Opinion: Sacred history of coffee

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Commentary by Ward Degler

The first Starbucks coffee shop opened in 1971 in Seattle. It wasn’t anything like today’s shops, however. It only sold coffee beans that folks took home, ground and brewed themselves. Starbucks never sold a cup of coffee until 11 years later when it opened its first espresso shop.

Things caught on quickly after that, and the company opened an average of two new stores every day between 1987 and 2007. Today, Starbucks has more than 27,000 stores in virtually every nation on earth and has some 277,000 employees.

Starbucks sold strong coffee and added a variety of teas later. In 1994, the company bought the Frappuccino brand from The Coffee Connection, and now sells $2 billion of chilled bottles of savory mocha each year.

Coffee began long before Starbucks, of course. It originated in Ethiopia and showed up as a drink in Yemen in the 15th century. Early Christians thought it was “the devil’s drink.” Pope Clement VIII got wind of it, but decided to taste it before banning it. He actually liked it so much he declared it an official drink of the Vatican.

Coffee was sacred in Arab nations and its export was forbidden. But in 1690, a Dutch trader smuggled a single coffee plant out of the Arab city of Mocha. It was cultivated and planted in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and the Dutch East Indian colony of Java, from which the brew eventually got its nickname.

Feeling smug about their achievement, the Dutch gave King Louis IV of France a coffee bush as a gift in 1713. Ten years later, a French officer stole a seedling and transported it to the island of Martinique in the Carribean. Within 50 years, Martinique’s coffee plantations boasted 19 million trees.

As coffee popularity spread, coffee houses began popping up around the world. First in Italy in 1645, then in England in 1652. In 1668, Edward Lloyd’s coffee house in London became a popular meeting place for merchants and maritime insurance agents. Eventually, the coffee shop closed and became Lloyd’s of London, the world’s best-known insurance company.

In 1886, a wholesale grocer by the name of Joel Cheek named his blend of coffee Maxwell House after the Nashville, Tenn. hotel where it was first served. In 1900, Hills Brothers pioneered packing coffee in vacuum-sealed cans, and in 1938 Nestle invented Nescafe, the first freeze-dried coffee.

The first espresso machine was invented in 1946, and cappuccino got its name from its light brown color, which resembled the robes worn by Capuchin monks.

Incidentally, Brazil still produces 70 percent of the world’s coffee, and the United States imports 70 percent of that. And apparently, Starbucks — with a store on virtually every corner — brews much of it.

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