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Beverages of the 18th and Early 19th Centuries – Part 2 - Coffee

“Coffee fortifies the Stomach and Brain, promotes Digestion, allays the Head-ach, suppresses the Fumes caused by Wine, and other spirituous Liquors; promotes Urine and Women’s Terms, opens some Peoples Bodies, makes the memory and Fancy more quick, and People brisk that drink it: This last Effect has been observed, say they, by the Shepherds of Africa, who took Notice, that before Coffee was used, and that their Sheep fed upon this Kind of Pulse, that they skipped about strangely.”

- Louis Lemery in A Treatise of All Sorts of Foods, Both Animal and Vegetable, 1745

As we discussed in Part One of this series on beverages of the late-18th and early-19th centuries, civilization had produced only three important non-alcoholic beverages –tea, coffee, and cacao. These extracts of leaves and beans are today the source of the world’s favorite beverages with tea leading in the total amount of beverage consumed, coffee second, and cocoa third. In today’s post, we are going to look at the history and methods of making the second of these beverages: Coffee.

What is Coffee?

Coffee traces its origin to a genus of plants known as Coffea. Within the genus there are over five hundred genera and 6,000 species of tropical trees and shrubs. Experts estimate that there are anywhere from 25 to 100 species of coffee plants. The genus was first described in the 18th century by the Swedish botanist, Carolus Linneaus, who also described Coffea Arabica in his Species Plantarum in 1753. Botanists have disagreed ever since on the exact classification since coffee plants can range widely. They can be small shrubs to tall trees, with leaves from one to sixteen inches in size, and in colors from purple or yellow to the predominant dark green.

Botanical Drawing of a Coffee Plant
Botanical Drawing of a Coffee Plant

Each tree is covered with green, waxy leaves growing opposite each other in pairs. Coffee cherries grow along the branches. Because it grows in a continuous cycle, it’s not unusual to see flowers, green fruit, and ripe fruit simultaneously on a single tree. It takes nearly a year for a tree to mature after first flowering, and about 5 years of growth to reach full fruit production. While coffee plants can live up to one hundred years, they are the most productive between the ages of 7 and 20. The average coffee tree produces ten pounds of coffee cherry per year, or 2 pounds of green beans.

Types of Coffee

In the commercial coffee industry, there are two important coffee species — Arabica and Robusta. Coffea Arabica is descended from the original coffee trees discovered in Ethiopia. These trees produce a fine, mild, aromatic coffee and represent approximately 70% of the world's coffee production. The beans are flatter and more elongated than Robusta and lower in caffeine. Robusta is mostly grown in Central and Western Africa, parts of Southeast Asia, including Indonesia and Vietnam, and in Brazil. Production of Robusta is increasing, though it accounts for only about 30% of the world market. Today, Robusta is primarily used in blends and for instant coffees. The Robusta bean itself tends to be slightly rounder and smaller than an Arabica bean. Compared with Arabica, Robusta beans produce a coffee which has a distinctive taste and about 50-60% more caffeine.

The History of Coffee

Coffee grown worldwide can trace its heritage back centuries to the ancient coffee forests on the Ethiopian plateau. Legend says the goat herder Kaldi first discovered the potential of these beans. The story goes that that Kaldi discovered coffee after he noticed that after eating the berries from a certain tree, his goats became so energetic that they did not want to sleep at night. Kaldi reported his findings to the abbot of the local monastery, who made a drink with the berries and found that it kept him alert through the long hours of evening prayer. The abbot shared his discovery with the other monks at the monastery, and knowledge of the energizing berries began to spread. Unfortunately for those who would like to believe this story, which originated with a Roman era writer – Nairon, this tale does not appear in any earlier Arab sources and so is likely the product of Nairon’s literary imagination.

Evidence of knowledge of the coffee tree and coffee drinking first appeared in the late 15th century; Sufi Imam Muhammad Ibn Said Al Dhabhani is known to have imported goods from Ethiopia to Yemen where, among the Arab settlers:

“he found the people using “qahwa,” a drink being used by Sufis and others to stay awake during their prayers, although he knew nothing of its characteristics. After he had returned to Aden, he fell ill, and remembering [qahwa], he drank it and benefited by it. He found among its properties that it drove away fatigue and lethargy, and brought the body a certain sprightliness and vigor. In consequence . . .he and other Sufis in Aden began to use the beverage made from it.”

The spread of coffee from Sufi devotional use into secular consumption was a natural one and as word moved east and coffee reached the Arabs, coffee cultivation and trade began on the Arabian Peninsula. By 1414, the plant was known in Mecca and in the early 1500s was spreading to the Mameluke Sultanate of Egypt and North Africa from the Yemeni port of Mocha. By the 16th century, coffee growing was well established in Persia, Egypt, Syria, and Turkey

Arab Coffee House
Arab Coffee House

Coffee was not only enjoyed in homes, but also in the many public coffee houses — called “qahveh khaneh” — which began to appear in cities across the Middle East. Associated with Sufism, myriad coffee houses grew up in Cairo (Egypt) around the religious University of the Azhar. Coffee houses opened in Syria, especially in the cosmopolitan city of Aleppo, and then in 1554 in Istanbul, the capital of the Ottoman Empire. Coffee was noted in Aleppo by the German physician botanist Leonhard Rauwolf, the first European to mention it, as “chaube,” in 1573.

The popularity of coffee houses grew rapidly, and people frequented them for all kinds of social activity. Not only did the patrons drink coffee and engage in conversation, but they also listened to music, watched performers, played chess, and kept current on the news. Coffee houses quickly became such an important center for the exchange of information that they were often referred to as “Schools of the Wise.”

Coffee Spreads Through Europe

European travelers to the Near East brought back stories of an unusual dark black beverage. Coffee was first introduced to Europe in Hungary when the Turks invaded Hungary at the Battle of Mohács in 1526. Within a year, coffee had reached Vienna by the same Turks who fought the Europeans at the Siege of Vienna (1529). Later in the 16th century, coffee was introduced on the island of Malta through Turkish slaves that had been imprisoned by the Knights of St John in 1565 and were used to make their traditional beverage.

Prospero Alpini
Prospero Alpini

The vibrant trade between the Republic of Venice and the people of North Africa, Egypt, and the East brought a large variety of African goods, including coffee, to this leading European port. Venetian merchants introduced coffee-drinking to the wealthy in Venice, charging them heavily for the beverage. In this way, coffee was introduced to the mainland of Europe. In 1591 Venetian botanist-physician Prospero Alpini became the first to publish a description of the coffee plant in Europe. By the 17th century, coffee had made its way to Europe and was becoming popular across the continent. The first European coffee house apart from those in the Ottoman Empire and in Malta was opened in Venice in 1645.

Coffee became a crucial part of the culture in most of Europe, with queens, kings, and the public all becoming extensively enthralled with the product. Whether it be through the term 'coffee arabica' or the transportation of the drink, the passage of coffee into the Western world resembles that of the scientific knowledge and discoveries passed on by the Islamic Empires. Some people reacted to this new beverage with suspicion or fear, calling it the “bitter invention of Satan.” The local clergy condemned coffee when it came to Venice in 1615. The controversy was so great that Pope Clement VIII was asked to intervene. He decided to taste the beverage for himself before deciding and found the drink so satisfying that he gave it papal approval. Despite such controversy, coffee houses quickly became centers of social activity and communication in the major cities of England, Austria, France, Germany, and Holland.

Location of First English Coffee House
Location of First English Coffee House

The first coffeehouse in England was opened in St. Michael's Alley in Cornhill, London. The proprietor was Pasqua Rosée, the servant of Daniel Edwards, a trader in Turkish goods. Edwards imported the coffee and assisted Rosée in setting up the establishment. Coffee was also brought in through the British East India Company and the Dutch East India Company in the 17th century. By 1675, there were more than 3,000 coffeehouses throughout England, but there were many disruptions in the progressive movement of coffeehouses between the 1660s and 1670s. During the enlightenment, these early English coffee houses became gathering places used for deep religious and political discussions among the populace, since it was a rare opportunity for sober discussion. This practice became so common, and potentially subversive, that Charles II made an unsuccessful attempt to crush coffee houses in the 1670s.

In England “penny universities” sprang up, so called because for the price of a penny one could buy a cup of coffee and engage in stimulating conversation. Coffee began to replace the common breakfast drink beverages of the time — beer and wine. By the mid-17th century, there were over 300 coffee houses in London, many of which attracted like-minded patrons, including merchants, shippers, brokers, and artists. Many businesses grew out of these specialized coffee houses. The Insurer, Lloyd's of London, came into existence at Edward Lloyd's Coffee House.

English "Penny University"
English "Penny University"

Coffee in the Americas

In 1714, the Mayor of Amsterdam presented a gift of a young coffee plant to King Louis XIV of France. The King ordered it to be planted in the Royal Botanical Garden in Paris. In 1723, a young naval officer, Gabriel de Clieu obtained a seedling from the King's plant. Despite a challenging voyage — complete with horrendous weather, a saboteur who tried to destroy the seedling, and a pirate attack — he managed to transport it safely to Martinique. Once planted, the seedling not only thrived, but it’s credited with the spread of over eighteen million coffee trees on the island of Martinique in the next 50 years. This seedling was the parent of all coffee trees throughout the Caribbean, South and Central America.

Francisco de Mello Palheta
Francisco de Mello Palheta

The famed Brazilian coffee owes its existence to Francisco de Mello Palheta. Portugal still did not have coffee seedlings when, in 1727 , by order of the governor and captain-general of the state of Maranhão , João da Maia da Gama , Sergeant-Major Francisco de Melo Palheta went to French Guiana with the mission of re-establish the border set by the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713, that is, on the Oiapoque River , which was being violated by the French. There was, however, a "secret" secondary mission - to acquire seedlings and coffee seeds to begin its cultivation in Brazil, due to its great commercial value. He succeeded and became the introducer of coffee cultivation in Brazil, a crop that would become the main crop in the country in the following century. However, cultivation did not gather momentum until independence in 1822, leading to the clearing of massive tracts of the Atlantic Forest, first from the vicinity of Rio and later São Paulo for coffee plantations.

Future President John Adams
Future President John Adams

In the mid-1600's, coffee was brought to New Amsterdam, later called New York by the British. In North America, although coffee houses rapidly began to appear, tea continued to be the favored drink in the New World. That held true until 1773, when the colonists revolted against a tax on tea imposed by King George III. The revolt, known as the Boston Tea Party, would forever change the American drinking preference to coffee. During the American Revolution, drinking tea was seen as unpatriotic, as it was the favored drink of the British. This meant that in no time at all, coffee became the drink of choice for “true Americans.” On July 6, 1774, well before the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War, John Adams, in a letter to his wife Abigail, expressed the American attitude to tea and coffee.

“I believe I forgot to tell you one Anecdote: When I first came to this House it was late in the Afternoon, and I had ridden 35 miles at least. 'Madam' said I to Mrs. Huston, 'is it lawfull for a weary Traveller to refresh himself with a Dish of Tea provided it has been honestly smuggled, or paid no Duties?'

'No sir, said she, we have renounced all Tea in this Place. I can’t make Tea, but I'll make you Coffee.' Accordingly I have drank Coffee every Afternoon since, and have borne it very well. Tea must be universally renounced. I must be weaned, and the sooner, the better.

At the time of the Revolution, most US coffeehouses were also located in New England, with a few in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Norfolk, and Charleston. Many of these had a clear political affiliation. Where the coffeehouse was situated or what it was named determined much of its patronage. For example, the British Coffee House in Boston was frequented by Redcoats (British soldiers) and other loyalists, while the Green Dragon, also in Boston, was a meeting place for the many dissenters against British rule. Unsurprisingly, after the Revolution ended, the Boston’s British Coffee House was taken over by a new owner and renamed the American Coffee House.

Marquis de Lafayette during 1824-25 Visit
Marquis de Lafayette during 1824-25 Visit

In Norfolk, VA there were Coffee Houses dating back to at least the mid-18th century. There was the "Norfolk coffee-house" where goods and slaves were sold at public auction in 1766-1768. In 1771, Terese Pearse gave notice that at:

"At the Sign of the King's Arms Coffeehouse, in Church Street, Norfolk, is established a very genteel and convenient INN and TAVERN (with good Stabling for Horses) and for the Accommodation of Travellers and others; supported by a Society of Gentlemen…"

A tallow chandlers' business was carried on at the "North American Coffee-house" in Norfolk in 1771. The pre-eminent Coffee House in Norfolk, hosting events for Visitors such as James Monroe, the Marquis de Lafayette, was Norfolk’s Exchange Coffee House which hosted dinners for Madison (1818) and Lafayette (1824).

We hope you enjoyed today’s post on Coffee, its history, and its prominence in 18th and early-19th century America. Hopefully, this article will spark interest in learning more about the beverages of the early United States and perhaps encourage you to try some of the different types and roasts of Coffee. Please join us again in two weeks when we will take a last look at Beverages of the 18th and early 19th century, this time focusing on Cocoa.

Until then, while you are here on our website, we would also encourage you to join our blog community (Look for the button in the upper right-hand corner of this post). This will allow us to inform you when we post new articles. We also suggest that you return to our blog home page and sample our other articles on a wide variety of late-18th and early-19th century subjects; both military and civilian.

Finally, if you live in Virginia, Maryland, or North Carolina, we invite you to visit The Norfolk Towne Assembly’s home page to learn more about us, what we do, and how you can get involved in our historic dance, public education, and living history efforts.


Goodwin, M. (1956). The Coffee House in the 17th and 18th Centuries. Williamsburg, VA: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Library.

Hewitt, J. R. (1872). Coffee: Its History, Cultivation, and Uses. New York: D. Appleton and Company.

Johnson, B. (n.d.). English Coffeehouses, Penny Universities. Retrieved from Historic UK:

Lemery, M. L. (1745). A Treatise of All Sorts of Foods, Both Animal and Vegetable. London: T. Osborne.

Malecka, A. (2015). How Turks and Persians Drank Coffee: A Little Known Document of Social History by Father J. T. Krusinski. Turkish Historical Review, 175-193.

The Age Company Ltd. (2006, June 19). The Blessed Bean. Retrieved from

Ukers, W. H. (1922). All About Coffee. New York: The Tea and Coffee Trade Journal Company.

Vermani, N. (2021, May 14). Spilling the beans: The Islamic history of coffee. Retrieved from Folger Shakespeare Library:

Weinberg, B. A., & Bealer, B. K. (2001). The World of Caffeine. London: Routledge.

Widacka, H. (2011, February 04). Jerzy Franciszek Kulczyki - the founder of the first café in Vienna. Retrieved from Museum of King Jan III's Palace at Wilanów:


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