How did coffee come to Spain?

Although Spain was under Muslim rule for eight centuries and had colonies in major coffee-producing countries, the introduction of coffee to the Iberian Peninsula came at the hands of the Venetians, who introduced its consumption and trade to Europe.



Coffee was first introduced to Europe by Venetian merchants in 1575. Venice took the lead when it came to coffee: it was the first to receive a shipment of coffee in 1624, which was purchased by various apothecaries as a medicinal ingredient. By 1759, Venice had so many coffeehouses that the authorities limited their number to 204. Italy was followed closely by the Netherlands and England: coffee landed in Leiden in 1596, and the first European coffeehouse opened sometime between 1652 and 1654 in London, thanks to the Armenian immigrant Pasqua Rosée, as detailed by Jonathan Morris in Coffee: A Global History (Reaktion Books, 2019). A decade later, London had 82 registered coffeehouses, and Londoners enjoyed a drink that gave them energy for work and, they claimed, prevented dizziness.

The coffee boom of the 17th century can be attributed to various factors. Firstly, the fascination that the Middle East sparked among European artists and travelers of the time. However, since it was considered a beverage of Muslim culture, many sought to find Greco-Roman origins for it to avoid committing any sins according to their Christian faith. By the 18th century, Europe had succumbed to the pleasure of coffee, and it had become part of the bourgeoisie’s breakfast when mixed with milk and sugar. The Dutch, French, and British had started cultivating coffee in their colonial possessions in Asia and the Caribbean.

However, the first Spaniard to drink coffee was Pedro Páez around 1596, as claimed by the Royal Academy of History. Páez, a missionary in Ethiopia, was captured and imprisoned in Yemen, in the city of Sanaa. Later, they were sent as rowers on the galleys of the port city of Mocha, which would later give its name to the coffee prepared by the Europeans. During his captivity, Páez wrote in History of Ethiopia that he tasted “a dark and bitter infusion.” Apparently, not many people found it very appealing since it took a literal century for the Bourbon dynasty to introduce coffee to Spain.

Despite the fact that it was Spain that introduced coffee to Colombia in 1741 (at that time, it was part of the Viceroyalty of New Granada, along with Panama, Ecuador, and Venezuela) through the Jesuit colonizer José Gumilla, who documented it in “El Orinoco ilustrado y defendido,” coffee cultivation did not become commercially significant until more than a century later. Spain prioritized more profitable crops. For this reason, the first coffeehouse in Spain was opened in Madrid on July 9, 1765, by two Italians: the Gippini brothers, who adopted the names Juan Antonio and José María, although they were originally from Milan. According to historian Mónica Vázquez Astorga, the Gippini brothers initially started with an inn in 1758, which they called “La Fontana de Oro” and later applied for permission to serve coffee.

La Fontana, like other cafes that opened later in Madrid, such as Café de San Sebastián or Café de Lorenzini in Barcelona or Cádiz, where the most progressive ideology in the country prevailed, were places where intellectuals of the time gathered to discuss the most pressing issues. In fact, the discussions generated tensions with the authorities, and one of the Gippini brothers was charged for allowing people without the required permit to speak and address customers in their coffeehouse, as he defended here.

Despite coffeehouses not being private spaces, women were also prohibited from entering. Although not explicitly stated, the male dominance of public spaces established that coffeehouses were places for men, and the presence of women was only considered in the context of prostitution. “Many cafes were run by couples: women worked in public-facing roles while men prepared the drinks in the kitchen. Few women set foot in a café, fearing they would be mistaken for prostitutes due to the public nature of the place and the sale of alcohol. If women were served coffee, it was most likely taken to their carriage for them to consume in private,” explains Morris.

So, how was the first coffee in Spain consumed? Until the mid-20th century, coffee was brewed in a pot or pitcher: water was boiled, ground coffee beans were added, and the drink was strained using gauze or fine cloth. In other words, it was a filtered coffee, and this method continued until the Italian coffee maker was introduced after World War II.



Bonus Track: The Origin and Spread of Coffee

The history of coffee in Spain is relatively short. Unlike other beverages such as wine or beer, coffee is made from coffee beans, which are not native to Spain. Coffee originated from Africa, with the Arabica variety being the most prominent among the more than 130 identified species of the coffee plant.

Precisely, Arabica coffee was developed in the southwest of Ethiopia, in the mountainous region bordering Kenya and South Sudan. Here is where its foundational myth is located (although it cannot be confirmed). This myth dates back to the 4th century BC and was first explained by the Maronite monk Antonio Fausto Naironi (formerly Mehrej Ibn Nimrûm, born in Lebanon) in his 1671 treatise on coffee, “De saluberrima potione cahue.” According to the story, some goats consumed coffee cherries and leaped around their herder, named Kadi. This prompted Kadi to try the fruit himself.

However, the earliest written references to coffee consumption date back to 1450. It was consumed in the territories of Muslim culture around the Red Sea. They dried the cherries and used all parts of the coffee to make an infusion called “qishr.” The recipe traveled to Yemen, where Sufi sects, composed of civilians who worked during the day, found coffee particularly useful for staying awake during their midnight prayers. Coffee replaced a ritual beverage called “qahwa,” prepared with the khat plant and having hallucinogenic properties.

The credit for this change goes to the Sufi Mufti Muhammad al-Dhabani, the first historical figure associated with coffee. His story is detailed in Abd al-Qadir al-Jaziri’s manuscript on the expansion of coffee in the Islamic world. Al-Dhabani traveled to Ethiopia, discovered coffee, and brought it to Yemen. Drinking coffee soon became a social activity and was consumed outside religious ceremonies. This led to its temporary prohibition in Mecca, but its spread across the Islamic world became unstoppable.