A coffee in Lisbon, also known as a 'bica'
A coffee in Lisbon, also known as a 'bica'

A brief history of coffee

I got up today and made my usual chocolate and coffee protein shake and sat down at the computer to figure out what to write about. A couple of minutes later, it hit me – coffee.

All three major key attributes that make humans the most dominant species in the world revolve around coffee.

Opposable thumbs are the first key attribute, and you may be thinking – but chimpanzees also have opposable thumbs! And the answer is simple. The main difference between them and us is we use our thumbs to make coffee.

The second key attribute that makes us humans the most dominant species is intelligent curiosity. Studies have shown that coffee can increase brain health by reducing the risk of diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, and, as everyone knows, coffee also boosts energy levels which allows us to explore our curious nature.

Furthermore, coffee can also improve heart and liver health, help with weight management, and decrease the risk of type 2 diabetes and depression.

Finally, the third key attribute is our ability to gossip. And, what do you do when you want to catch up with someone? You invite them out for a coffee. I rest my case.

Coffee actually has an interesting history. There are lots of legends surrounding who first discovered coffee, but my favourite is the legend of the Ethiopian goat herder named Kaldi. It is said that he first discovered the effects of coffee when a few of his goats ate the cherries off a wild coffee shrub and became more energised than the rest of the herd.

He then tried the cherries himself and took them to a nearby monastery to share his findings. However, the monks dismissed his story and threw the cherries into the fire. Moments later, a rich aroma started to fill the room, so they collected the roasted beans (also known as the cherry seeds), ground them up and added boiled water. And that is the legend of the first ever coffee.

The entrance to 'A Brasileira' in Lisbon
The entrance to ‘A Brasileira’ in Lisbon

In reality, the first coffee plants did come from Ethiopia where tribe warriors would grind the coffee cherries together and bind them with animal fat to create a mixture that gave them energy during hunts.

Then, around the 15th century, coffee cherries were imported to Yemen where Sufi monasteries used coffee as an aid to stay focused during long prayers. From there, the city of Mocha in Yemen became the centre of the coffee trade and coffee was cultivated on a large scale for the very first time.

By the 16th century, coffee was introduced in Europe by Turkish slaves on the island of Malta and by merchants in Venice, which led to hundreds of coffee shops opening up around Italy over the next hundred years.

By the end of the 16th century, coffee was available in the UK and, by the mid-17th century, it arrived in France.

Since coffee is native to Equatorial Africa, it is best grown in tropical areas, so following the Age of Discovery, coffee cultivation began outside of Arabia for the first time. The Dutch were the first to successfully introduce coffee plantations to one of their colonies (Java in Indonesia) and the French were the first to plant it in the Americas.

By 1727, coffee had made its way to Brazil, where it fuelled slave labour until the late 1800s. From there, it was also introduced to Portugal’s former colonies: São Tomé and Príncipe, Cabo Verde and Angola.

Inspired by the rest of Europe, the first public cafes stared appearing in Portugal during the 18th century and quickly became common spaces for numerous intellectual, artistic and literary gatherings.

Today, there are several variants and different ways to serve a cup of coffee. However, in Portugal, if you simply order a coffee, you will be served an espresso. The espresso is a relatively modern invention compared to the rich history of coffee and the machinery used was first invented in Italy around the turn of the 20th century. In Portugal, depending on what region you are in, an espresso can also be called a “bica” or a “cimbalino”.

A “bica” is used in Lisbon and the south of Portugal and the word is said to have originated at A Brasileira, one of Lisbon’s oldest and most emblematic cafes located in Chiado.

When coffee first arrived in Portugal, people were not used to its bitter taste, especially when compared to their beloved Port wine. In order to try and get more people to drink coffee, the cafe put a sign outside saying, “Bebe Isto Com Açúcar”, which means “Drink This With Sugar”. Over time, the acronym became the general term for coffee.

Meanwhile, in Porto, the Âncora D’Ouro (commonly known as “O Piolho”) was the first cafe in the north of Portugal to buy an Italian espresso machine called “La Cimbali”. Because of that machine, the general term for coffee in the area became a “cimbalino”.

Today, coffee is one of the most consumed beverages in the world. After the Boston Tea Party and the war of 1812, coffee became something of a national drink in the United States which further increased the drink’s popularity.

To finish on a fact, ever since coffee’s implantation in Brazil, the country has become the largest coffee producer in the world and has been for the last 150 years.

Now, to end it on an even weirder fact, coffee is so popular that in Japan you can frequent coffee spas and bathe in a giant pool of coffee. And, with that note, it is time for my second cup of the day.

By Jay Costa Owen

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Jay recently graduated from the Faculty of Fine Artes in Lisbon. Jay’s interests are exploring new cultures through photography and the myths, legends and history that define them.