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Coffee History, The History and Myths of Coffees and a Coffee History Timeline

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Recently the historic discovery of two charred Arabica coffee beans, found in the Shimal tell of the Ras Al Khaimah region of the UAR, have excited coffee historians and culinary paleontologists.  These, possibly roasted, coffee beans were amongst shards of Yemeni pottery from the early twelfth century. If verified this means that coffee was grown and prevalent enough to appear in remains 350 years before previously thought and history will require another revision placing a date for consumption back a few centuries to the 1100’s.

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No matter what historical period we examine the history of coffee in … whenever and wherever the bean appeared opinion and argument followed and the controversy continues even today. Just like any other global commodity, it is difficult to separate myth from history so let’s examine a few of each. At first, we just ate the whole bean raw, like other nuts and fruits, soon becoming aware of its stimulating and hunger suppressant properties. Preparation methods progressed from grinding whole green cherries and combining this mass with, or cooking it in, butter to form a sort of pemmican a mainstay of the early Galla tribe of Ethiopia.  The cold-water infusion method, using the whole cherry, husk or just the bean, became the favored technique until the advent of roasting and use of hot water supplanted it. The outside covering of the beans has a high sugar content and this skin and the underlying pulp was, and still is, used to make wine by the Oromo tribe of Ethiopia, perhaps this original Gahhwat al-Bun was the early Wine of Arabie known to some mid second millennial Europeans.

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The term coffee is rooted in the Ethiopian word for bean; Bunna which mutated to the Arabic Gahhwat al-Bun meaning wine of the bean, truncated to Gahwa/Kahway/Qahwa, to the Turkish Kahve, to the Italian Caffe and finally to the English term coffee.  Some think the term comes from the name for a province of Ethiopia called Kaffa where the beans were thought to have originated but the topic remains an arguable one and shows that myth is often more important than history. One ancient meme tells of King Solomon entering a town whose inhabitants were all ill, the angel Gabriel appeared and told him to brew up a pot of coffee and distribute it amongst the afflicted citizens who symptoms inexplicably disappeared. Queen Sheba was said to have visited Solomon to study Judaism and perhaps brought with her retinue some beans or saplings from Axum but there is little historical documentation since it would have occurred around 10,000 BCE.

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The bards of Islam say Mohammed received a cup of brewed coffee from the angel Gabriel prior to an important battle that gave him the stamina to unhorse 40 warriors and then mount 40 women.  Difficult to verify since the prophet died in 632, one hundred years before the Ethiopian Khalid/Kaldi supposedly discovered coffee. The “40” thing has been attributed to Mohammed’s statement that coffee gave him the strength to perform those feats, not that he did so,  and that number appears in various religion doctrines … a viable subject for another post.

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Kaldi, a Christian poet type (read slacker), had a job herding goats in Yemen and one evening when his goats didn’t respond to his summoning he set out to find them. Several hours later, he discovered them rushing about, dancing and butting horns near a bush covered with red berries.  The next day the goats headed for the same bush and berries so Kaldi tried some himself, he got a rush and later took a sample to the local Muslim scholar and monk named Aucuba.  The Mufti later visited the site to investigate and took a bough back to his library for study and research but found no reference. During his initial visit he noticed the trees were planted in pattern that only the hand of man, or woman, could produce and he later came upon an old text that told of an Abyssinian queen named Balkis, whom we know as Sheba, that came to visit Solomon perhaps bringing coffee with her from Ethiopia to the area. Aucuba tried the beans raw and found them bitter and unpleasant; he next crushed the cherries then boiled them and sipped the result without much improvement.  He then thought that he would roast them, crush them and make gruel like grain but the brew was still bitter so he added some honey and finished the porridge. Later that evening at prayers, he got a caffeine rush and soon found himself running with the prophet. He later turned on the faithful and became a rich man selling coffee to his brethren.

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Circa 1239, the Turks say Yemen Sufi Sheikh Omar (Abu’l Hasan ‘Ali Ibn Umar) a renowned physician from the court of Ethiopian King Sadaddin II had an illicit affair with the king’s daughter. This attempt to jump classes caused Omar and his posse to suffer banishment to the mountains of Yemen where they set up a settlement. Sustenance was sparse and they partook of some red berries from one of the local plants to augment their diet. They soon discovered the stimulating effect of the coffee cherry and learned how to make a decoction from the boiled cherries and leaves that help focus their concentration, belay their hunger and hold off fatigue. Back home the citizens were experiencing an itching plague and a group made the pilgrimage to see the famous exiled Sufi in search of a cure. Well when Abu’l Hasan administered some of the newly found substance, the itching subsided, and he was welcomed back to Ethiopia.  Upon his return he promoted and established coffee cultivation and the drinking of Qahwa, founded the city of Al Murk/Mocha, and started a Sufist school that incorporated copious coffee consumption in its late night prayers. Abu’l Hasan is the patron saint of Mocha, coffee growers, coffee house proprietors and imbibers. In Algeria, the colloquialism shadhiyle used for coffee honor both Omar and his place of birth Shadhilly.

Coffee spurred Islam to develop a scientific, medical, and literary culture that was one of the brightest of all times. It is possible that the Arabs learned the brewing process through the visits of a Muslim-Chinese Admiral known as Zheng He, The Three Jeweled Eunuch, during the first third of the fifteenth century.  Anyone setting board on one of his huge ships who watched tea brew in water would have been very impressed and it is likely that a Sufi Mufti named Gemaleddin; (Mohammed bin Sa’id al-Dhabhani) found his way on board to partake of the beverage and when he left took both tea and the technology to brew it home with him. Soon afterwards Confucianism reappeared in the middle kingdom and China closed in on itself ending the tea trade and it is then that coffee may have become a substitute  for the recently found and then lost beverage of the middle kingdom celestials.

A Hindi attributed myth beatifies one Babu Budan, Sri Gura Dattatreya, for bringing fertile coffee beans from Mecca.  Although Indians enjoyed coffee, none was cultivated there before Budan made his Hajj. After defeating a murderous warlord, he announced to the faithful victors that he would make a pilgrimage to Mecca. During his journey, he discovered a black beverage call Qahwah that helped rejuvenate him as he traveled. The Babu hoped to bring some fertile seeds or cutting back to Chikmagalgur but unfortunately ancient trade embargoes forbade export. Nevertheless, Babu Budan was determined to turn his followers on and so committed a very non-Muslim act; he strapped seven of the illicit seeds to his belly that inoculated India’s coffee plantations and made him a highly revered saint.

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At the battle of Vienna in 1683, Emperor Leopold abandoned the city when besieged by the army of Turkish general Kara Mustapha. Inside the beleaguered city one Franz George Kolschitsky, who had been a coffeehouse keeper in Istanbul and therefore knowledgeable about things Turkish, volunteered to obtain reinforcements from the Prince of Lorraine who was bivouacked nearby. Myth tells us that Franz ran the gauntlet 4 times, with each trip requiring him to cross four channels of the Danube, and on his last foray brought news that the King of Poland, Jan Sobieski, had joined forces with Lorraine and the city was saved. Our hero Kolschitsky was rewarded with cash that he later used to open The Blue Bottle; Vienna’s first coffeehouse. The defeated Mustapha left five hundred pounds of coffee behind that no one except Kolschitsky knew what to do with. When he brewed and served up the first batch, it proved too strong until a Capuchin monk named Aviano suggested adding honey, sugar was still a luxury in Europe, and milk to the brew.  Anyway, the resulted tasty brew resembled the color of the good cleric’s cassock and a grateful King Sobieski [so the myth goes] named the victory beverage Cappuccino.

At the treaty of Utrecht in 1713, Louis the fourteenth acquired a Dutch coffee sapling, in exchange for some French lawn sod, that he took home and planted in his Orangery. Myth further says that the next Louis, the XV, personally tended the cuttings by harvesting, roasting and brewing coffee with his own hands for his courtiers. XV Louis also ordered a Chevalier named Gabriel Mathiew de Clieu to take plantings to Martinique and some claim they were the first cultivars in the America’s although France was already growing coffee on Hispaniola in 1715. The Chevalier wrote that not only was he attacked by pirates but also used part of his own ration to water the tree during the crossing of 1720. Some accounts say the Chevalier pilfered the seedlings from Louie’s Orangarie but that’s unlikely; you didn’t mess with the king.  XV Louis also shipped cuttings to the Isle of Bourbon in the Indian Ocean and French Guinea in the Caribbean and both those varieties are highly esteemed today.

A Brazilian diplomat, Francisco de Mello Palheta, was to mediate a border issue between French and Dutch Guiana.  Myth says Poncho tried to obtain some seeds from the French governor but his request denied so, using another tack, he had an affair with the governor’s wife who placed some of the forbidden cherries and cuttings in a farewell bouquet she gave her lover.  Upon his return, myth tells us that Poncho started the Brazilian coffee industry but in reality, Jose Mariano da Conceicao Veloso planted coffee in 1774 using seeds, obtained from a Dutch trader named Hauptman, in the garden of St Anthony’s monastery built in 1608 in what is now Brasília the modern capital.

James Folgers came to California in 1850 and worked as a carpenter, building the Pioneer Steam Coffee and Spice Mill in San Francisco, to pay for his trip and build a grubstake. After a year he headed for the mines and a small town called Yankee Jims taking along several bags of pre roasted and ground coffee from the mill.  His search for gold was apparently successful since he returned to SF in 65 and bought Pioneer renaming it J. A. Folgers and Co. The firm sold wholesale roasted beans but continued to refine and sell its blended product in various grades the best being Folgers Golden Gate Coffee whose label portrayed a sailing vessel in the San Francisco Bay.  The firm help invent cupping and the vocabulary used to describe it. I have vivid memories of smelling the roasting plant, as I would drive up the Embarcadero Freeway to Chinatown or North Beach.

 Anyway, we’ll never know if there was a single incident of discovery but here are a couple of coffee relevant dates, musings or legends some documented some not.

8000 BCE

  • Coprolites, fecal fossils,  with coffee cherries are dated

1000 BCE

  • Coffee may have traveled to Arabia from Ethiopia with slave traders
  • Green bean Qahwa brewed

800   BCE

  • Possible cultivation occurring in Yemen

500    CE

  • Cherries, beans, leaves eaten
  • Ethiopia invades Arabia

750    CE

  • Goats show herder the effects of coffee

900    CE

  • Rhazes, the prince of physicians writes of medicinal use of bunca or bunchum

1000  CE

  • Seedlings are planted in Arabia
  • Avicenna, aka Ibn Sina, uses as medicine
  • Coffee is traded in bean form, which makes it infertile


  • Mocha is founded, unroasted green coffee brewed by Omar/Umar
  • Turkish traders begin dry roasting beans for transport


  • Persian coffee-making accoutrements dated
  • Arabs begin cultivation


  • Coffee is spreading in the Arab world, by traders, holy men and whirling dervishes


  • Jamal Al-Din, a Sufi leader sanction coffee for use in the Dhikr, Malwid & Ratrib
  • Arabs begin roasting coffee in Egypt, Syria, Persia & Turkey for the masses
  • Kiva Han, the first coffee-house, opens in Istanbul


  • Coffee is being introduced, debated, banned then permitted in various cities
  • Coffee introduced to Europe
  • Cultivated in India
  • Venice trades in beans, but doesn’t drink coffee


  • Captain John Smith brings beans, acquired from a Turkish slave, to Jamestown
  • The word coffee appears
  • Coffee to Holland, Venice and Paris … Coffee houses open in England
  • Coffee consumption surpasses beer in New York City
  • Charles II bans coffee houses 12/23/75 lifts ban 1/8/76
  • First hand crank coffee mill appears


  • Coffee in Spain, ergo California
  • Pot technology begins, infusion method in a bag in France
  • Coffee to Martinique, the Caribbean and Latin America.
  • Bach writes The Coffee Cantata, the Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds of its day
  • Boston tea party, patriots adopt coffee at the Green Dragon
  • First filters appear, even if they are old socks
  • Boiling of grounds abandoned in France
  • First Coffee house in Spain


  • First percolator, cowboys still boiling coffee, leftovers for red eyed gravy
  • First pressurized espresso machine
  • Mocha Dick sinks the Essex
  • New York Cities coffee is served in bowls
  • Drinking from the saucer “Chinese’ style is in vogue in US
  • Vacuum pot is invented
  • French press pot is invented
  • Europe’s depression starts creating the slums of Brazil with displaced labor
  • The New York Coffee Exchange is established
  • First packaged ground roasted coffee in paper bags, Osborn’s Celebrated Java
  • Chase and Sanborn’s first tinned round coffee


  • Hills Brothers begins marketing vacuum packed ground coffee
  • Decafe is invented, Sanka “sans caffeine”
  • Instant coffee invented
  • Melitta Benz invents the paper filter using her son’s blotter paper
  • Illy perfects the steam espresso machine
  • Freeze dried coffee invented as Nescafe
  • Gaggia develops pressure level brewer that produces crema
  • Bunn develops the automatic drip coffee machine
  • Starbucks opens
  • Mr. Coffee comes home


  • Douwe Egberts and Phillips invent the single brew coffee pod
  • The insulated take out coffee cup is invented
  • 20 Million employed in the first world’s global coffee industry
  • 400 billion cups of coffee per year are consumed globally

There are about 100 different species of Coffee known commercially but only C. Arabica or Arabica, C. canephora or Robusta and C. Liberica, a variety grown for its resistance to fungus, are traded on the global market. Both Robusta and Arabica have about 45 cultivars each known by a variety of different names indicating terroir; meaning growth origin, ports they shipped from and habitually cutesy appellations referring to their rearing plantations. Coffees named for areas or ports include Mocha, Java, Bourbon (island of), Santos (port in Brazil), Harrar & Sidamo (towns in Ethiopia), Pluma Altura (Mexican region), Blue Mountain-Wallenford/ Blue Jamaican, Kona, Kenya, Zimbabwe and the like. These differing varieties are sold green and then usually blended by roasters and marketed under various names.  Roast names simply describe the bean’s roast time and temperature … to what spectrographic or eye detected color.

Arabica, indigenous to Ethiopia, is the accepted benchmark  bean grown at elevations over 2,000 feet, requiring more water, a longer growing period and, since the cherries ripen randomly, hand harvesting. Robusta, indigenous to the Congo, can be, and on some moneyed plantations is, harvested by machine but of course not by the many indigenous small holders of the world. Inferior Robusta grows at lower elevations with less water, and contains about twice the caffeine of the Arabica bean. In either case, the beans, called peaberries, are detached from their skin and pulp. This process is done either wet or dry, by fermenting and with or without machine assistance all dependant on the resources and technology available to the harvester. Then the beans are usually aged and or air-dried, sometimes called monsooning since it is supposed to reproduce a long sea voyage powered by monsoon winds around the Horn of Africa, and finally hulled to remove the parchment and sliver skin. The beans in some cases are then decaffeinated using pressurized carbon dioxide, solvent or water extraction methods and this caffeine sold to food and drink manufacturers for 1 billion Red Bulls a year.

The green coffee beans enter the world commodity market, second only to oil in trading volume, and are purchased by global roasters. At first beans were fire roasted or toasted on a rock, then in pottery vessels followed by bronze or iron as these technologies matured. Your monetary status and location determined the method with many a cowpoke or frontier wife simply using a skillet or the household bed warmer. Hazel nut, cinnamon or amaretto flavored coffee is made by adding different essences to the roast beans as they cool while their pores are still open and receptive. The beans are then gas packaged intact or ground and blends are common including the more expensive Arabica with the cheaper Robusta.

Roasted beans double in size, change color, and their carbohydrates turn into oils and at the end of the process, only 2% of the original bean has any transmittable flavor. The true connoisseur wants to roast, grind and brew his coffee in the same instance but usually must settle for the latter two.  The Ethiopians call coffee Buna Qala, the tears of the sky god, and they have structured and ritualized the brewing process like no other culture. Here’s a brief exploration of the time-honored ritual.  The coffee beans roast in a shallow pan over an open flame and as a guest; you’re expected to waif the smoke over your head, inhale and offer accolades at this point, and then watch as the mass cools. The beans are ground in a mortar and pestle with the resultant “music” receiving complements from the observers.  Four separate pots define in the ceremony, which involves much genuflecting, ritual, and incense burning. The first pot contains the prior day’s grounds, which at the end of the ceremony provides coffee for the ancestors. The second pot provides the first brew, the third used for the second infusion. Each brew uses a horsehair filter that may also contain cardamom and saffron, and the final beverage goes into the fourth pot. The lucky guests then watch as the finished brew flows from the final pot, held about two feet above their heads, into their rather tiny cups. I’ve heard of butter, sugar, dates and even cream being included although I doubt these additions are commonplace… except for tourists and very special occasions.

Of course we’re confined to percolate, filter drip, French press, vacuum brew, or espress our daily brew but no matter how it’s done remember that coffee oxidizes rapidly and if you’re really looking for the best cup purchase fresh beans and grind them before each pot. The next best thing is to buy vacuum-packed ground coffee but the moment you open the can it will begin to stale. Soft plastic packs of fresh roasted beans must be equipped with one-way valves to allow the freshly roasted beans to gas off and force any oxygen out of the bag. In fact, there a great little experiment you can perform to determine if your beans are fresh. When you first open, the bag put a few tablespoons in a sealable zip log bag and squeeze out most of the air. If the bag does not inflate after an hour or so the beans aren’t gassing … meaning they were allowed to rest and stale after roasting.

NASA did this fascinating trial using common house spiders. They got the arachnids loaded on Benzedrine, marijuana, caffeine and a hypnotic sedative, all of them did what they do and constructed webs with the coffee spiders hardly able to construct an identifiable structure, and so another myth dies. The US consumes 25% of the global harvest with 75% coming from Latin America. Most of the new world Arabica growers, a small portion of the 125 million people who gain their livelihood from coffee globally, are defenseless against the increased production of the inferior Robusta. In America during the first half of the twentieth century, making a good cup of coffee and variety of pies was a desirable trait in a wife. In the ninetieth century, the beverage developed a Wild West persona as the ideal beverage for the dangers of the frontier, Indians and cattle drives. The ubiquitous pot near the cattle drive campfire contained six-shooter coffee, alluding to its ability to float a handgun. Early morning remains made red-eyed gravy to dress the morning bacon, biscuit and beans. Coffee plantations thrived in Latin America because of the sugar inspired slavery paradigm reflected by the statement “Brazil is coffee and coffee is the Negro”.  Coffee may have been brought by the slaves as it is said that trees sprouted everywhere along the slave trails in Africa where the captured chattel spit and eliminated chewed beans as they marched shackled toward the coast for transport.

Between 1965 and 1971 The US sprayed over 6 million acres, that’s 18% of the total surface area, of Vietnam with 12 million gallons of dioxin laden herbicide in a  campaign named operation ranch hand, and the unit that carried it out adopted the macabre motto “only WE can prevent forest fires”. The World Bank began promoting Robusta plantations in Vietnam in nineteen eighties and within 10 years that country had become the second largest coffee producer in the world causing a global glut and devastating financial hardships in Arabica producing Latin America. Now the Nestle Corporation has set it eyes on China as a cheaper market and Vietnam will soon suffer the fate it has subjected on other growers. Furthermore, geneticists are developing coffee that can be force ripened by chemical application, of course the proprietary seeds; chemicals and equipment used for harvest are far beyond the economic grasp of the small local planter. The only viable market for the smaller growers is the specialty and boutique segments. Panama, with its hundreds of different mountainous microclimates, is exploiting this market and in 2007, the most expensive conventionally harvested crop of coffee in the world, Panama Esmeralda Gesha/Geisha, sold for $125 a pound. This boutique variety has continued to garner a top ten spot in global competition since then and the label Geisha was soon adopted. This hard to grow variety was discovered growing in Kenya in the 1930’s came from area known as Gesha and cultivation soon began in Panama and Costa Rica. You can get a cup at Starbucks in Japan for $18.

Of course, you can always purchase some Kopi luwak “weasel” coffee. The most expensive coffee in the world undergoes a bizarre pre roasting phase. The Asian Palm Civet, a small cat like mammal, dines on coffee beans, grown in Sumatra, Java and Bali partially digested them before elimination. The Civets processed beans are then “harvested”, cleaned, roasted and sold on the international market for up to $600 per pound! Obviously, the output is small, how many coffee cherries could a civet eat … so supplies are limited. Prices continue to rise for Kopi Luwak and a at a retail price of up to $80 a cup knockoffs are so common that a Japanese food chemist has found a testing method to ferret out the fake product. Recently a group of digital natives is trying to produce the product without the “weasel/civet.


Written by gamboa

February 15, 2013 at 8:38 pm

5 Responses

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