Believe me when I tell you that many coffee beans were sacrificed to bring you these 31 bits of coffee trivia. It required some late nights and a lot of brew. But I wasn’t interested in putting another list of thinly sourced coffee facts out there into the world.
For this coffee trivia, I dove deep into university libraries and academic papers to verify some of the dubious claims that are out there. If I couldn’t verify them, I tossed them aside.
It turns out the story of coffee is even more fascinating that I had anticipated. I drank a lot and I learned a lot. I hope you will, too. Let’s get to it.
Melitta coffee filters make great medical masks
During the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, German company Melitta redirected its efforts from making coffee filters to making medical masks.
The company, whose filters were invented in 1908 by a Dresden housewife named Melitta Bentz, realized that the filters were the perfect shape to fit over a person’s mouth, nose and chin. All they had to do was replace the filter paper with a special melt-blown fiber normally used in their vacuum bags, then attach an elastic. The systems they already had in place allowed them to manufacture a million masks per day, which provided a big boost to Europe’s mask supply.
— The New York Times (@nytimes) May 10, 2020
The first webcam watched a coffee pot
When somebody brewed coffee in the computer lab at the University of Cambridge in the early 1990s, the coffee went fast. So fast, in fact, that they decided to set up a camera. This allowed people whose desks were far from the machine to watch it on their computers and get there in time for a fresh cup. This began as an internal thing, but eventually they hooked it up to the World Wide Web so people all around the world could watch the coffee brew. After the $100 machine broke down in 2001, the students sold it on eBay for about $4,800 USD.
140 litres of water go into each cup of coffee
That’s about half a bathtub, and no, it doesn’t all go into the coffee cup. Rather, you need 140 litres of water to grow enough beans to produce one cup of coffee.
Brazil produces about one-third of the world’s coffee
In 2018, Brazil produced 3.6 billion kilograms of beans, which is more than twice as much as any other country. (Vietnam was second with 1.79 billion.) In about half a century between 1800 and 1852, Brazil’s coffee production went from virtually nothing to No. 1 in the world, a position it has held for the past 168 years.
People bathe in coffee at a Japanese spa
Of all Japanese contributions to coffee culture, this is probably the strangest. Hakone Kowakien Yunessun Spa and Resort in Japan has a pool of coffee that guests can bathe in. Fast forward to the 40-second mark of the video for verification.
You can visit the site of England’s first coffeehouse
The Grand Cafe, a cocktail bar in Oxford, now occupies the site where England’s first coffeehouse was established in 1652. Within 25 years, England had 3,000 coffeehouses. Then, a paranoid King Charles II banned them.
Coffee has been banned many times, in many places
Mecca banned coffee in the 16th century because they believed it inspired radicals. Nevertheless, Catholic clergy viewed it as a Muslim drink (Satanic, in their view) and asked Pope Clement VIII to ban it. The pope tried it, and liked it so much he had it baptized, jumpstarting its popularity in the Christian world. In 1675, King Charles II of England banned coffeehouses because he believed people gathered there to plot against him. The idea wasn’t so far-fetched: both the American and French revolutions were plotted in coffeehouses.
Starbucks used to be called Il Giornale
To be clear, Starbucks the roasting company was always called Starbucks, but its first café in Seattle was called Il Giornale. Longtime CEO Howard Schultz opened the café in 1985, serving coffee made with Starbucks beans, because he thought cafés were the company’s future. His business partners, who had founded Starbucks as a roasting company, disagreed. Schultz bought them out in 1987 and began opening cafés to his heart’s content—an average of two per day for the next decade. He called them Starbucks.
A coffee bean isn’t a bean, it’s the pit of a fruit
Coffee beans are actually seeds, which come from the inside of a fruit very similar to a cherry. In fact, they are often called coffee cherries. The plant’s scientific name begins with the genus Coffea, followed by the species. For example, arabica beans come from the Coffea arabica plant. Its pits are cleared of fruit and dried before being shipped away for roasting. (Do not try this with actual cherries.)
The Coffea genus is native to tropical East Africa
Coffea arabica grows wild in the forests of the Ethiopian highlands. That’s where it all began. The nearest coastline is the Bab al-Mandab Strait, a 30-kilometre crossing between Africa and the Arabian peninsula where the plant was first cultivated and traded. It spread from there to the Middle East and Europe.
There are two theories about the origin of the word “coffee”
The part of Ethiopia where wild coffee originated was called the Kingdom of Kaffa from the 14th century onward. That may be where the drink gets its name. Another theory says that the Arabians who first popularized coffee named it qahwah after one of their ancient drinks that was similar to wine. Qahwah became kahve in Turkish, then koffie in Dutch, and finally coffee in English.
Robusta beans contain twice as much caffeine as arabica
Arabica beans may be more highly prized for their taste, but they can’t beat the caffeine kick of robusta. Robusta beans, grown primarily in Africa and Indonesia, contain almost double the caffeine of their arabica cousins—just under three per cent, to 1.5% for arabica. This extra caffeine also helps make robusta easier to grow, because it turns off some pests.
The world’s most expensive coffee comes from elephant dung
Black Ivory coffee costs more than $500 per pound, or $50 per cup. The beans are sourced from the poop of elephants in Thailand, after they’ve eaten coffee cherries and excreted the pits. The elephants’ digestive enzymes are said to transform the compounds in the beans. It’s not a new concept—for many years, Kopi Luwak coffee sourced from the feces of civets was regarded as the world’s priciest.
Haiti once supplied more than half the world’s coffee
The year was 1790, and Haiti—then a French colony known as Saint-Domingue—had a booming coffee industry built on the backs of African slaves. It supplied more than half of the world’s coffee. The slave revolt of the following decade led to the Haitian Revolution, and the coffee industry declined soon after. Haiti’s production is now about 30th in the world.
Bach wrote a comic opera about a coffee addict
In 1732, composer Johann Sebastian Bach wrote a comic opera called Coffee Cantata about a coffee-crazy young woman whose father tries to come between her and her coffee.
The Boston Tea Party taught Americans to love coffee
A tea tax imposed by the British government in 1773 not only led to a raid on tea ships in Boston Harbor and the American Revolution, it also paved the way for coffee. During and after the revolution, many Americans considered drinking tea to be unpatriotic and switched to coffee. Many never went back. Today, the U.S. consumes more coffee than any country in the world.
Only two U.S. states produce coffee
Hawaii, famous for its Kona coffee, had long been America’s only coffee-producing state. But since coffee plants were introduced to California in the early part of this century, the state’s industry has grown to 30 farms, including the Good Land Organics farm in Goleta below. Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, also has a coffee industry.
Maxwell House made coffee kosher
In 1923, nobody was really certain whether coffee was a bean or a fruit. Beans and legumes were not kosher, so they were forbidden for Passover. The marketing guy who worked with Maxwell House, Joseph Jacobs, persuaded Orthodox Rabbi Hersch Kohn to classify coffee as a fruit, making it kosher. A few years later Maxwell House produced its first Haggadah, a sort of Passover reader containing prayers and hymns, which is still distributed. It is the longest running content-marketing play in American history.
Coffee has fueled some of London’s buses
A UK company called bio-bean partnered with Shell on a project to turn coffee grounds into biodiesel. The fuel worked without any modifications to the buses. Bio-bean now makes “coffee logs” out of recycled coffee grounds, for use in fireplaces and wood stoves.
A 19th-century French novelist consumed the equivalent of 50 cups per day
Coffee was a component of early energy bars
In the Middle Ages, the Oromo people of Ethiopia would grind entire coffee cherries, including the pits, with a mortar and then mix it with animal fat to create a paste that could be compressed into bars or balls. These snacks became high-energy, high-protein food for their warriors during raids. Today, dried coffee fruit is known as cascara and is used to brew tea.
Humans drank coffee as we know it as early as the 15th century
You may hear stories of a ninth-century goat herder in Ethiopia discovering coffee when he noticed how hyped up his goats became after eating the berries. However, that story’s origins—and legitimacy—are unknown. The earliest documented evidence comes from Sufi monasteries in Yemen, at the bottom of the Arabian peninsula.
Mocha Java was the first coffee blend
In the early days of coffee, Yemen and Indonesia were the two regions that grew most of it. Ships would collect beans from the port of Mokha in Yemen, and the port of Java on the island of the same name in Indonesia, all on the same trip. While the chocolatey drink we now call mocha takes its name from the Yemeni port, Mocha Java is actually just regular coffee made from a blend of Yemeni and Indonesian beans.
Honduras holds the record for largest cup of coffee
On Nov. 30, 2018, Honduras broke the Guinness world record by creating a 3.36-metre coffee mug and filling it with more than 18,000 litres of coffee. It took 22 people a month to build the giant cup. Here they are filling it up:
Vietnam multiplied its coffee exports by six in a seven-year period
Vietnam exported about 150 million kilograms of coffee in 1994, when the U.S. lifted its trade embargo against the country. Seven years later, Vietnam exported 900 million kilograms, a six-fold increase. That number has since risen to more than 1.7 billion kilograms, second in the world.
More than 70 countries now cultivate coffee
The common thread among coffee-cultivating countries is that they all lie at least partially between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, and they all have mountains.
Finns drink the most coffee
According to this Statista graph based on 2016 data, Finland consumes more coffee per capita than any country in the world, about 10.35 kilograms per year. Americans average 4.4 kg.
The CIA has its own Starbucks
This Starbucks in Langley, Virginia, might be the only one in America where baristas never write their customers’ names on their cups. When you work for the CIA, sometimes you want to go where nobody knows your name.
An order of Catholic friars in Italy have long been known for their brown robes with pointed hoods, or cowls. Children would spot the friars passing on the street and call out “Cappuccino!” which meant “little hood.” They became known as Capuchin friars. The drink later took the name—some say because of its colour, others because of its pointed peak.
Global coffee prices are plummeting
The price of coffee as a commodity has dropped by two-thirds in about eight years, from nearly $3 per pound (USD) in April 2011 to just over 90 cents in April 2019. You might not have noticed much difference, but you know who has? Coffee farmers. The price of coffee has been lower than this before, though—in the fall of 2001 it dropped as low as 43 cents per pound.
The oldest cat ever drank coffee every day
Creme Puff, a cat owned by Texas man Jake Perry, drank coffee mixed with cream every day and lived to be 38 years old. (Fifteen years is average for most cats.) Perhaps significantly, the second oldest cat ever recorded also belonged to Perry and also drank coffee every day. Granpa died at 34.
Coffee trivia questions
If you’ve read carefully, you shouldn’t have any trouble with these coffee trivia questions. Feel free to challenge your co-workers, or bring it along to your next game night.
1. Which company turned their coffee filters into face masks during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020?
c ) Melitta
d) Mr. Coffee
2. At which university was video of a coffee pot transmitted by the world’s first webcam?
a) University of Cambridge
b) Harvard University
c) University of Oxford
d) Yale University
3. How much water does it take to grow enough beans to produce one cup of coffee?
a) 4 litres
b) 14 litres
c) 40 litres
d) 140 litres
4. What portion of the world’s coffee is grown in Brazil?
b) one third
d) three quarters
5. For how long has Brazil been the world’s top coffee-producing country?
a) 30 years
b) 70 years
c) 102 years
d) 168 years
6. When did England get its first coffeehouse?
7. Which English monarch banned coffeehouses?
a) Elizabeth I
b) Charles II
c) George III
8. Which revolution was plotted in a coffeehouse?
c) American and French
9. Starbucks opened its first cafe in 1985 under a different name. What was it?
b) Il Giornale
d) La Sirena
10. The plant that produces coffee has its origins in which country?
11. Which of the following is NOT widely considered a linguistic ancestor of the word “coffee”?
12. From which animal’s feces does the world’s most expensive coffee come?
c) red panda
13. Which famous composer wrote a comic opera about a young caffeine addict whose father tries to come between her and her coffee?
14. What are the only U.S. states that grow coffee?
a) California and Hawaii
b) Hawaii and New Mexico
c) Florida and Hawaii
d) Florida and New Mexico
15. Which instant coffee brand has published a book of Passover prayers and hymns since 1923?
a) Douwe Egberts
d) Maxwell House
16. The first documented evidence of coffee consumption comes from monasteries in which country?
17. “Mocha Java” is named after two places. In which countries are those places?
a) Saudi Arabia and Indonesia
b) Italy and Fiji
c) Yemen and Indonesia
d) Turkey and Papua New Guinea
18. Which Central American country set a Guinness World Record in 2018 for brewing the world’s largest cup of coffee?
b) Costa Rica
19. After Brazil, which country is the world’s second biggest coffee producer?
20. Which country drinks more coffee per capita than any other?
d) United States
21. Which chain of coffeehouses has a branch in the CIA’s Langley, Va. headquarters?
a) Dunkin’ Donuts
b) Peet’s Coffee
d) Tim Hortons
22. The oldest cat who ever lived drank coffee and cream daily. At what age did the cat die?