Have you had your coffee yet today? Many of us have a love-hate relationship with caffeine; we love the taste and effects of a really good cup of coffee but hate the way we feel if we don’t have it or if we have too much of it. This is the first in a series of articles exploring our relationship with caffeine beginning with the history of caffeine and humans. We commonly consume caffeine by infusions extracted from the seed of the coffee plant or leaves of a tea bush and through products derived from cocoa beans and kola nuts.
The first recorded consumption of caffeine is reputed to be Emperor Shen Nung in around 2700 BC who drank a hot drink brewed from leaves of a tea bush. Whether this is true or not, tea drinking was certainly established in China many centuries before the West; tea containers have been found in tombs dating from the Han Dynasty (206 – 220 AD) and in the late eighth century the first book was written entirely about tea. Tea was introduced to Europe at the end of the sixteenth century and in 1606 the Dutch imported the first commercial consignment of tea from China. From Holland it spread through Europe, where it was fondly adopted in Britain and Ireland, and across to America.
Legend has it that Ethiopian Nomads discovered coffee through observing that when their goats ate the fruit of the coffee plant they would have an energy boost, they then ate some and found they too had a boost of energy. Legend aside, coffee beans come from Ethiopia and the first reliable record of coffee drinking is in the Sufi monasteries in the Yemen in the mid fifteenth century. It is then traced as spreading across Egypt and North Africa and into the Middle East, Turkey and Persia by the sixteenth century, the first coffee house opened in Istanbul in 1554. An early writer on coffee noted in 1587 that one Sheikh said of coffee “it drove away fatigue and lethargy, and brought to the body a certain sprightliness and vigour”. Coffee drinking then moved into Italy, with the first European coffee house opening in Venice in 1645, and the rest of Europe followed.
Cocoa originates in South America and was first used by the Mayans to create a beverage with water, vanilla, black pepper and spices. The cocoa beans were also used as currency by South American civilisations and only consumed as they wore out, apparently you could buy a horse for ten beans. The Spanish introduced cocoa to Europe in the mid seventeenth century and from there it has spread around the globe.
Kola nuts are native to the tropical rainforests of Africa, the tree it comes from is related to cocoa. Kola nuts are chewed by West African cultures to ease hunger pangs and restore vitality. In the 1800s a pharmicist in Georgia took extracts of a Kola nut, sugar, carbonated water and other ingredients to produce the world’s first cola drink “Coca-Cola”. Since then Kola has been the source of caffeine in many soft drinks.