Introduction | Coffee Craze Spread With Islam
Old Labels Have New Meanings | Safeguards Spawn Illegal Profits | Coffee Fills National Coffers | Concocting a Quick Cup

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Coffee Craze Spread With Islam

Certainly the ingenious Arab who stirred up the first “bean broth” from the coffee cherry’s agreeable seed had no way of knowing how his concoction would later stir the world. Launched about A.D. 1000 from Yemen (map), its popularity soon perked across all Arabia, keeping dervishes whirling through nightlong rituals and worshipers awake. For teetotal Muslims, it became an integral part of religious and secular life.

Battles over the brew began about 1500 when physicians sought exclusive distributorship and mullahs complained that outside imbibing was emptying their mosques. Despite frequent efforts to restrict its use, coffee collected devout disciples as Islam’s influence pushed north and west.

Constantinople (now Istanbul) quickly acquired such a great thirst that Turkish law permitted a wife to divorce her husband for failing to keep the family ibrik, or pot, filled. Suing on such grounds should be easy these days. Never able to grow its own coffee, Turkey can no longer afford to import it from abroad.

Behind the landmark Blue Mosque in Istanbul, a middle-aged Turk who had traveled in the States stopped me to practice his English and his charm:

“You are from America, yes? I will show you around.”

“All I’m looking for is a cup of real Turkish coffee.”

“Ah, so sad. There is none. Something nice in leather, perhaps? Or maybe copper?”

“No thanks.” I edged away.

He took my arm and guided me into a dark, cavelike café, where hidden from the eyes of less fortunate Turks glowering into their tea, we sipped small cups of bootleg brew—perhaps a bit milder but no less muddy than in better days.

The proprietor wasn’t shy about his sources. “Mostly from my countrymen who work abroad. They bring in two kilos when they come home, for their own use of course. I buy what I can for 3,000 lira [$36] a kilo. Six times old price, but I do OK.”

The bill convinced me: $1.50 for each three-ounce thimbleful.

“Government say Turks here no work hard any more. I say ’bah.’ Take away our coffee and what they expect?”

Recognizing coffee as a hot item, visiting merchants of Venice carried their first cargo from Constantinople to Italy in 1615; by 1750 it could be found throughout most of western Europe. So, too, could that fraternal lodge of the Levant—the coffeehouse.

As the coffee craze rumbled across Europe, devout Catholics denounced it as the drink of the infidels, and therefore sinful. Before committing himself, Pope Clement—so it’s said—tried a cup and became an instant convert. He settled the matter by baptizing the brew to give it Christian status.

Germans (map) grudgingly did without for a while when Prussia’s King Frederick the Great banned the beverage to bolster sagging beer sales. In other places women agitated for prohibition, claiming coffee inhibited the virility of their mates.

By the late 1600s Britons became smitten with the bean, despite prices that reached the equivalent of $48 a pound—a record. Within a few years London was putting away more coffee than any other city in the world. (The economies of empire later caused a shift to colony-grown tea.)

Many of Europe’s 18th-century literary and musical greats found coffee a pleasant prod to genius. Voltaire reportedly drank 50 cups a day; it’s a wonder he got any work done. Balzac revved up on it before he wrote, and Talleyrand took time to pen his perfect formula: “black as the devil, hot as hell, pure as an angel, sweet as love.” Johann Sebastian Bach composed an entire cantata poking fun at those who sought to suppress the brew.

Along about the Bach era, the ever enterprising Dutch took a good look at the lucrative coffee trade, another at their colonies in the East Indies, and decided the two were made for each other. By the early 18th century Java was supplying the Netherlands with a steady flow of fine beans carried in the steamy holds of westbound sailing ships.

Fortunately, the unroasted beans react little to lengthy storage if properly protected from strong odors, which they readily absorb. Once roasted, however, beans begin to deteriorate. Present-day purists put the peak flavor at no more than one month. Once coffee is ground and opened, they say, flavor declines after about ten days, even in refrigerated tight-lid containers.


© 1999 National Geographic Society All rights reserved.