The complete history of coffee. Now that’s a topic that needs to be digested with the help of a caffeinated beverage, like...coffee.
Coffee and cafes are so intertwined with modern society that it’s impossible to imagine a world where coffee isn't so readily available.
But readily available it is, thanks to some ingenious goats who first chewed on some coffee cherries a few years back…
Thanks to those goats, coffee is now one of the most desired and sought after commodities in the world, second only to oil.
Read on below for your complete guide to the history of coffee, and make notes if you wish, because this information is sure to impress your friends at an upcoming dinner party.
Let there be coffee
There’s plenty of debate about how or when coffee was discovered. We’re going to trust the National Coffee Association of the USA and their story about Kaldi, the Ethiopian goat herder.
While going about his daily business in the 9th century, Kaldi began to notice his goats would become considerably more energetic after eating the berries from a particular tree.
As you can probably guess, these berries were in fact coffee cherries growing on a coffee plant. After sharing his discovery with others, a drink was made of the berries which provided significant energy benefits. Word quickly began to spread about the berries and their magical properties.
Coffee begins to spread
It took a while for coffee to make its way outside of Ethiopia, eventually spreading to the Middle East and the countries of Yemen, Persia, Egypt and Turkey in the 16th century.
This is when coffee houses started to pop up and explode in popularity. Coffee houses became the meeting point for a town’s citizens, where they would enjoy a drink and socialise.
Coffee hits Europe
The 17th century was when coffee hit the big time, when travellers to the Middle East started to bring it to Europe to widespread admiration.
Almost overnight, hundreds of coffee houses appeared in London as people couldn’t get enough of the drink. These coffee houses were referred to as Penny Universities, because that’s how much a brew would cost.
The race to grow
As the demand for coffee grew and grew, entrepreneurs realised there was serious money to be made from growing coffee.
The Dutch were one of the nations who sought to take advantage of the demand and they were successful with plantations in Indonesia.
The French were then credited with introducing coffee trees to the Americas, and we all know how well that turned out, with the majority of the world’s coffee production coming from Central and South American countries like Brazil and Costa Rica.
The magical bean comes to Australia
When the First Fleet arrived in Botany Bay in 1788, they brought with them tea, lots of tea. That’s part and parcel of being British.
But they also brought along coffee plants and seeds, which they had picked up in a stopover in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.
Aspirations of creating a coffee plantation didn’t quite work out, so most of the coffee available at the time in Australia was imported at a high cost.
Italian Luigi Bezzera is credited as the man who created the first espresso machine in 1901. The brews produced by this machine are regarded as being...quite bitter.
But with a bit of trial and error the espresso machine started to produce incredible coffee and eventually transformed the cafe experience that you see today.
Australia’s coffee culture takes off
What really caused Australia’s coffee culture to boom was the influx of migrants, specifically Italians, following World War 2.
The Italians brought with them a love of coffee and some fancy espresso machines, as well as the timeless Bialetti Moka Express.
Coffee culture began to rise and eventually it became an indispensable social experience and a part of Australia’s cultural identity.
Dean Merlo opens his first espresso bar
In case you haven’t noticed by now, you’re on the Merlo Coffee website so it’s only natural that we are going to include a little bit of our history.
A couple of years after arriving in Australia from Italy, Gino Merlo opened Cafe Milano in Queen Street Mall in the Brisbane CBD. The centrepiece of this cafe was a gleaming La San Marco espresso machine - the very first of its kind in Queensland.
Gino’s son, Dean, grew up helping out in the cafe and learning on the job about hospitality and how to craft the perfect espresso.
With coffee running in his blood, Dean opened his first espresso bar in the Brisbane CBD in 1992. Four years later, frustrated with trying to source the best quality beans for his cafe, Dean opened the first Merlo Coffee Torrefazione (Italian roasting house) in Fortitude Valley.
As of 2021, Merlo now has 15 locations, over 1,000 wholesale customers, thousands of customers who order from our Online Store and two warehouses that roast over 20 tonne of coffee a week.
Modern times: Coffee is king
Here’s some numbers that may cause you to spit out your coffee…
There are around 7,400 cafes and coffee shops in Australia, generating almost five billion dollars of revenue.
In 2019-2020, an estimated 163.7 million 60-kilogram bags of coffee were produced for worldwide coffee consumption.
1.6 million 60kg bags of coffee beans were imported into Australia in 2019.
Those numbers go a long way to showing just how massive the coffee industry is in Australia and the world.
Statistics provided via Statista.
What’s next for coffee
The demand for great coffee doesn’t look to be slowing anytime soon, and the competition between coffee companies is at an all-time high, especially with the recent acquisitions of Australian coffee companies by massive overseas conglomerates (not Merlo though, we’re proudly Australian owned and operated).
Of particular note to watch for in the next couple of years is the price of Arabica coffee beans, which has been skyrocketing lately due to a variety of issues, like severe frost in Brazil.
As to what else might happen? Who knows!