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History of coffee and coffee legends

The history of coffee is the history of adventure around the world.

Beer may be the oldest man-made brew, with wine a distant second. Beer recipes are at least as old as 6000 BC, but the oldest winemaking processes date 'only' from about the turn of the first millennium.

Their younger cousin, coffee, arose a few hundred years later, though.

Brief history of coffee

No one knows how old the plant itself is. Some archaeological evidence shows that humans were eating the berries as long ago as a hundred thousand years.

One legend says that a goat herder in Ethiopia observed his charges eating the red berries from a nearby tree and became excited. Trying them himself, he too felt a great lift. By 600 AD that magical berry, and the brew made from drying and grinding its seeds, had found its way to what is now Yemen, on the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula.

Stories tell of a native of India smuggling the precious seeds of the tree out of Arabia around 1650 AD, then planting them in the hills of Chikmagalur. Arabian law forbade the exporting of beans that could germinate, effectively controlling coffee trade for centuries. Whether myth or history, the fruit of those seeds now forms a third of India's large coffee output.

Europeans - the British, Dutch, French, and others - spread the beans to other countries during their travels. The Dutch were responsible for its introduction to Java in the 18th century. From those plantings, history tells us, came the famed tree coveted by France's king, presented to him as a gift.

Louis XIV of France, finding the tree didn't tolerate frost well, had a greenhouse erected to supply him with the beans to make the brew he so savored. It is said that from that source came the cultivars used in Central and South America.

Reaching Martinique around 1720, sprouts were planted and grew well in the hot Caribbean clime. From the thousands of trees that resulted, some were transported to Mexico where the product now forms one of their largest exports.

Making its way to French Guiana around the same time, the tree grew well in that steamy atmosphere. Seeing an opportunity, a rascal named Francisco de Melo Palheta solicited the aid of the governor's wife to smuggle seeds out of the country. As he prepared to part for Brazil, the lady handed him a bouquet of flowers containing the illicit beans.

Brazil is now one of the largest coffee producers on the planet.

From Brazil the seeds complete the circle, making their way in the late 19th century to Kenya and Tanzania, not far from their original home in Ethiopia. Six centuries to return home is a long journey and an excellent excuse to rest and have a cup.

Coffee legends and reality

That a mere beverage could generate so many romantic tales and so much hard-headed business is a wonder. Yet from its beginnings to the present, this dark and pungent liquid has fascinated, cured and enriched billions the world over.

Legends abound about the origins of the coffee plant, but the most reliable histories put its discovery in Ethiopia somewhere around 500 BC. From there, after observing the stimulating effects of its berries, travelers brought it to Arabia, where it acquired the name.

The Renaissance gave birth not only to science and art, but the commercial production and known-world distribution of what would later be called 'that heathenish liquid'. By the late 18th century both plantations and drinking popularity had spread to Europe, Asia, the Middle East, South and North America and to every social class.

Throughout those long centuries the health effects ascribed to coffee border on the miraculous. But, as with most claimed miracles, there's some fact at the bottom.

Some studies suggest that mammalian sperm swim faster, farther and longer in fluid laced with coffee. The theory is the caffeine stimulates them. One Harvard study followed over 100,000 individuals for almost 20 years, drawing the conclusion that moderate use can help reduce diabetes. Others show reduction in cirrhosis of the liver and decrease of asthma severity.

As with wine, the antioxidants in coffee have been touted as helping keep hearts healthier, though debates rage about whether the pros outweigh the cons. Coffee is a diuretic and encourages more frequent urination, and some assert that the stimulation from caffeine leads to long term nerve degeneration. Caffeine withdrawal can lead to increased sleeplessness. And, caffeine is a natural insecticide.

But for good or ill - or both - coffee is here to stay. The economics alone virtually guarantee that, since as a commodity coffee is second only in dollar volume to oil.

Whether traded on exchanges in London, New York, Hong Kong or Lima with over 400 billion cups consumed annually, this other 'black gold' only grows in popularity. Though only 10-20% (depending on country) of adults drink one or more cups daily, the total retail sales hovers near the $9 billion level annually.

Add to those figures the number of raw beans, grinders, roasters, brewers and cups bought for the home and the figures become astounding.

With the rise in both basic commodity and specialty retail prices, the future for coffee businesses continues to look bright. Starbucks alone has over 10,000 outlets around the world.

And specialty coffee shops are not the only outlet for a wide choice of blends and styles. Home roasters and brewers also can enjoy espresso, invented in 1901 and growing ever since. Straight shots, long shots or double shots are a snap now with home machines.

Mocha, Latte, and Cappuccino - all available by the addition of a few ingredients at the touch of a few buttons. Flavored coffees in as great a variety as wines are easy to make, with just a dash of vanilla, caramel or fruit flavorings.

With all that history, money, and delicious variety maybe the legends weren't so far off after all.