Within specialty coffee, it’s been pretty common for us to tell an “origin” story that charts the movement of coffee from Ethiopia, to Yemen, and then to Europe from where it was then translated to the Americas as part of colonial expansion.
Most of the time, this narrative of coffee’s provenance is reductive and sanitized, providing a story that reads more like an adventure novel in which white European actors are centred and all others are backgrounded.
However, the arrival of this coffee tree to the Royal Botanical Garden wasn’t as smooth as the story suggests. How it got there requires understanding a part of coffee’s history that is often overlooked - namely, the role of Muslim culture and specifically Yemen, in the expansion and spread of not only coffee but coffee house culture.
Most narratives place the French, Dutch and English coffeehouses are often attributed as the “first” instance of coffee consuming culture. This of course complete skips the fact that within the Muslim Ottoman Empire, coffee had travelled far and wide into what we known today as Turkey and Hungary.
Contrary then to the prevailing narrative, the European coffeehouse was predated by, that’s right, the Muslim cafe. In society’s where taverns and restaurants basically didn’t exist, the cafe served as one of the only secular gathering places.
In fact, coffee wasn’t immediately embraced in European society. Known as a popular Muslim drink, many Europeans considered it heretical to consume and also, weren’t enamoured with the Turkish method of preparation they were first introduced to.
This period of history we skip when we say coffee travelled from Yemen to France/Holland is no small period. For at least 300 years prior to the 18th century — half of coffee’s lifetime as a commodity — Arabica was Arabian controlled, with the vast majority of consumption occurring in the Middle East and Southwest Asia.
This of course had a lot to do with the fact that, until 1690, Arabica was only grown in Yemen’s small mountain gardens by hundreds of small producers across three districts.
It wasn’t until 1708, when Frenchman Jean de la Roque travelled to the Yemeni port of Mokka with the intention of buying coffee “directly” (sound familiar? lol) that this market control began to break down.
In 1710, when associates of de la Roque’s returned to visit the king of Yemen on a medical call, they found him planting a large garden of coffee out of love for the tree that his land had been singularly blessed with. (Revealing about how we record history is how difficult it is to find said King’s name)
Monsieur Grelaudiere and his crew actually mocked the King, saying that any Royal garden that existed in France was only for show and that anything produced from it would be given away to the King’s servants.
Despite the original visit leading to the purchase of six tons of coffee, they resisted taking the tree itself back. Instead, coffee tree would arrive to France via Holland, and from there would go on to be planted in many French colonies.
Notable among these French was Saint Dominigue - what we know now as Haiti. This colony would go on to become the largest producer of coffee in the world prior to the Revolution that began in 1791. (A whole other topic!!) By 1900, Yemeni coffee represented less than 1% of world production.