From the 16th century, despite some initial obstacles based on religion, coffee became popular first in Arabia and then in Europe. The black brew stirred up a storm of interest wherever it went, as people discovered this qahwa al-bon “wine of the bean” with its remarkable ability to awake and refresh both the mind and the body.
Until the middle of the 17th century coffee growing was confined to Ethiopia and particularly the Yemen. The development of trade between the Yemen and Europe posed a serious threat to Arab control of world production. The Europeans used every trick in the book to get their hands on the coveted plant. In 1616 the Dutch East India Company stopped off at the port of Mocha and managed to sneak some raw beans into the shipment and took them back to Amsterdam. From these came the origins of the Dutch plantations in Asia and subsequently the French plantations in the Antilles
Towards the end of the 17th century as the demand for coffee continued to grow in Europe, special places were opened for the express purpose of serving coffee. In 1650 a coffee house opened in Oxford, reputedly the first in Europe. These cafes or coffee houses quickly became centers where people congregated. Revolutions have been hatched in coffee houses, commercial alliances forged, secret societies formed and politics and art endlessly debated.
The American continent was, in the 18th century, the scene of major confrontations between the great European colonial powers; Portugal, Spain, England, France and the Netherlands. For over a century, one of their main objectives was to the break the Arab monopoly and grow their own supplies of coffee in their own colonies. The demand for coffee became so great in the 18th century that all of those countries with colonial possessions (France in Haiti and Guiana, Holland in Surinam, England in Jamaica and Portugal in Brazil) resorted to the slave trade. In the Antilles and in South America hundreds and thousands of men women and children toiled in the coffee plantations.
Today coffee is the world’s largest employer and is the most valuable legally traded commodity after oil. There are 75 producing countries spread over four continents. The daily consumption of coffee worldwide is 1.4 billion cups.