Book of the Week: The Berry That Changed The World

It’s been called the drink of civilization. The beverage that reflects the entire history of the Western world in one gulp. A small berry has sparked revolutions, genocide, imperialism, innovation–and yet is still able to satisfy the standard caffeine craving every morning. Coffee is a powerful concoction, serving as inspiration for most activities before lunch, and, this week, it also serves as inspiration for the

Book of the Week, “Coffee; its history and also its remarkable growth in the world of commerce.”

Most people would easily be able to pick a coffee bean out of a line up, but finding the coffee in nature might be more difficult. The plant that provides us with this intoxicating drink can be traced to the genus of Coffea, which varies from tree to shrub and comes in shades of purple, yellow, and green. Coffea arabica and Coffea canephora or robusta are the two most drinkable species that allow for the berries to be dried, roasted, and poured into your mug for consumption.

The origin story of this stimulant is murky. Coffee plants grow wild in the rocky soil of Ethiopia and several legends have cropped up about who first discovered they could roast the seeds of this abundant shrub.

One legend says that when the pious dervish Hadji Omar fell under the ban of the people of Mocha, and was driven forth in the year 1285, A.D., to perish in the wilderness, he roasted some of the berries that grew wild in the thickets, and some of them accidentally fell into the water which he had collected for drinking. He failed to notice it for some time, and when he did, lo ! coffee was discovered. He stole back into Mocha, proclaimed his discovery, and the Mochans […] took him back into favor, and made a saint of him on the spot.

The Mochans knew a good thing when they drank it, but were not the only ones who lay claim to this powerful breakthrough in berry consumption.

Another story gives credit to the friar of a monastery for the first use of coffee. The friar had great difficulty in keeping his monks awake during devotions, and on being told by a goatherd of the exciting effect, produced on his goats by eating coffee berries, he decided to try them on his charge. He did so with admirable results and thus was discovered the great stimulating effects of coffee, which prepared the way for its world-wide popularity.

To allow for this expansion in caffeine indulgence, greater cultivation was needed.

Harsh conditions on coffee plantations led to unrest, uprisings, and suppression, leading to the proliferation of the expression, “Pistols for two, and coffee for one.” Dutch East India Company and British East India Company, some of the first multinational corporations, were founded to monetize coffee and import the berries–which were mistakingly referred to as “beans” due to a certain likeness.
Part of the appeal to coffee has always been the caffeine. Caffeine is a naturally occurring stimulant acting as a psychoactive drug similar to cocaine. With such an intoxicating chemistry, it’s easy to understand why coffee parties and coffee-houses quickly became establishments–gathering places for those looking to partake in a cup as well as exchange gossip and ideas. Newspapers were created, businesses chartered, revolutions planned, even music composed by the likes of Bach and Beethoven in the cáfes of Europe.

In America, coffee was slow to replace traditional alcoholic favorites. However, once the colonists declared some independence from the notoriously tea-loving empire, coffee became the beverage of choice. In one letter to his wife, Abigail, John Adams wrote his affection for tea was stronger, but he made the switch to coffee as it was the more patriotic option.

Despite this resistance, it was not long before coffee addiction had taken hold in the states. During the Civil War, the Union knew how to put a hurt on the South and a naval blockade prevented vital materials from making its way to port–coffee was one of these essential restricted items. Union soldiers took to chewing whole beans, while the Confederate troops were forced to find workable substitutes. An unsuccessful endeavor as Rebels on the front lines often called for informal truces so Southern tobacco could be swapped for the precious Northern drink.

Coffee is now engrained in Western culture, from cultivation on large plantations to a Starbucks on every corner. Coffee talk is shorthand for both small talk and a popular Saturday Night Live skit. Coffee is the reason for an extra break at work and the best part of waking up. So pour another cup and enjoy the bittersweet concoction almost a thousand years in the making, with or without cream.


  • Norris, D.A. (2007, October 29). How a coffee played a role in Civil War. CNN. Retrieved from
  • Zuraw, L. (2003, April 24). How Coffee Influenced The Course Of History. NPR. Retrieved from


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Kirsten Hostetler served as a Marketing Intern at the Biodiversity Heritage Library in 2013.