The history of coffee can be traced also with reference to the origin of the word, coffee, in fact, derives from the term "Kaffa", town of Ethiopia where it is believed the plant originated. Here it grew spontaneously at an altitude of 1000/1300 metres.
The first public premises dedicated to coffee consumption were in Arabian Islam countries. In some Arab documents dating from 900-1000 A.D. the use of this beverage is for medicinal purposes. In spite of the jealousy of the Arab population, coffee spread widely throughout almost all the oriental countries. In 1500 the beverage became increasingly more popular, and the first coffee shops were opened, public meeting and drinking places first at the Mecca and then at Constantinople.
In these regions, where the religion of Islam prohibited the use of alcohol, since it was considered against the teachings of the Koran, coffee began to spread considerably. In fact, unlike the consumption of alcoholic beverages, prohibited like every substance that could inebriate or stupefy, coffee was considered an excellent stimulant for intellectual faculties and virtues such as courage, an enemy of sleepiness and also a good aphrodisiac.
It is not by chance that in Europe the beverage was jokingly referred to as the “wine of the Arabs”.
With the change in cultural values following the affirmation of Humanism and the Renaissance, and two hundred years later Enlightenment, consumption of alcohol notably dropped. Moments of pleasure and distraction, which were before sought also through these, became partly replaced by other elements. The most important of these was coffee. The "link" for coffee consumption between East and West was by means of the Ottoman Turks. Avid drinkers, they drank it in every occasion during the day, because it was considered a convivial drink to be offered in friendship, at meetings and social occasions. Around 1600, years of intense traffic and trading by European travellers with the new world and with the East, coffee made its appearance in European countries, first of all in England.
In 1683, when they were compelled to interrupt the siege of Vienna, the Turks left some sacks of coffee under the city walls. And from this, the passion of the Viennese for this beverage originated. The first coffee-house of the Habsburg Empire, Zur Blauen Flasche, was opened that same year. It is due to the Venetians and their business sense, that coffee was introduced as a luxury beverage in the European customs of the time. In fact, in 1645, the first official “coffee shop” was opened in piazza San Marco. It was so successful that a century later the Venetian Government was obliged to suspend the issue of licences because in the town the shops of that type were more than two hundred. "Once it was brandy that flowed, now the fashion is for coffee", commented Ridolfo in "La bottega del caffè" (“The Coffee Shop”) (1750), a play by Carlo Goldoni set in a typical Venetian wine shop.
To begin with, the coffee shops were looked upon with suspicion, especially by producers of alcohol, both in Europe and in the East, but soon the Sovereigns and the States realised that this substance could become a source of riches. In fact, Louis XIV, thanks to the coffee tax, managed to finance some military enterprises. However, the population protested against these unjust taxes and, in 1732, inspired by these protests of the population, J.S. Bach wrote the "Cantata del Caffè" (“Coffee Cantata”): the success of coffee had become universal.
Arrival of coffee-shops in Italy was not without contrary reactions. At first they were opposed by the Church that tried to forbid them, as they were considered as places of ill-fame. But Pope Clement VII, before passing the sentence, wanted to taste the "devil's beverage". He liked it so much that he immediately blessed it, renaming it a “Christian beverage”.
Among the most important Italian coffee-shops to be remembered, in 1720, the famous Caffè Florian was founded in Venice, followed in 1723 by the Caffè Aurora. In 1760 Caffè Greco was opened in Rome, whereas in Florence Caffè Grilli was opened in 1733. From a censor in 1763 in Venice alone there were 218 coffee-shops. These cafes soon became enlightenment reference points for culture and art. In Caffè Florian, Venice important persons like Byron, Rousseau and Silvio Pellico met to discuss, whereas at the Procope, Paris, d'Alembert and Voltaire would pass, and it is said that they would drink 50 coffees a day! And finally it must be remembered that in 1764, in Milan, the philosopher Pietro Verri founded the magazine "Il caffè", with the intent of “awakening” Italian culture.
As from the second half of the Seventeenth century, and for all the next century, coffee slowly, but implacably conquered all the most important European cities. It entered into royal courts, exclusive circles, aristocratic homes, became part of the habits of intellectuals, artists, and a large section of the town dwellers, revolutionising tastes and consumptions. On the other hand, the light of reason has to be wide-awake and prepared for debate, and coffee, unlike wine, that animates, but obscures the memory, is appropriate to animate lucid and acute discussions and to keep the mind awake.
Between the end of 1700 and the beginning of 1800, coffee growing also spread across the New World, so much so, that today European demand is almost entirely covered by productions coming from Central America and Brazil.
If the coffee bean is inseparably linked to the geographical discoveries and the trading routes from the end of the Middle Ages to the beginning of the Eighteenth century, the physical area of its consumption, the public space dedicated to the rites, the coffee shop then the coffee bar are children of the Modern Era and the formation of a new social class: the middle class. Coffee bars became points of reference, of culture, places for meeting, entertainment, discussion, games, and to celebrate an occasion. Hence they reflect society and western civilisation.
Through the coffee bars it can be seen how the different social classes and different life-styles have left their signs in the towns over time. In fact, Jean Dethier wrote: "The evolution of types of Cafes over the last three centuries closely corresponds to the social changes of the modern age."
In Italian culture, at least from the Twentieth century onwards, the café is not associated with a specific social level or life-style: women, men, young people, senior citizens, workers, rich people, people from Northern Italy, people from Southern Italy – they all drink coffee. It is a decisively universal product.
This is because, in all cultures, coffee has an excellent relationship with work and study. It can be drunk in a short time, or while working, it is appropriate to drink at a casual meeting during the day, it marks the break during congresses and lessons. In brief, it represents a sort of punctuation during the day: it inaugurates the morning, closes meals, fills in pauses, marks meetings with other people.