by Kathy Garuti

We consume a lot of coffee  in my house.  So lately I have been thinking about the history of coffee and my lack of knowledge.  That of course led to internet searches and library trips. That led to the realization that the history of coffee is too broad a topic.  So for this piece I will just ask where does coffee come from and how did it get its name?  Actually how did it get the three names we use most here in the United States, coffee, java and joe?


Books and internet sources all seem to agree that coffee is indigenous to Africa.  It first appears in the highlands of Ethiopia. There are a number of stories and legends about its original discovery and use that I will explore at a later time.  Coffee is a berry often called a cherry and was eaten or chewed originally.  We get the name coffee from the Ethiopian province of Kaffa where the plant still grows wild.


It is believed that the coffee plant traveled next to the Arabian peninsula and became well established in Yemen.  It is there in Arabia that coffee became a beverage and spread all through the Islāmic world.  The Arabic word for coffee is kahwah which is also a word for wine. 


Eventually coffee spread to Europe but it was through the Arabic world that it spread.  Coffee was being cultivated in Arabia and was a very lucrative crop.  Because of this it became a very controlled commodity with the Arabic world not allowing the plants to go else where.


Eventually in the 1600’s the Dutch got there hands on some seedlings and took them to Sri Lanka and then to Java.  Now we have our second name for coffee, java.  After nearly one hundred years they brought some of the seedlings from these plants to the Netherlands to be placed in their botanical gardens.  From there the Dutch brought the seedlings to their colonies in South America.  These plants became the foundation for the South American coffee industry.


There is a second story as to how coffee came to South and Central America.  The French claim to have brought a seedling to their Caribbean island colonies.  From there it is said to have spread to South America and Brazil in particular.


In the years leading up to the American revolution the British government put a heavy tax on tea in the American colonies.  Tea was the main beverage then and this affected every household, every pocket-book.  It was at this time the popularity of coffee took off.  This was the start of coffee becoming The American beverage. 


So where did the name cup of joe come from?  The king was George, the American heroes and leaders were Georges and Johns, not a whole lot of Joes in there.  Some sources have the name joe connected to the song Old Black Joe by Stephen Foster but after a review of the lyrics there is no mention of any beverage in there.  Other sources have it connected with Josephus Daniels who on becoming Secretary of the Navy in 1913 put through some reforms that included the decree that the strongest drink on board a naval ship would be coffee, hence the nickname joe after Daniels.  Yet other sources have the nickname joe coming into use in the 1840’s which pre-dates both the song and the decree. One thing is for sure, by the 1930’s cup of joe was firmly in the American lexicon along with GI-Joe and Average Joe.


Coffee started out as a wild plant in the highlands of Ethiopia.  After being monopolized for centuries by the middle east coffee has spread around the globe and is major part of the economy of many, many countries.  As for the names, coffee and java are pretty obvious being named for locations coffee is grown.  Where cup of joe actually came from, no one seems certain.