Coffee - From Early Beginnings to Worldwide Trade

The cultivation and growth of coffee plants is usually done in commercial operations. Up to 60% of global coffee is being produced in so-call 'smallholder' coffee estates with an average land area of less than 15 acres. Today, coffee remains one of the most important agricultural commodities cultivated in more than 80 countries throughout the tropics.

Among the major coffee species grown around the world are Coffea arabica (Arabica) and C. canephora; family Rubiaceae (Robusta).*

Coffee Origins
Coffea arabica is native to the highlands of South-Western Ethiopia. [1] It is believed that by the early 15th century coffee had made its way to Yemen, where it was grown in the Yemeni district of Arabia.

According to legend, Yemenis Governor Özdemir Pasha brought coffee to the Ottoman capital of Constantinople (now known as Istanbul, Turkey) during the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-1566). This made coffee a well-sought-after beverage throughout the Ottoman Empire (which controlled parts of Southeast and Central Europe, Western Asia and (later) Northern Africa as well as Persia (ancient Iran), Syria and Egypt.

Coffee houses
Coffee was brewed and enjoyed in private homes as part of a daily routine and to share with guests. 

But coffee was also prepared in so-called coffee houses, a concept introduced in Persia and surrounding countries by muslim pilgrims returning from Mecca and Medina. Known as Qahveh Khaneh (or 'Kiva Han'; translated from Persian/Farsi meaning 'coffee house'), these places became cultural centers where poets, writers and artists and others members from the upper social classes gathered to entertain, listen to music engage in active political and religious conversation, shared the latest news, rumors and important information and conduct business.They soon became known as  the 'Schools of the Wise.'

It is said that the first Qahveh Khaneh opened during the reign of the Safavids (1501 - 1736) in Persia in the city of Qazvin. Here. in the city famous for its traditional confectioneries, such as baghlavacarpet patterns, poetry, and its influence on Pahlavi (also known as  Pārsīk or Pārsīg), a language that, by the early 9th century had developed in 'early new Persian,' the concept of the Qahveh Khaneh grew especially in importance.

During the reign of the 5th Safavid Shah of Persia, Abbas the Great (1571 - 1629), who was generally considered one of the greatest rulers in Persian history coffee houses opened throughout Persia, including in cities like Tehran, Tabriz, Isfahan and Rasht.

Over time the Qahveh Khaneh, which were similar in design as the 'cold rooms' of the public bathhouses (or Hammans)#, became a center for specific guilds, where businessmen could find their counterparts and clients. As a result, a more modern version of coffee house concept, the Café, developed during the Qajar imperial dynasty in Persia (1789 - 1925), taking over the original role of the Qahveh Khaneh. Around the same time, habits changed and patrons gradually switch to drinking tea, which was brought to the country by Mohammad Mirza Qajar Qovanlu (1865 - 1929; also known by his honorary title Kashef as-Saltaneh), a politician, diplomat and constitutionalist who is best known for introducing tea cultivation in Persia.

But history suggest that, earlier, and more to the west, the world’s first 'coffee house' in Europe opened in 1475 in Constantinople. Others followed when, in 1650, the first coffee house opened in Oxford (United Kingdom) and Vienna (Austria) in  1720.

Quickly Spreading - Trade
From this early beginning in Ethiopia and Yemen, coffee spread, albeit via a detour, to Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Indonesia, and India.

As early as 1614, Dutch traders from the Dutch East India Company (VOC, Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie), visited Aden (Yemen) to explore the possibilities of coffee-trade.  And in the early 1616s, Pieter van de Broecke, a cloth merchant in the service of the VOC, and one of the first Dutchmen to taste coffee, obtained some coffee bushes from Mocha (Yemen) and took them to the botanical gardens in Amsterdam. Later, in 1640 and recorded in in archives of the VOC**, Johann Sigmund Wurffbain, a German merchant employed by the VOC, offered the first commercial shipment of coffee from Mocha in Amsterdam.

The coffee plants brought to Amsterdam adjusted well in the botanical gardens in and around 1658 the Dutch East India Company brought numerous C Arabica bushes to its trading posts in other countries (colonies), including Ceylon, India, and Indonesia.

Ceylon coffee
Although coffee (Arabica) may initially have been brought to Ceylon by Muslim pilgrims in the early 1600s, the Sinhalese only used the young coffee leave for curries and the flowers for offerings in their temples. Systematic cultivation of coffee on the island was initiated by Gustaaf Willem, Baron van Imhoff, a Dutch colonial administrator for the VOC who served as Governor of Ceylon.
Although limited under Dutch control, coffee production in Ceylon grew rapidly after the British took over colonial control of the island in 1815 ^^ By the late 1860s coffee production (Coffea arabica) was thriving, until the crops were destroyed by a plant disease known as fungus Hemileia vastatrix.[2]. This disease, also known as coffee leaf rust, affected not only Ceylon, but also other areas in Asia, including Java and Sumatra. Coffee cultivation in Ceylon was largely replaced by tea

Introduction of Robusta
To combat the H. vastatrix, , C. canephora (Robusta coffee), which is native to Central- and Western Africa, was was introduced in the early years of the 20th century in East Asia, primarily on the Island of Java, to replace Arabica coffee, which was destroyed by H. vastatrix.

Robusta coffee adapted to the warm-humid conditions typical of tropical regions of Java, with a vigorous growth, high productivity, and disease resistance, but the flavor and aroma of Robusta coffee, which provides a bold and earthy, more bitter and harsher, flavor profile.  Because Robusta coffee has a higher caffeine content it is popular choice for espresso blends and production of instant coffees. Robusta is, however, considered inferior to the superior and delicate flavor profile of the sweeter and smoother tasting Arabica coffee, which are known for their fruity and floral notes. [3]

Dutch Guiana
At the same time that the VOC introduced coffee in Asia, the Dutch West India Company (WIC; Westindische Compagnie), its counterpart which was organized a consortium of merchants and investors (similar in the way the VOC was organized), was granted a monopoly over trade with the Americas by the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands, introduced coffee in Dutch Guiana.***

The WIC noted the potential for coffee cultivation in Dutch Guiana (primarily in what is now the country of Suriname) known for its fertile lands and ideal climate, and established large plantations along the areas rivers, where the rich soil and abundant rainfall supported the growth of coffee. ^. 

However, unrelated to the variety of coffee, establishing coffee gardens (plantations) is a complex, requiring expertise.

Image: Gezicht op de Plantage Cornelis Vriendschap (English: View of the Plantation Cornelis Vriendschap), Public domain, CC0 1.0 Universal

Image: Gezicht op de Plantage Cornelis Vriendschap in Suriname (View of the Plantation Cornelis Vriendschap in Suriname); Rijksmuseum Amsterdam; Public domain | CC0 1.0 Universal)


Notes: * World coffee production is complemented by other coffee species, including Coffea liberica, Coffea deweurei var. “Excelsa,” and Coffea congensis.

# Traditionally designed similar as the 'cold rooms' (or Sarbineh) in a Hamman or public bathhouse, the coffee house or Qahve Khaneh included elevated halls and a spacious main area with a water basin, surrounded by smaller room or platforms for people to sit together.

** The Dutch East India Company (VOC, Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie), founded in 1602 and liquidated in 1795, was the largest and most impressive of the early modern European trading companies operating in Asia. About twenty-five million pages of VOC records have survived in repositories in Jakarta, Colombo, Chennai, Cape Town, and The Hague. The VOC archives make up the most complete and extensive source on early modern world history anywhere with data relevant to the history of hundreds of Asia’s and Africa’s former local political and trade regions.

*** In the 1600s, Suriname was only one of many Dutch colonies in the Guianas, which includes the coastal region between the Orinoco and Amazon rivers in South America. The Dutch West Indische Compagnie (WIC) originally claimed all of Guiana (also known as the Wild Coast), which also included the plantation colonies Berbice, Essequibo, Demerara, and Pomeroon.  These areas, after taken over by the United Kingdom in 1814, and, in 1831, united into British Guiana. From 1630 to 1654 The WIC also controlled north-eastern Brazil (also known as also known as New Holland; and later, when governed by Lisbon, was called Portuguese Guiana).  This area included  the regional capital Mauritsstad (today part of Recife), Frederikstadt (João Pessoa), Nieuw Amsterdam (today Natal), Saint Louis (São Luís), São Cristóvão, Fort Schoonenborch (now Fortaleza), Sirinhaém, and Olinda. Hence, before 1814, the Dutch colonies in the Guianas did not just describe Suriname, but rather all colonies under control by the WIC.

^ Today, Suriname produces both Arabia and Robusta coffee. Arabica coffee is grown at higher altitudes in the country's cooler regions like the Marowijne and Sipaiwini districts.  Robusta is grown in Suriname's lowlands, including the Nickerie and Coronie districts.

^^ Although introduced by the VOC in the mid 1700s, coffee production in Ceylon was not successful until after the colonization by British following the Colebrook-Cameron Commission reforms based on assessments and recommendations made to the British Colonial Office. By 1860, Cylon was among the major coffee-producing countries in the world. One primary reason why coffee production was initially not very successful was the fact that, under VOC control, coffee production was confined to the island's low-low country, while, at the same time the VOC restricted coffee cultivation as it did not want to compete against its own interest of coffee plantations on Java.

[1] Mishra MK, Slater A. Recent advances in the genetic transformation of coffee. Biotechnol Res Int. 2012;2012:580857. doi: 10.1155/2012/580857. Epub 2012 Aug 29. PMID: 22970380; PMCID: PMC3437269.
[2] de Paiva Custódio AA, Pozza EA, de Paiva Custódio AA, de Souza PE, Lima LA, da Silva AM. Effect of Center-Pivot Irrigation in the Rust and Brown Eye Spot of Coffee. Plant Dis. 2014 Jul;98(7):943-947. doi: 10.1094/PDIS-07-13-0801-RE. PMID: 30708847.
[3] F.J.E. van Dierendonck.The Manuring of Coffee, Cocoa, Tea and Tobacco (Published by Centre D'Etude De L'Azote; First Edition; January 1, 1959)


The unique history of Roastmasterz remains our driving force, creating a line of artisan roasted coffees while maintaining our family’s history & values. Now part of Java Original® Coffee, RoastMasterz is available around the globe, offering artisan roasted specialty coffee to retailers and individuals alike.

Featured image: by Delightin Dee on Unsplash. Used with permission.