Scene, Coffee origins

Coffee Branding: Stories behind coffee brand names

Behind every great name there's an even greater story. In reading coffee history, I often come across a story that involves some mythical figure and think... hey, their name sounds famillair reading about coffee I've come across stories and thought 'Oh, that's why XYZ has that name!'. Those musings + a bit of research = the post below. Obviously I'm excluding companies with boring stories like 'it sounded cool' or 'it was named after myself'.

There is a little bit of legend and a lot of hearsay in many of the older stories. But that's what makes them great stories. Hope you like it - more later.

Blue Bottle - San Francisco, USA

Blue Bottle is San Francisco's most famous coffee chain and interstate export. They were one of the pioneers of commercializing high-end espresso in the Bay Area, and remain a quality establishment. The name of their cafe is rooted in 17th century Vienna, after the first Viennese coffee house. The history behind this first coffee house is quite dramatic. In 1683, the then-expanding Ottoman Empire attacked the Austrian city of Vienna, who were overwhelmed by the size of the Turkish army, outnumbered more than five to one. A young Pole by the name of Jerzy Franciszek Kulczycki, who had been living in Turkey for a decade and spoke Turkish, infiltrated the Turkish army in the guise of a local, and once inside offered intelligence on Turkish army movements to his home country of Poland. Armed with this information, the Polish army attacked to defend Vienna, and the Turkish army fled, leaving behind them a vast amount of wealth in gold, supplies and - coffee beans. The Austrians not knowing what to do with the coffee beans, Franz took possession of them and, now recognised as a hero in Austria, secured the right to open Vienna's first coffee shop, the "House under the Blue Bottle" ("Hof zur Blauen Flasche") making Turkish-style coffee. In order to make it more suitable for Viennese tastes, he filtered the drink and added cream and honey.

Starbucks - Seattle, USA (and everywhere)

Starbucks is a company that needs no introduction. The story behind its name is somewhat circuitous, which makes for an interesting anecdote. According to an interview with co-founder Gordon Bowker, Bowker and his colleague Terry Heckler (the two owned an advertising agency) were brainstorming ideas for a coffee shop name, when Heckler mentioned offhandedly that he thought words beginning with 'st' sounded powerful. Bowker agreed and began brainstorming a list of 'st' words. They somehow got to looking at an old mining map, and saw an old mining town called Starbo - which immediately reminded them of the chief mate on the Pequod, the whaling ship at the centre of Herman Melville's Moby Dick. "But Moby-Dick didn’t have anything to do with Starbucks directly; it was only coincidental that the sound seemed to make sense," Bowker said. They continued to brainstorm ideas. According to a Starbucks spokesman, they nearly chose 'Pequod' as the name of the company, but rejected it in favor of something more attractive after a friend tried out loud the tagline 'Have a cup of Pequod'. Damn straight.

According to Starbucks' official explanation, a name from Moby Dick was chosen to evoke the romance of the high seas and the seafaring tradition of the early coffee traders. I think let's stick to this polished and entirely logical story.

Four from Melbourne, Australia: St Ali, Brother Baba Budan, De Clieu and Monk Bodhi Dharma

These four names come from historical figures and anecdotes. I'm lumping them together because the stories are all highly apocryphal, and because they're all from Melbourne and I don't want people getting jealous.

  • St Ali - The pioneers of one of Melbourne's institutions took the name of their first cafe from the story of Abul Hasan Ali Ibn Umar, a Sufi now known in the west as the 'patron saint of coffee'. While working in the court of the Yemeni King in the 1230s as a physician, Ali had an affair with the king's daughter. When he was caught, he was exiled to the mountains of Yemen, where he began to eat the red berries from one of the local plants. Noting that not only were the berries edible but that they promoted wakefulness, Ali (and later other sufis) experimented with boiling the berries to create a substance that would allow them to remain awake during long periods of worship. He was happy with the effect, not minding the unpleasant taste. Later, it was when an intoxicating aroma was accidentally discovered after throwing them onto the fire that it was discovered that a pleasant drink could be concocted. Years later, Ali was called back to Yemen to help cure an epidemic and was forgiven for the crime for which he was exiled. He shared what he had learned about coffee with the local people and promoted the use of coffee to help the sufis remain wakeful during their late night prayers.
  • Brother Baba Budan - This iconic cafe in the Melbourne grid was also named after an African traveller, the 17th century Sufi monk Baba Budan. One day while returning from pilgrimage in Mecca via Yemen in the 1720s, Baba Budan discovered the drink called 'qahweh' (Arabic for coffee) drunk by the Yemeni locals for its invigorating qualities He requested to take some of the seeds back home, but unfortunately trade embargoes did not allow export. In spite of his moral values, Brother Budan strapped seven seeds to his belly (seven being a notable number in Islam) and smuggled them into India. He planted the coffee beans outside the cave where he lived. Allegedly, all the coffee plants growing around this area descended from the plants that grew out of those seven seeds. (Incidentally, those seeds are the name behind Melbourne institution Seven Seeds.)
  • de Clieu - This institution, part of the Seven Seeds group, is named after Captain Gabriel Matthieu de Clieu, an 18th century French navel officer who was stationed on the Caribbean island of Martinique. In the 1723, de Clieu decided to begin cultivating coffee on the island. His main obstacle was to procure a coffee plant to start his plantation. He had become aware that King Louis XIV had been given a plant by the Dutch, who had begun cultivating coffee in Suriname. Unfortunately for de Clieu, the King was reportedly very fond of this plant and would personally care for the plant, and then harvest and roast coffee beans from it. Thus, when de Clieu requested to take possession of the plant, the King denied his request. According to an even more dubious part of this story, de Clieu talked a French noblewoman to seduce the Royal Physician, Pierre Chirac to steal the plant for him. With the plant in possession, he created a special glass container for the plant and kept a watchful eye on it for the entire voyage. The plant survived violent storms, Tunisian pirate attacks a jealous shipmate who tried to steal his plant and scant water. He later wrote in his memoir: “Water was lacking for more than a month and I was obliged to share my scant ration with the plant, upon which my happiest hopes were founded and which was the source of my delight.” This plant survived and became the great great grandfather of untold millions of coffee plants in the Caribbean.
... ce dont je me souviens parfaitement, c’est que la traversée fut longue, & que l’eau nous manqua tellement, que pendant plus d’un moi je fus obligé de partager la foible portion, qui m’étoit délivrée, avec le pied du café, sur lequel je fondois les plus heureuses espérances, & qui faisoit mes délices...
— Gabriel de Clieu, reprinted in Terres de Café by Michelle Jeanguyot et. al.
  • Monk Bodhi Dharma - The obvious explanation is that this cafe is named after the Buddhist monk Bodhidharma, regarded as the first Chinese patriarch of Ch'an Buddhism. Digging a little deeper, according to a highly apocryphal tale, Bodhidharma spent nine years living inside a cave in the northern Chinese kingdom of Wei, spending the entirety of the nine years in a wakeful state staring at a wall. According to the tale, Bodhidharma fell asleep after seven years of wall gazing. Angry with himself, he cut off his eyelids in order to not let it happen again. When his eyelids hit the ground, the first tea plants sprung up, providing a stimulant to keep practitioners of Ch'an Buddhism awake during meditation. (Note: of course this legend is riddled with inaccuracies, as for example tea had existed for thousands of years before Bodhidharma, but it's a legend that nonetheless has been told.)

Square Mile - London, UK

Square Mile, London's most famous coffee export, is not actually located in the heart of the City of London, but is named after it anyway. This is probably obvious to everyone from the UK, but not to people from outside: 'The Square Mile' is actually a nickname for the City of London, the central and oldest part of London now dominated by the financial sector (and related sectors). The colloquial name comes from its approximate size, as the City is is 1.12 square miles in area.

Stumptown - Portland, Oregon

Stumptown, Portland's largest coffee export and one of the US' most famous, is named after one of several of the nicknames of Portland, Oregon. In the mid-19th century, the city's growth led residents to clear a lot of land quickly, nearly strip-mining the area for the lumber from the evergreens that grew in the area. However, the tree stumps were not immediately removed, and sat unattended until the necessary manpower could be mustered up to clear them. In some areas, there were so many that people used to jump from stump to stump to avoid the muddy, unpaved roads. In 1850, Captain John C. Ainsworth was quoted as saying that there were “more stumps than trees” in Portland. Over the years as environmental policies were implemented, responsible logging was introduced and the area is no longer filled with stumps. Some now believe the nickname to refer to the Portland's lack of significant skyscrapers (the tallest being 166 metres tall).