History of Coffee – PART 3: The true (and uncertain) story of the world’s first coffee shop. The first coffee bar in the world

In the initial two episodes of our video series devoted to the history of coffee, we uncovered a fascinating revelation: contrary to popular belief, it was the Ottomans, rather than the Arabs as commonly portrayed, who played a pivotal role in the widespread dissemination and commercialization of coffee. 

But when and where did the first establishment emerge, where people gathered to drink this dark and hot beverage, and what was its structure like? We shouldn’t envision a place akin to today’s public spaces, but rather a room accessible to only a select few high-ranking individuals – a club where they indulged in smoking hookah and savored this newly introduced drink: coffee.

In the third episode, we embark on a journey to reconstruct all the clues we have gathered about this enigmatic initial location, which we will refer to as a “bar,” despite its limited resemblance to our modern notion of a bar. Most importantly, you will uncover the numerous hypotheses (and few certainties) surrounding it. Let us commence our exploration.

The Ottomans and coffee

In the context of the Ottoman Empire’s territorial expansion, two significant dates hold relevance in this narrative: 1453, marking their conquest of Constantinople (later renamed Istanbul) after asserting dominance over the Balkans, and 1538, when they conquered Yemen and the city of Mokha. It is worth noting that during those years, Mokha served as the global epicenter of coffee trade, as you may recall from previous episodes on the history of coffee.

With the successful conquest of the southern Arabian Peninsula, the Ottomans were exposed to coffee and developed a strong fondness for it. They swiftly engaged in large-scale commercialization, eventually bringing this beloved beverage to their capital, Istanbul.

History of Coffee - PART 3: The true (and uncertain) story of the world's first coffee shop. The first coffee bar in the world
Woman travel in Istanbul and and drink turkey coffee in cafe near Hagia Sophia famous islamic Landmark mosque, Travel to Istanbul, Turkey background

During the late 1400s and the first half of the 1500s, the world’s first coffee shop emerged. While the exact date of its opening remains elusive, it is believed to have been established somewhere within this timeframe. It is possible that the first coffee shop did not originate in Istanbul but rather in Damascus. However, there are limited certainties regarding this matter.

Nonetheless, let us proceed with our narrative. According to the sole available source—a Turkish chronicler documenting events in the year 962 AH (1555 in the Western calendar)—the coffee shop in question was established in Istanbul by two Syrian brothers: Hakam from Aleppo and Shams from Damascus. It appears that the establishment was known as “Kiva Han.”

From the depicted images, it becomes apparent that the establishment resembled more of a club than a traditional open public space. It served as a closed environment where members of a specific social group gathered to enjoy coffee, engage in conversations about current events and politics, partake in games such as chess and backgammon, and appreciate music. It evolved into what was aptly described as a “school of knowledge.”

What was this coffee shop like?

History of Coffee - PART 3: The true (and uncertain) story of the world's first coffee shop. The first coffee bar in the world
coffee beans on coffee tree, in Brazil

In the early stages of this first bar, coffee beans were roasted in the back room, then ground using a mortar, and brewed using an ibrik. Regrettably, no tangible remnants of this initial establishment have survived. However, we have insights into how these exclusive spaces evolved in the subsequent century. The clientele expanded, and these establishments became more inclusive, catering to individuals from various social classes. Alongside coffee, the experience often involved the enjoyment of shisha or hookah. Turkish-style coffee preparation became prominent, involving the use of a small pot called a cezve, in which finely ground coffee, water, and perhaps sugar were boiled together.

There is not much left of the world’s first bar, but it is interesting to note that a Starbucks was later established in its vicinity in Istanbul. However, whether this occurrence is merely a coincidence is uncertain.