Around the Caffeinated World: The Ottoman Empire


Pouring Turkish coffee out of an ibrik. [Photograph: hettie gm on Flickr]

Coffee beans have have been shuffled from their native Africa to new origins far and wide for centuries, but just how much the actual terroir contributes to a bean's flavor remains up for debate. Both the cultivation and the culture around a coffee crop can differ wildly from place to place, origin to origin, as traditions are handed down through generations.

Our third stop along the timeline of coffee's trip around the world is the vast Ottoman Empire, which is responsible for brewed coffee's first trips west through Europe.

After conquering much of the then-known world during the 15th–18th centuries, this imperialistic regime was the driving force behind much of the cultural exchange that happened among Arabia, Africa, and Europe, thanks in large part to the spice and slave trades, which connected the coffee-rich areas of Ethiopia and Yemen to farther Continental reaches. Coffee naturally became one of the vast empire's many commodities, traveling along with black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, and other spices to various corners of Europe, where drinking the dark brown stuff quickly became an "exotic" craze.

Meanwhile, brewing and sipping took on significance of its own in Turkey: Hence, Turkish coffee, espresso's great-grandfather. Coffee in Istanbul fueled marketplace discussion and was continuously used as a catalyst for business meetings and the exchange of a day's news. (That might sound familiar: How many times have you and your boss "met over coffee" to crunch numbers or strategize?)

It was during the Ottoman rule that coffee plants themselves first ventured from their adopted home of Yemen. In around 1670, a renegade coffee lover named Baba Budan smuggled beans out of the country by tucking them in his belt, and planted them in India to populate (and caffeinate) the fields there. Later, in 1699, spies from Holland sneaked coffee off to the island of Java, where it was distributed and cultivated extremely bountifully among Dutch colonies there, creating a Dutch stronghold on the industry. (More on the latter point soon.)

What to try: To experience coffee as they once did in Constantinople and currently do in Istanbul (Why'd they change it? I can't say—people just liked it better that way), find a Turkish restaurant near you that serves traditionally brewed cups, complete with a sludge of grounds at the bottom. One sip of the dark, heavy elixir and you'll feel like you've ducked into an alley coffee shop, temporarily escaping the hustle-bustle of an Arabian marketplace.

All aboard the express train to the next caffeinated destination: Europe, with stops in Venice and Vienna.