Around the Caffeinated World: The First Colonies


Green, unroasted coffee. [Photograph: Meister]

Thank heavens the Earth ain't flat, because the New World is an incredibly significant coffee-producing region—thanks in large part to the plants being shuffled around by European colonial powers gaining ground hither, thither, and yon.

So get out your passports, my coffee-loving friends: we're about to follow the Dutch and, subsequently, the French around the world on this caffeinated history trip. And they're both bringing plenty of joe along for the ride.

Remember those Dutch spies, who spirited coffee out of Yemen in the latter part of the 17th century? They didn't just crack out the mugs and drink the stuff. Instead, they transplanted seeds to the island of Java, which became, under Dutch rule, one of the world's most productive coffee-growing regions by far. From there, the beans were transplanted to other Dutch colonies throughout Indonesia, as well as in Brazil, Surinam, and French Guyana.

In addition to an already strong influence on spice exports, the Dutch took command over a large corner of the coffee trade thanks to Java's impressive output. As a result, they were able to bring brewed vast quantities of coffee to England—supplying an already booming coffee-shop craze, and converting more of the famous tea lovers into coffee mavens as well. By the late 1600s, England boasted more than 3,000 cafes, many of which were purely masculine territory. ("No girls allowed.") The British, whose interest in coffee also extended throughout their colonial landholdings, were then the first to bring coffee to Jamaica's Blue Mountains in 1730, and people are still paying through the nose for it today.

Meanwhile, in 1731, Holland presented France's King Louis XIV with a coffee plant now commonly referred to in coffee lore as "The Noble Tree." This single gift became the immediate ancestor of subsequent plantings on the islands of Martinique and what is now called Reunion (formerly Bourbon), as well as French landholdings in the New World—which happens to be our next stop on this caffeinated tour.


A classic can of Mocha Java blend. [Photograph: Roadsidepictures on Flickr]

Drinking around the world: Sadly, the Noble Tree is no longer with us, so there's no hope of squeezing any coffee out of it. (Even with the greenest thumb around, it'd be nothing short of a miracle to keep a coffee plant alive for nearly 300 years.) Its descendants, however, are distributed all over Latin America, and you probably drink some of its distant cousins (many times removed) just about every day if you're a regular.

If you want a little taste of that Dutch influence, try a classic Mocha Java blend. Though the combination of beans from Yemen (Remember that the nation's port of Al Mokha lent us our word "mocha") and the Dutch-controlled island of Java didn't take hold until the 1920s, the flavor marriage has long been considered a match made in coffee heaven: Gimme! Coffee Roasters in Ithaca, NY, has one on offer, as do we at Counter Culture.

What's next? They've got an awful lot of coffee in Brazil...and Guatemala, and Costa Rica, and Colombia, and Nicaragua...You can read about them in the next leg of our journey, which is brewing fresh right now and coming soon.

More Coffee History

Around the Caffeinated World: Ethiopia »
The Ottoman Empire »
Brewed Coffee Takes Over Europe »