays and literature.

By 1663, there were 83 coffee houses located throughout London, with concentrations around the business community centers (i.e., Broadstreet, Farrington, and Comhill wards). By by 1740 the number had grown to more than 550 coffee houses.

It’s fair to say that not everybody appreciated the growth of the number of coffee houses and influx of its clients. According to The Ale Wives Complaint Against the Coffee-House, published in 1675, said that “all the neighborhood swarm [to the coffee houses] like bees, and buzz there like them too,"

But protest and complaints about coffee houses did not stop its growing popularity, summed up in the words of John Aubrey, an English gentleman living in the early 1800s. Noting "the modern advantage of coffee-houses,” and the fact that coffee houses changed social interactions, Aubrey said “that before … men knew not how to be acquainted, but with their owne relations, or societies."

London coffee houses became appealing meeting place where men of all walks of life and all levels of society and all backgrounds, were welcome and could meet, drink coffee debate ideas, and participate in the political and social decision-making process of the day. 

Colonial commodities

While, at the end of the 1700s coffee was widely cultivated traded, and consumed, the 1800 saw a true coffee boom with prices dropping, and coffee now becoming a staple part of many around the world.

Growing popularity of coffee was also helped along by modern transportation, ensuring that larger quantities of coffee could be transported from producing regions in Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia to consuming regions.

Between 1815 and 1839, during the United Kingdom of The Netherlands (Verenigd Koninkrijk der Nederlanden), which was established in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars by combining the territories of the former Dutch Republic, Austrian Netherlands, and Prince-Bishopric of Liège, the port of Antwerp (now in Belgium) became one of the most important ports for the import of coffee from Indonesia and Surinam (until 1975 a colony of The Netherlands). The import and sale of other colonial commodities, including spices like nutmeg, sugar and cocoa, also grew.

The growing coffee consumption also resulted in the establishment of large coffee plantations and expanded trade. 

For example, after the British takeover of Dutch Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), a governorate established by the VOC in 1640, the British tried to cultivate food items familiar to them rather than adapting to local cuisines. Thanks to seedlings planted by Dutch traders, coffee already grew wild on the island.  It was also cultivated in small coffee gardens, but large-scale cultivation did not start until 1824.  At the same time, large coffee estates were established on Java

Hemileia vastatrix

However, most coffee cultivation in Ceylon ended after 1860, when a fungal infection, called orange rust (leaf blight or Hemileia vastatrix) spread among coffee plantations on the island.

From Ceylon, the devastating crop disease rapidly spread to other coffee-producing areas around the globe, destroying many coffee-based economies.

It did not, however, spread to Latin America.

Hemileia vastatrix did, however, greatly impacted the coffee cultivation in Dutch-controlled Java.  On the eve of the outbreak of Hemileia vastatrix in the early 1880s, which ravaged Java’s coffee groves, the island exported nearly 82% of all coffee leaving the Dutch East Indies, which amounted to 18% of world coffee exports. Over time coffee cultivation on the island was restored.

However, coffee cultivation was mostly abandoned in British following the outbreak Hemileia vastatrix and plummeting coffee prices. Ceylon now switch to the large-scale cultivation of tea.

The Coffee in Brazil

Coffee cultivation in British-controlled Ceylon lasted just over half a century. After abandoning coffee cultivation, Portuguese-controlled imperial Brazil took over as a major coffee producer. From the start of Brazil’s coffee cultivation, the country’s role has been controversial.  While the country’s elite coffee merchants became powerful and wealthy as a results of coffee lucrative exports, slave labor was at the center of coffee production. And while the forms of labor by which coffee was cultivated around the world, varied considerably, Brazil was the last nation to abolish slavery within its borders in 1881.

And while even in other countries in Latin America, including Costa Rica and Mexico, coffee producers opted to abolish slave labor, instead employing wage-labor in small coffee gardens, Brazil’s coffee planters were adamantly opposed to abolishing slavery.  They strongly believed that slave labor was the primary condition for the country’s existence.

By the time Brazil finally abolished slave labor, the country’s economy had drastically changed. Instead of slavery, the country subsidized immigration, allowing a massive coffee industry to continue growing. The changing marketed conditions in the latter part of the 1800s also changed who benefited from the country’s coffee cultivation. And while most coffee plantations were owned by Portuguese-descended Brazilians, the economic benefit remained with coffee traders and banks in far aways countries, including Amsterdam, Antwerp and London.

At the end of the 1800s, most forced labor, including slave labor in Brazil and systems like the Dutch cultuurstelsel in Java (also as tanam paksa or enforced planting, which requiring a portion of agricultural production, like coffee, to be devoted to export crops) were abolished. To guarantee a steady stream of workers, coffee cultivation depended more and more on state intervention as well as market forces. 

This especially impacted coffee cultivation in Latin America, where European and American coffee buying companies and their bankers in London, New York, and Hamburg started to develop and dictate policies, setting prices and managing operations.

And while commodity prices for coffee were sensitive to the impact of crop disease, drought and other natural forces, after the founding of Coffee Exchange, the first futures market for coffee in New York 1882 (later renamed as the Coffee, Sugar and Cocoa Exchange or CSCE; now part of the Intercontinental Exchange or ICE), coffee prices were not only established by the size and quality of the harvest, but also by price speculation.

By the turn of the 20th century, the coffee market became a global, interconnected economic force.


Note: * Buna (bean) is derived from the Ethiopian word for coffee (bunnu) and Kaffe (a town located in the southeastern highlands of the country), synonymous for coffee. It was in these highlands where wild varieties of coffee were turned into a drink… and began their journey in conquering the globe.

Featured image: Map of the actual trade zone (in Dutch: Octrooigebied) of the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie or VOC) between Cape of Good Hope (South Africa) and Japan; c. 1665. The VOC establishments are marked with yellow dots and names in black. Image courtesy: this work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries.

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