10 Little Known Facts About Coffee

Coffee has been many things - stimulant, medicine and social drink. Discover some of the lesser-known facts about coffee and its long and tumultuous history.

Coffee, a drink a good proportion of the world couldn't do without, has had a long and colourful history. It has played a key role in civilisations from the Middle East to South America – as stimulant, medicine and indicator of overall coolness - and has won a devoted following. Here are ten lesser-known facts about coffee:

10 Facts About Coffee

  1. Caffeine, the ingredient in coffee that gives it that stimulating kick, was first discovered by German chemist Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge in 1819, after an encounter with the great Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Goethe, a keen amateur scientist in addition to his many other accomplishments, gave the young Runge a handful of Arabian mocha coffee beans, and urged him to analyse them.
  2. Coffee first enters the historical record with the Sufis of the Yemen, who, according to the sixteenth-century chronicler 'Abd Al-Qadir al-Jaziri, used a drink called “qahwa” as a stimulant to help them stay awake during their prayers.
  3. The coffee house first arose in the Middle East. By the early 1500s, the use of coffee had spread beyond the pious Sufis of the Yemen, and coffee had became a drink to be enjoyed in a social context, by all segments of society. Some coffee-houses were luxurious and impressive. In Coffee and Coffeehouses, writer Ralph Hattox quotes the Portuguese adventurer Pedro Teixeira (d1640) who describes a coffee-house in Baghdad: “This house is near the river, over which it has many windows and two galleries, making it a very pleasant resort.”
  4. The world's first café, a French adaptation of the Middle Eastern coffee house, was opened in Paris in 1689 by Francois Procope, a Florentine expatriate. It attracted a notable clientele over the years, including Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, Balzac and Victor Hugo.
  5. The Royal Society, the world's oldest and most eminent scientific society, began in 1655 as the Oxford Coffee Club, an informal association of scientists and students. Its founding members included the astronomer Edmund Halley and physicist Isaac Newton. In 1662 they were granted a charter by King Charles II as the Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge.
  6. The two main commercial varieties of coffee are arabica and robusta. Indigenous to Africa, they can now be found across the world, between 25 degrees North and 25 degrees South of the Equator. While robusta is a hardier shrub, they both require specific environmental conditions in order to grow.
  7. Coffee was originally regarded more as a medicine than as a drink. It was thought to cure a number of ailments, including drunkenness and asthma. Robert Burton, in the Anatomy of Melancholy (1632) listed coffee as an intoxicant, a euphoric, a social and physical stimulant, and a digestive aid.
  8. As coffee spread around the world, its use initially centred on the coffee-house. The social nature of these places, and their often lively political debates, meant they were frequently regarded with some alarm by the authorities, who periodically tried to ban them. The Mamluk governor Kha'ir Beg banned them in Mecca in 1511, although they soon re-opened. King Charles II's attempt to ban coffee-houses in 1676 was likewise short-lived.
  9. Coffee made its way to the New World in 1723, when French naval officer Gabriel d'Erchigny de Clieu managed to acquire a purloined coffee plant from the jealously guarded royal gardens at court, and smuggled it into Martinique.
  10. According to statistics from the International Coffee Organisation (ICO), the USA is the biggest importer of coffee, importing 23,575,457.7 60-kg bags of coffee in 2009.

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