How did coffee arrive in Spain?


Although Spain was Muslim for eight centuries and although it had colonies in the main coffee producing countries, the arrival of coffee to the peninsula came at the hands of the Venetians, who introduced its consumption and trade in Europe.



Coffee was first introduced in Europe by Venetian merchants in 1575. Venice led the way in coffee: it was the first to receive a shipment of coffee in 1624 that was bought by various apothecaries as a medicinal ingredient and came to have so many coffee shops by 1759 that authorities limited their number to 204. The Italian state was closely followed by the Netherlands and England: coffee landed in Leiden in 1596 and the first European coffee shop was opened sometime between 1652 and 1654 in London by Armenian migrant Pasqua Rosée, as detailed by Jonathan Morris in Coffee. A Global History (Reaktion Books, 2019). A decade later, London had 82 registered coffee shops, and Londoners were enjoying a drink that gave them energy to work and, they said, prevented motion sickness.

The coffee boom, which occurred in the 17th century, can be explained by several reasons. The first was the fascination that the Middle East provoked in European artists and travelers of the time. However, understanding that it was a beverage of the Muslim culture, many wanted to look for its Greco-Roman origins so as not to incur in any sin according to the Christianity they practiced. By the 18th century, Europe had succumbed to the pleasure of coffee and, mixed with milk and sugar, it was already part of the breakfast of the bourgeoisie: the Dutch, French and British had begun to cultivate it in their colonial possessions in Asia and the Caribbean.

However, the first Spaniard who drank coffee was Pedro Paez around 1596, according to the Royal Academy of History. Paez, who was a missionary in Ethiopia, was captured and imprisoned in Yemen, in the city of Sana'a, and later sent as oarsmen in the galleys of the port city of Mokka, which later gave its name to the coffee prepared by the Europeans. In his captivity, says Paez in History of Ethiopia, he tasted "a dark and bitter infusion". Nobody must have found it very attractive, since the Bourbon dynasty took a century, literally, to introduce coffee in Spain.

And although, in fact, it was Spain that brought coffee to Colombia in 1741 (at that time the Viceroyalty of New Granada together with Panama, Ecuador and Venezuela) via the Jesuit colonizer José Gumilla, who documented it in El Orinoco ilustrado y defendido, and in Mexico, the truth is that these crops were not commercially important until more than a century later, when the colonies became independent, since Spain prioritized other more profitable crops. It is for this reason that the first coffee shop in Spain was opened in Madrid, on July 9, 1765, by two Italians: the Gippini brothers, who became Spanish as Juan Antonio and José María, although they were from Milan. In fact, according to historian Mónica Vázquez Astorga, the Gippinis first started with an inn in 1758, which they called La Fontana de Oro, where they later asked for permission to serve coffee.

La Fontana, like other cafés that opened later in Madrid, such as the Café de San Sebastián or the Café de Lorenzini, in Barcelona or in Cadiz, where the most progressive ideology of the whole country reigned, were spaces where the intellectuals of the time met to discuss the most current issues. In fact, the discussions generated tensions among the authorities and for this reason one of the Gippini brothers was prosecuted, who defended himself for having allowed people who did not have the proper permission to speak and address the customers in his cafeteria.

Although coffee shops were not a private space, women were also banned from entering: although not explicitly, the male domination of public spaces meant that coffee shops were men's spaces and the presence of women there was only considered prostitution. "Many cafés were run by couples: the woman worked in front of the public and the man prepared the drinks in the kitchen. Few women would set foot in a café for fear of being mistaken for prostitutes given the public nature of the place and the fact that alcohol was sold. If women were served coffee, they would most likely be taken to their carriage to drink it in their privacy," Morris explains.

And how was the first coffee in Spain drunk? Until the middle of the twentieth century, coffee was made in a pot: water was boiled, ground coffee beans were poured in and the drink was strained through a gauze or fine cloth. That is to say, in a way, a filter coffee was drunk, and this was the case until the Italian coffee pot was introduced after the Second World War.



Bonus track: Origin and expansion of coffee

The history of coffee in Spain is short. Unlike other beverages, such as wine or beer, coffee must obviously be elaborated with coffee beans, and these are not native to Spain. Coffee comes from Africa, with the Arabica variety being the most outstanding among the more than 130 species of the plant that have been identified.

Precisely, arabica developed in the southwest of Ethiopia, in its mountainous massif bordering Kenya and South Sudan, and its founding myth is located there (and, as such, has not been verified), which traces its discovery back to the fourth century BC. It was first explained by the Maronite priest Antonio Fausto Naironi (formerly Mehrej Ibn Nimrûm, born in Lebanon) in his 1671 treatise on coffee, De saluberrima potione cahue: some goats ate the coffee cherries and hopped around their shepherd, called Kadi, so much that he decided to taste the fruit himself.

But the first written references to coffee consumption date back to 1450. It was consumed in the territories of Muslim culture around the Red Sea and they prepared it in this way: they dried the cherry and used all the parts of the coffee to make an infusion which they called qishr. The recipe traveled to Yemen where the Sufi sects, formed by civilians who worked during the day, found the power of coffee to combat sleepiness very practical, as it helped them in their midnight prayers. Coffee came to replace a ritual drink called qahwa that was prepared with the khat plant and had hallucinogenic properties.

The person responsible for this change was the Sufi mufti Muhammed al-Dhabani, the first historical character that we can associate with coffee thanks to the manuscript of Abd al-Qadir al-Jaziri, which deals with the expansion of coffee in the Islamic world and how al-Dhabani traveled to Ethiopia and brought it to Yemen. Drinking coffee soon became a social activity and was consumed outside of religious ceremonies, something that motivated its momentary prohibition in Mecca. But its diffusion throughout the Islamic world was impossible to stop.