Coffee in Period Research Paper

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Coffee in Period


Honorable Lady Sosha Lyons O’Rourke

Coffee is thought to be a new world indulgence in many areas.  This is not the case.  Coffee is recognized through various historic depictions, stories, art work and artifacts, as being a period Middle Eastern drink.  Coffee is a period beverage first used in the jungles of Ethiopia then acquired by traders and introduced into the Middle East by the 10th century and widely used by the 15th century.

Coffee the Plant:

The coffee plant is of the Genus Coffea.  The description is an evergreen bush from which the seeds (also known as berries, cherries or beans) are the prized fruit of the bush.  The main species being C. Arabica and Coffea canephora with lesser species being liberica, excelsa, stenophylla, mauritiana and racemosa. (Wikipedia).  The common thought on the origin of the coffee plant, is that Ethiopia is the main starting point.  From Ethiopia, where the plant was used as a food source as well as beverage (Boot), the coffee bean made a tradable commodity.  The plant was, and still is, grown in forests, semi-forest conditions or in gardens. There are stories that coffee beans planted over the graves of sorcerers, kept the sorcerers from rising while still producing a potent tonic when drunk. (Boot).

Coffee the Rise of:

Coffee was known through Upper Egypt, Libya and drunk through out the Persian Empire noted by Abu ibn Sina, also known as Avicenna the prince of physicians, used coffee as a tonic under the name bunc  around the 10th century at first for stimulant effect first (Toussaint-Samat, pp. 581)  then as a main stream beverage in the 13th century.  (1902 Encyclopedia).  Bunc also known as bunn was thought to referd to the seed (bean/berry) of the coffee tree while Qahwa refers to a brewed drink. (Hattox, pp. 16-7).  Coffee’s every day usage would be up for debate on the exact timing for general consumption due to the written works of physicians and folk lore.

Another source of literary work for mentioning of coffee is the book “The Arabian Nights”.  Coffee was not mentioned in the original 9th century hand written copies but first appeared in the drafts from the 15th century on when coffee became a more common drink.

“…ninth century of the Flight , or, which is nearly the same, the latter half of the fifteenth of our era: in the remaining portion, there are indications of a later date: and coffee is mentioned in a manner not to be mistaken, but had coffee long been common beverage it would doubtless have been mentioned frequently , from the general disregard of historical accuracy manifested throughout the work;…the work must have been completed before the middle of the tenth century of the Flight, whether the mention of the coffee be attributable to the copyist or not.” (Lane).

Though Edward Lane cites the work as showing coffee mentioned in the late 15th century in the Arabian Nights, the first printed edition of the Arabian Nights circa 1814 (as opposed to the hand written versions compiled before hand) coffee was mentioned and point to usage in the 13th century. (1902encycolpedia).

However there is an insert of a tale by Jaziri (owner of a coffee house in Mecca) concerning the introduction to coffee, by a noted jurist Al-Dhabhani some time in the mid 14th century as the person who did introduce coffee to the Near East..  Jaziri’s words were written down by Ibn ‘Abd al Ghaffar who reported that the vagueness of the story left him (Ibn ‘Abd al Ghaffar) with questions un answered as Al-Dhabhani died in 1470.  (Hattox, pp. 14-15, 31-32)  The transcript may have raised questions to the validity of the “first” person but the issue of coffee being noted at this time line is some what established as a potential.

The exact date of popularity is in question.  Part of the issue is that the historical writing of the time wrote about land mark events such as the chronicling the death of very notable people (Kings, nobles, generals), uprisings, plagues coups d’état and invasions.  (Hattox, p11.) This limits the every day to day notation as more of a foot note, to be hunted down by research scholars comparing dusty tombs in ill lit libraries for a potential date.  Not always accurate for the small things but good to know when the king dies and his son’s fight over the throne and a plague of locust appear. Hence the 150 year difference between mid 13th century and the early 15th century guestimation that is made when referencing when coffee became a primary drink.

Coffee the Migration:

The movement of coffee seems to have been in Ethiopia and then moved to the Arabian peninsula, via Sufi monasteries, migrating north then across the Mediterranean Sea. This movement followed trade but not the exact route of the Silk Road. (Anonymous,  Which is only a partial reason the French didn’t invent the coffee press in the late 15th century as opposed to the late 1800s to early 1900s. (

Coffee’s consumption seems to have been driven by several things.  The first being a very strong effect of vibrancy, known as caffination which increased attention, memory performance, intraocular pressure, physical performance, muscular recovery (Wikipedia).  The second is a strong northerly push from Ethiopia into the Middle East for a tradable commodity that brought in an exchange of goods and services to the region.  Another factor was that wine was being banned for those who worshipped Islam.

“Believers, wine and games of chance, idols and divining arrows are abominations devised by Satan.  Avoid them so that you may prosper.  Satan seeks to stir up enmity and hatred among you by means of wind and gambling and to keep you form the Remembrance of Allah and from your prayers.  Will you not abstain from them? Sura 5:92 (Batmanglij, p. 39).

With alcohol being forbidden to true believers, except for heavily taxed wines available for the Jews and Christians, (Batmanglij, p. 38) coffee became the next communal drink, taking over the former establishments that catered to those wishing wine for imbibing. Coffee houses became the new den of inequity.

“The patrons of the coffeehouse indulged in a variety of improper pastimes, ranging form gambling to involvement in irregular and criminally unorthodox sexual situations, and as such attracted the attention of those officials who were assigned the custodianship of public morality.” (Hattox, p. 6).

Yet for the controversy that coffee caused, debates ranged for years on the intoxicating effect of coffee and if coffee met the letter of the law for inebriation.  A simplistic but rather effective quote goes “…One drinks coffee with the name of the Lord on his lips, and stays awake, while the person who seeks wanton delight in intoxicants disregards the Lord, and gets drunk.” (Hattox, p. 59).


Coffee in the House:

Coffeehouses were considers venues of social gathering for men but also where chess, backgammon and eventually card games were played, some times for stakes.  These houses were also the places where speech was more free and some times seditious plans, so much so that the sultanate Murat IV the forth had the “meeting places of the people, and of mutinous soldiers” torn down under the guise of places of fire hazards. (Hattox, pp. 102)  This is, in many ways, much like today’s Denny’s and comic book stores (for gamers), or sports bars for non gamers and even some more upscale coffee shops where coffee, food alcohol can be had.

The gamut of coffee house types ran from the hole in the wall or even street vendor selling from rented cups to lavish buildings that “…All the cafes of Damascus are beautiful – lots of fountains, nearby rivers, tree-shaded spots, roses and other flowers; a cool, refreshing and pleasant spot.”.  (Hattox, p. 81.)

When story tellers were present the crowds could not all fit into one building so the patrons would spill out on to benches with mats for comfort.  Food was available at the entrance of the shops as it was believed coffee on an empty stomach was unhealthy. (Hattox, p. 67).  The coffee houses were scaled towards comfort and up scalability when ever possible to attract the most clientele as possible.

Coffee the Making of:

There were more then a few travelers, priests and scholars who wrote of coffee and the making of this popular drink. In Coffee and Coffeehouses: The Rise of the Coffeehouse, one of the period commenter’s is  Jaziri,  says of the descriptions and preparations of coffee  “…in the summer the Arabs use the husks, and in the winter the kernels of the bean, to benefit from the application of “cold” nature of the husks and in the summer, and the “hot” nature of the kernels in winter.”.  Another example is from Kha’ir  Beg “cooked from the husks of the seed called bunn that comes from Yemen”.  A third example would be that of the Jesuit priest who say “water boiled with the rind of the fruit which they call Bune.”  (Hattox, pp. 83-84)

The actual preparation was written by Niebhur as the bean was roasted, slightly pounded, then had boiling water poured over the grounds to produce a pleasant tea like beverage.  This type of coffee qahwa qishirya, with the flavoring of tea, is still served today in Yemen and tastes like an oddly spiced tea. (Hattox, p. 85).   Another way to serve coffee was to grind the beans finer then today’s espresso and gently simmer in water, so the grounds sink to the bottom.  The liquid is then transferred into another pot where the coffee is reheated then served. (Hattox. p. 87)

As for the actual roasting, no mention of a specific type of roasting pan was used.  Roasting was done in pans or tanjines and some times metal sheets. (Rodinson, p. 286)  I can see large metal sheets being used easier but these would have been very expensive at the time to acquire or for the less expensive route would be to use large flat bottomed shallow lipped clay pans.  The clay pans would be more susceptible for breakage but quicker and cheaper to replace.  There is at least one example of a coffee roasting pan looking very much like a wok.  I imagine that many different ways were tried for roasting coffee beans for a quick efficient and profitable turn around for roasted coffee vendors.

This image is not clear on how coffee was roasted on top of this roaster plate.


The First Coffee Roaster, About 1400



Both a mortar and a mill were used for grinding of the bean as well as the husk after being roasted.

Turkish Coffee Mill
A fine specimen in the Peter collection, United States National Museum


These methods were noted by the Flemish traveler Joannes Cotovicus. Though in later years, coffee millers took to the supplying of ground so that the individual coffee houses no longer had to worry about roasting and grinding their own coffee. (Hattox, pp. 85)

The coffee pot has been sketched as a squat round bodied pot “tinned inside and out” Hattox, pp. 86) with a narrow pouring spout and a side handle either sticking straight out or curved. Coffee was served in small cups as seen in the sketches provided by Hattox in Coffee and Coffeehouses, by both coffee houses and by street vendors.  Coffee cups “…were drunk from deep little dishes of earthenware or porcelain.” (Hattox, p. 86).  Coffee cups were never confused with wine cups as wine was served in cups made from glass and coffee was served in bowls of clay or porcelain.

Here are a few pictures from a 1660’s display from England for coffee grinding, roasting and serving.

Historical Relics in the Peter Collection, United States National Museum

1—Bagdad coffee-roasting pan and stirrer. 2—Iron mortar and pestle used for pounding coffee. 3—Coffee mill used by General and Mrs. Washington. 4—Coffee-roasting pan used at Mt. Vernon. 5—Bagdad coffee pot with crow-bill spout. (

Flavoring coffee with spices seems to differ from coffee house to coffee house or region to region. Some of the spicing listed was cardamom, mastic or ambergris.  Sugar was some times added, but not to the extent of modern day consumption. Milk was rarely if ever used, for fear of contracting leprosy. (Hattox, p. 67/83)

Coffee was poured thick, hot and with some coffee grounds (sediment) in each cup.  The coffee was sweetened to taste then consumed slowly in sips from the small cups instead of downed quickly as the modern day cup.

Coffee Redaction:

I bought 2 lbs of a green Ethiopian (un roasted) beans.  In period times, those living in the Middle East would have a slightly easier time buying coffee beans as opposed to those in France during the 1700s where knowing royalty was the only way a person could obtain coffee.  Coffee plants were grown in Louis XV’s glass house and he was generous only to a point with this rare and invigorating seed. (Toussaint-Samat, p. 585)

I started a fire with live oak hard wood in my grill.

Due to the drought conditions in Ansteorra, ground fires or stone pit ground fires were not allowed.  The types of wood available in the Middle East would have been Alder, Ash, Beech, Cherry, Hornbeam, Maple, Walnut and Oak. (

I allowed the fire to burn down to coals.

Once coal status had been achieved of the live oak wood, I placed an iron skillet over the coals.


The next step was to pour one pound of the green coffee beans into the hot skillet.

I was told to NOT oil the skillet but to allow the natural oils to roast the beans to the darkness desired.  I believe this was due to the potential flavoring of the beans in a unpleasant manner.

The beans were added and stirred so as to not burn but allowed to rest 1-2 minutes before stirring again.

First round.

Second round

By the 2nd round of stirring there are definite beans showing browning.

Third round.

Fourth round.

Fifth round.

Final round.

Here is the final roasting in what is termed as a blond roast, lots of oil and caffeination still in the beans and not a dark color though obviously roasted.  The lighter roast, as I was told by a barista, has more caffeine then a darker roast though a darker roast has a stronger flavor.

Once the beans were browned to the level of darkness desired, the beans were then ground in a grinder (hand crank).

The grind is very good.  Nice dark and fairly fine ground.

The beans were ground until there were enough for a full pot to be made.


We take for granted the availability of coffee today.  In period, coffee was available but not widely known due to distance needed from Ethiopia to Libya or Persia or Turkey.  What started out as tonic to maintain alertness through long prayer sessions became a common every day drink for both nobility and the masses.  Coffee supplanted wine, not for just the enjoyment and taste, but for the companion ship and entertainment offered in coffee houses.   Coffee is truly a wonderful drink that cuts through social classes to be enjoyed by most.


Batmanglij, N., (2006). From Persia to Napa: Wine at the Persian Table.

Hattox, R., (1985). Coffee and Coffehouses.

Komaroff, L., Gifts of the Sultan: The arts of Giving at the Islamic Courts.

Mahdi, M., The Arabian Nights. 14th century manuscripts. Translated by Husain Haddowy.

Rodison, M., (2001). Medieval Arab Cookery.

Toussaint-Samat, M., (1992). History of Food.