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Coffee: origin and tradition

Coffee is a drink produced from the roasted beans of the coffee tree.

Coffee: origin and tradition

Article available in: PT-BR ESP

Last update: 27/02/2023

By: Cláudia Verardi - Librarian at Fundação Joaquim Nabuco - PhD in Librarianship and Documentation

“Would you like a cup of coffee?” is one of the most common phrases heard worldwide. Coffee can be a mood reliever, a consolation in difficult times, a break between meetings, a company during a wait, a kindness of the hosts, or can simply be present at other occasions of cordiality that society requires. Kindness aside, this “magic” drink has become a habit with the power to bring people together since remote times.

Nowadays, we hardly imagine our lives without coffee, the habit of drinking it is so strong that in Brazil breakfast is called “café da manhã” (morning coffee).

Drinking this precious black liquid that is present in many occasions and in many places of the world is an almost ritualist millennial act and has a history of ups and downs that remains over the centuries. However, the whole process until coffee reaches our homes is much more complicated than one imagines, since, according to Guimarães (2010), the coffee tree can take up to six years to germinate, as it heavily relies on natural conditions to bear fruit.

Coffee was discovered in Ethiopia around the year 525 (a.C.) and, after, crossed the Red Sea and was taken to Arabia. According to Mistro (2012), the name coffee does not originate from Kaffa as the name suggests, but from the Arabic word qahwa, meaning wine. For this reason, coffee was known as “Arabian wine.”

According to Martins (2010), the Ethiopians feed on their sweet pulp, sometimes macerated or mixed in lard, and produced a juice that  turned into an alcoholic beverage when fermented. The leaves were used for preparing tea or were simply chewed. From the year 1000 (a.C.), the infusion of the fruit would occur (dipped in boiling water to obtain another substance from it) with cherries boiled in water, for medicinal purposes. In the 14th century, with roasting, the drink finally acquired the shape and taste as we know it today. However, it is assumed that the Arabs would have started to drink coffee in the 15th century.

Many speculations about the origin of coffee exist, but several authors cite one of the most important “legends” of its discovery: it is said that an Ethiopian shepherd realized that some of his goats changed their behavior after ingesting the leaves of the coffee plant, and this influenced the habits of monks who were interested in the product.

According to Martins (2012), the legend of Kaldi, recorded in manuscripts from Yemen of the year 575, is considered the first reference to coffee and has had many versions as is often the case with written or oral legendary narratives, creations of popular or poetic imagination. But the description of the discovery of the fruit’s stimulating effects on goats by said shepherd from Ethiopia (Northeast Africa) remains the same across the many versions of the narrative.

Coffee was taken from Ethiopia to Arabia. The Arabs tried to keep the privilege of the discovery, as they were the first to cultivate this “miraculous” plant, which assumed great social importance due to its use in the medicine of the time for its healing of many evils. From Arabia it was first taken to Egypt in the 16th century and then to Turkey.

According to Martins (2012, p.21), “The habit of drinking coffee as a pleasurable drink, at home or in collective venues, began in 1450.” The author also describes that throughout the 16th century the Arabs expanded their plantings and that the Moka region, near Yemen, was one of the largest responsible for cultivation and exportation. However, Turkey is responsible for pioneering the habit of drinking coffee as a ritual of sociability.

In 1475, the world’s first coffee shop opened: the Kiva Han in Constantinople (present-day Istanbul, Turkey), marking the beginning of widespread coffee-drinking. Then, luxurious and sumptuous coffee shops appeared in the East, when the idea of adding sugar to the drink was also born.

Until the 17th century, only the Arabs produced coffee; the Germans, French, and Italians eagerly sought a way to develop its planting in their colonies. Europe began to taste coffee in 1615, brought from the Arab countries by Italian merchants. Mainly in Venice, the habit of drinking coffee was developed and associated with social gatherings and music in the cheerful botteghe del caffè (coffee shops). To this day Italian coffee shops present traditional influences and are part of the local culture. The Florian Café in Venice still preserves the glamour of the 17th century.

England, however, was the first country in Europe to cultivate the habit of coffee. In 1652, the Pasqua Rosée was opened in London, bearing the name of its owner, of Greek origin. Throughout the 18th century, the famous English coffee shops were part of the everyday scene, some of them very prominent, such as: Lloyd’s, Dick’s, Nando’s, Percy, and Bedford Coffeehouse, the latter is of the most traditional. However, in the mid-19th century, tea culture replaced coffee and, therefore, the product ceased to be so important to the British.

France, in turn, from the 18th century, became responsible for maintaining coffee shops as a space for learning and socializing; France was also the first country in Europe to add sugar to coffee. In 1720, Paris had about 380 establishments, reaching 900 coffee shops at the end of the century. One of the most famous Parisian coffee shops was opened in 1686, Café Procope, founded by Procopio dei Coltelli, which is considered the world’s oldest active café, having been turned into the restaurant Le Procope (see:

Many authors claim that coffee arrived in Brazil in 1727 from French Guiana, by Francisco de Melo Palheta, who initially established a small farm in Belém do Pará. At the request of the governor of the State of Grão-Pará and Maranhão*, in 1727, the Sargento-mor Francisco de Melo Palheta (a rank equivalent to that of the current Major) set out on a mission to get coffee seedlings, a product that, even at that time, had great commercial value. However, a law (Royal Provision of January 8, 1721) prohibited the settlers of Brazil from trading with French settlers in Guiana (which were later joined by Claude d’Orvilliers’ band, prohibiting the residents of the French colony from selling coffee seeds to the Portuguese).

Faced with so much difficulty, but due to the great interest in the introduction of the rubiácea (as the coffee plant was called) in Brazil, according to Magalhães (1939, p. 85), the governor himself advised the corporal of the expedition to simply take “Algum par de graons” (Some beans) of coffee. He could not be condemned for such actions, according to the author, considering that this popular proverb was already common in Portuguese oral tradition: “Quem furta a ladrão tem cem anos de perdão” (“A thief who steals from another thief has a hundred years of forgiveness”). This proverb is referenced because the introduction of coffee in France could not have been different. Palheta, however, did not follow this order closely, since, during the trip to French Guiana, he supposedly approached the governor’s wife and obtained the product by camaraderie.

According to Basilio de Magalhães (1939, p. 66), the commander of the expedition apparently went to the palace of the supreme authority of Cayenne and was served a cup of coffee, which, upon drinking it for the first time, lamented the lack of such a tasty drink in his land. The governor’s wife, Madame Claude d’Orvilliers, “with the peculiar gallantry of a well-mannered Frenchwoman,” supposedly put a handful of coffee beans in one of the pockets of the commander’s coat, in front of her smiling husband, so that the commander could taste the pleasure the drink made him feel again when he returned to Belém. This fictitious or real intervention could, according to the author, be only a poetic motif, since Palheta acquired five coffee seedlings in Cayenne and much more seeds than tradition attributes to Madame Claude’s noble hands.

Francisco de Melo Palheta did not steal, but legitimately bought (only violating the aforementioned royal provision of 1721) the five seedlings and about a thousand seeds of the precious plant, which would become the “Brasiliae fulcrum,” according to Afonso Taunay (MAGALHÃES, 1939, p. 57).

The first plantings were in Belém (North Region) and the seedlings were later used in the Northeast Region (Maranhão and Bahia).

According to Magalhães (1939, p.85), between 1760 and 1762, by the initiative of Judge João Alberto Castelo-Branco, the rubiácea seeds came from Maranhão to Rio de Janeiro, which, planted in the capital of the viceroyalty, supplied the germs of the coffee plantations of the province of Rio de Janeiro and, then, those of Minas Gerais, São Paulo, and other regions, such as Espírito Santo and Bahia.

According to Guimarães (2010, p.24), it was in Rio de Janeiro, especially in the higher regions, that the plant found the ideal conditions for cultivation, such as soil and climate. Also, according to the author, at the beginning of the 19th century, cultivation was expanded to the west of Rio de Janeiro, reaching the Vale do Paraíba (Paraíba Valley), Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo’s region, also known as the “old west” of São Paulo. The arrival of the Portuguese Court in Rio de Janeiro in 1808 was a milestone in the increase in coffee expansion.

In the first half of the 20th century, the success of coffee farms in São Paulo made it one of the richest states in the country, which influenced politics. Prominent farmers indicated or became Brazilian presidents.

Coffee did not only dictate Brazilian economy: the wealth produced in the coffee farms also guided the political direction of the country for many decades. From coffee barons to the promotion measures adopted by Getúlio Vargas, coffee farms had a great influence on the circle of power (ELIAS, 2010, p. 27).

During the imperial period (1822-1889), a greater negotiation was needed between the major coffee producers and the center of political power. The Constitution of 1824 had a centralizing character and power was in the hands of the emperor. Starting with the Constitution of 1891 (republican and federalist), local economic elites became more predominant in politic decisions. The influence of major coffee farmers was strengthened with the governments of the military soldiers Deodoro da Fonseca (1889-1891) and Floriano Peixoto (1891-1894). The first civil president, Prudente de Morais (1894-1898), was born on a coffee farm and with the establishment of the so-called “governors’ policy” by his successor, Campos Sales (1898-1902). The formula of presidential succession was made: the elites of the coffee-producing states (mainly São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Minas Gerais) chose a presidential candidate who would compete with a candidate doomed to lose from the beginning. This happened because the election result was submitted to a verification commission directly linked to the government and the political and economic group in power.

Throughout the First Brazilian Republic, this political system became known as the Política do Café com Leite (Coffee with Milk Policy), which referred to the dominance of the richest states of the Federation: São Paulo (the largest coffee producer) and Minas Gerais (major agropastoral producer, especially livestock, and largest milk producer).

The Política do Café com Leite ended in 1930 with the presidential election and revolutionary movement that brought Getúlio Vargas to power. However, Getúlio himself had to adopt measures to protect coffee producers who were facing an economic crisis at the time, preserving their important role in national trade and in the political landscape. 

Coffee certainly continued to attend the palaces of Rio de Janeiro and, from 1960, Brasília’s palaces. But from that point lending its flavor to decisions that met other economic interests, not always nobler than the interests of old coffee farmers (ELIAS, 2010, p. 27).

This wonderful product not only influenced economy and politics, but also inspired, among other artistic and literary manifestations, some popular verses as, according to Magalhães (1939, p. 198), a popular court heard in Bahia shows:

(It seems like a story,
But it is not a fantasy:
The white cow gives milk,
And the black cow gives coffee.)

Currently, Brazil is the largest producer and exporter of coffee (beans) in the world. Responsible for more than a third of the world’s production, the country is also among the largest consumers.

The rich and curious history of coffee, which has influenced economy, politics, culture, art, and even literature, allows us to evaluate how precious this product is for Brazil and the world, from its emergence to this day. A reason exists for Martins (2012, p.3) to quote this saying about this wonderful black liquid: “Hold a cup exuding the aroma of good coffee and you will have history in your hands.”

* In 1534, the Portuguese Crown divided Brazil into 14 captaincies. Grão-Pará was one of the captaincies of Portuguese America, which initially integrated the State of Grão-Pará and Maranhão. In January 1751, the State of Maranhão became the State of Grão-Pará and Maranhão, and its capital was transferred from São Luís to Belém do Pará.

- In the 14th century, coffee, ingrained in Islamic culture, was even included in Turkish law, in which wives could file for divorce if their husbands did not provide for the house a quota of coffee. Turkey also pioneered the “coffee habit,” which became a refined ritual there. (MARTINS, 2010);

- Coffee had some resistance among the Arabs themselves, as some considered its properties contrary to the laws of the Prophet Muhammad, thus going against their religious beliefs. The power of coffee overcame prejudices and even Muslim doctors supported the drink to favor digestion, brighten the spirit, and take away sleep, according to writers of the time.

- Largest coffee producers: Brazil, Vietnam, Indonesia, Colombia, India, and Ethiopia.

- Main coffee consumers: USA, Brazil, Germany, Japan, and China.



Recife, September 4, 2015.

sources consulted

ELIAS, Rodrigo. Do cafezal ao cafezinho. Revista de História da Biblioteca Nacional, Rio de Janeiro, a. 5, n. 57, p. 27, jun. 2010.

GUIMARÃES, Carlos Gabriel. O café e a conta.  Revista de História da Biblioteca Nacional, Rio de Janeiro, a. 5, n. 57, p. 24-26, jun. 2010.

MAGALHÃES, Basílio de. O Café na História, no Folclore e nas Belas-Artes.  2 ed. São Paulo: Companhia Editora Nacional,1939. (Série 5ª - Brasiliana, v. 174). Disponível em : <>. Acesso em : 24 ago. 2015.

MARTINS, Ana Luíza. Elixir do mundo moderno: fruto exótico em sua origem africana, o café se tornou um produto cobiçado, sinônimo de luxo e elegância. Revista de História da Biblioteca Nacional, Rio de Janeiro, a. 5, n. 57, p. 20-23, jun. 2010.

MARTINS, Ana Luiza. Historia do Café. 2. ed. São Paulo: Contexto, 2012.

MELLO, Sueli. A Saga do café.  São Paulo. Problemas Brasileiros, a. 42, n. 367, p. 4- 9, jan./fev. 2005.

MISTRO, Julio César.  A cultura do café. São Paulo: Instituto Agronômico (IAC/APTA), 2012. Disponível em: <>. Acesso em:  17 ago. 2015.

NEVES, C. A estória do café. Rio de janeiro: Instituto Brasileiro do Café, 1974.

TAUNAY, A. de E. História do café no Brasil: no Brasil Imperial: 1822-1872. Rio de Janeiro: Departamento Nacional do Café, 1939.

how to quote this text

VERARDI, Cláudia Albuquerque. Café: origem e tradição. In: Pesquisa Escolar. Recife: Fundação Joaquim Nabuco, 2015. Available at : Access on: day month year. (Ex.: Augo. 6, 2020.)