The Highly Caffeinated History of Your Coffee Mug

History of the Coffee Mug from African American Expressions


Coffee mugs don't get much press. In fact, most people never stop to consider the history of mugs. A mug simply gets the coffee to your mouth. It quietly delivers your favorite morning drink while holding back its life story. It doesn't want to bother you — you're busy getting ready for work.

Well, now it's the mug's time to shine. Grab a piping cup o' joe, sit back and listen to your mug's tale — you owe it your attention. Who knows: Maybe the next time you look for your favorite mug, it'll be gone. Left you for someone who'll give it some respect. You should've listened. 

We know you love your mug. A mug says a lot about you. We at African American Expressions view our Afrocentric mugs as a way of expressing our proud heritage. It makes sense to drink coffee from African American coffee cups. After all, coffee first sprouted its crimson berries from the soils of Africa.

The mug boasts a long and varied history, but its greatest accomplishment was teaming up with African coffee. To start our story, we'll look at this legendary partnership which began when coffee and the mug first met in Ethiopia, a millennium ago.

A Stimulating Origin

The legend says a young goat-herder named Kaldi discovered coffee — or rather, his goats did, 1000 years ago in the hills of Ethiopia. One day, Kaldi noticed his goats acting strangely. This unusual energy puzzled Kaldi. They seemed full of the beans.

Then, Kaldi noticed his goats eating from a berry bush. Plucking a handful of the red, ripe, berries, he took them to a local monk. The monk and Kaldi examined the fruit. Kaldi explained how the plant got his goats all hopped-up. Should they try the berries themselves? The adventurous monk said something like, "Well, let's see what the fuss is about."

Once they tried the berries, they experienced the first coffee buzz. It's possible that they brewed the coffee in a manner similar to the present day Ethiopian coffee ceremony. No better example serves to show the respect we still show to coffee, the mug and the act of preparing coffee.

Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony


Ethiopians loved coffee, it is considered an art form.


Ethiopians take their coffee seriously. Ever since Kaldi tried a cup, Ethiopians never kicked their coffee habit. They love coffee so much, they elevated brewing to an art form. This ritual maintains a long and noble history.

The coffee ceremony dates back hundreds of years. The courtly Ethiopian kings of Gondar sipped coffee in their highland castles in the 17th century. The ceremony even outlived the kings of Ethiopia when Haile Selassie died in 1975. Not just for kings, the coffee ceremony remains a proud part of Ethiopian heritage.  

Most of us just groggily push a button on the brew-master, but Ethiopians do it differently. The coffee ceremony involves a highly ritualized process. But these steps brew a mean mug of coffee.

The ceremony begins when a young woman, dressed in the traditional white dress of the northern region, kindles a charcoal fire. She builds a hot ember fire by beating the air with a small fan. When the charcoal glows red, it's roasting time.

The coffee maiden — not quite the Starbucks mermaid — pours freshly picked, green coffee beans into a shallow pan. Shifting them around, she roasts the beans like Jiffy-Pop.  The smell of roasted coffee fills the room, just as it did for Kaldi and the monk. The timeless aroma of crackling beans compliments the age-old ritual.

When the beans turn black, the coffee attendant transfers them to a wooden pulverizing bowl. Next, our heroine heaves a baseball bat-sized wooden mallet over her head and, with brute force, crushes the beans. Scooping the coffee grounds into a clay jug called a jebena, she mixes the contents with water and boils the mixture over the still-burning charcoal.

Finally, when the water boils, the coffee ceremony draws to a close. On a tray, the maiden arranges porcelain serving cups called finjaninto rows. Suddenly, she stands triumphantly, and with jebenain hand, pours a waterfall of steaming coffee down into each cup, from three feet above the cups, all without spilling a drop. It's a sight to see.

We all maintain our coffee traditions. Maybe not with the finesse of the Ethiopians, but sitting with friends and family over a mug of coffee doesn't need bells and whistles. It's the mug and coffee that counts. We encourage you to try new coffee-brewing techniques, but don't attempt to pour coffee from three feet up — Ethiopian coffee acrobatics aren't for amateurs. 

The Spread of Coffee Cultivation

Coffee's humble beginnings in Ethiopia only represent the first chapter in its history. Like a fluffy dandelion caught by a breeze, coffee spread to the corners of the world. First, it blew across the Red Sea to Yemen.

Here, coffee gained its first name: kahveh. Some believe that "kahveh" might refer to the Kaffa region of Ethiopia. After all, coffee did come from Kaffa. Regardless of its African origin, Yemeni merchants lay claim to coffee as an Arabian product.

As trade and interest in coffee grew, Yemen began to guard their coffee closely. Having cornered the world market, they intended to maintain their monopoly. They made it illegal to export any coffee plants. Only processed coffee was sold.


The port of Mocha on the Red Sea became the world coffee capital.


The port of Mocha on the Red Sea became the world coffee capital. All traders bought coffee from this single source. Yemenis protected the plant for two hundred years. Eventually, European demands became too great, and live plants entered the traders’ hands.

The Dutch secured the first coffee plants. They transferred coffee to Indonesia, Sri Lanka and South America. Likewise, the Spanish, English and French spread coffee cultivation to their colonies. As coffee became affordable, worldwide demand exploded. 

Coffee shops and cafés made their permanent mark in the world. The ritual of meeting in cafés created a new, sober environment for learning and discussion. The act of drinking coffee in public moved into our homes as our love affair with coffee continued.

As coffee exploded as a consumer product in the 20th century, our demand for mugs also increased. Coffee and mugs form a perfect partnership. But it took a long time for them to team up. 

Dating the Mug

Compared to the mug, coffee is a fairly recent discovery. The mug's history stretches back to the dawn of civilization. The first mugs begin to emerge around 3000 B.C., following the invention of the pottery wheel.

People drank from cups long before pottery. Carved wooden vessels existed before mugs, and even misshapen, funky-looking clay pots precede mugs. But the wheel changed the game. By spinning a lump of clay around an axis, a potter could mould the cup into a perfect circular shape. After that, they simply attached a handle and set the mug out to dry.

The Original Afrocentric Mugs

Although most ancient mugs come to us from the Middle East and Asia, ceramic technology was nothing new to Africans. In 2005, a team of archaeologists, led by Eric Huysecom of Geneva University, unearthed pottery in Mali from 11,400 years ago. This predates most Middle Eastern ceramics by roughly 1,000 years.

This groundbreaking discovery lead Huysecom to declare that West Africans originally invented pottery. Not only did Africa invent coffee, but Africa also invented the mug — so to speak.

Gaze Into Your Mug — and Maybe Your Future

Every culture celebrates a coffee tradition. From French cafés to Ethiopian coffee ceremonies, everyone celebrates coffee differently.

In Sweden, as timely as clockwork, a special coffee break lets workers flood into cafés for an afternoon fika, or coffee break. This daily routine gives workers a chance to socialize before returning to finish their workday.


Turkish coffee drinkers believe their mug tells the future.


But of all the world’s coffee rituals, Turkish coffee fortune telling might be the strangest. Some Turkish coffee drinkers believe the sludge in their coffee mugs tells their future. The tradition of divining predictions from reading coffee gunk is called tasseography.

This phrase comes from the French word “tasse,”which means cup, and the Greek word “graph,” which refers to writing. You don't need to take notes on your coffee gunk. Just keep a keen eye out for the hidden shapes and symbols in the coffee.

Some common symbols in Turkish coffee readings include:

  • Ring: flourishing love or a wedding
  • Bird: positive news
  • Spider: money spinning itself towards you
  • Fish: achievement of career goals — like becoming a diving instructor
  • Octopus: be cautious of risks — like diving

In general, it's not simply a matter of spotting symbols. You need to combine their meanings together to form a large picture of the reading. With a little practice, you might unlock the secrets in your coffee mug. Next time you drink a strong mug of coffee, take a look at the bottom and see what you see. Personally, whenever our mugs run low on coffee, the only message we see is "Get more coffee."

From Pot to Porcelain

For fortune teller and regular coffee drinker alike, people pay attention to mugs. Throughout history, we've always wanted better, nicer mugs. For people 700 years ago, clay mugs just didn't cut the mustard. When news of a better alternative reached Europe, the world of mugs turned upside down. The miracle material was called porcelain.

Nowadays, we've moved past porcelain, but in the 1300s, it was either clay or porcelain. There's a reason you don't own a clay mug — clay isn't great. Unless your aunt's taking a pottery class — and she's extra generous — you probably don't own a clay mug.

For Europeans, porcelain had many advantages:

  • Porcelain offers a more elegant, uniform product.
  • Without a glaze, clay leaks.
  • Porcelain's smooth, finished surface allows for easy image embossing.
  • Porcelain allows for a thinner rim.

The mug you hold in your hand owes its appearance to the legacy of porcelain. We don't mean to startle you, but it might not actually be porcelain. Before you run off to accuse your mug dealer of impropriety, don't worry — it doesn't really matter.

Imitation porcelain isn't any worse than the authentic stuff. Modern processes use a variety of materials, which produces a high-quality ceramic. In fact, thin porcelain cups break easier than their thicker ceramic cousins.

We've come a long way in ceramic technology, but for a long time, porcelain was the top dog. Before the West narrowed the gap and mastered the mug trade, the world of porcelain belonged to China.

Chinese China

Porcelain, also called china, blew simple clay mugs out of the water. When it burst onto the international scene in the 14th century, everybody wanted to have it. Its superior quality enthralled all who encountered this mysterious material. The precision of the design and the thinness of the rim made porcelain china a hot commodity.

It took China a long time to craft perfect porcelain. Examples from the Han Dynasty, around the time of Christ, morphed into the more sophisticated porcelain of the Tang Dynasty, roughly a thousand years later. Knowledge of porcelain had reached the Middle East, and it remained a prized item of trade routes. 

Despite the fame of porcelain in the Orient, it remained unknown in Europe. This changed with a young Venetian explorer named Marco Polo. His travel memoirs bear the first mention of porcelain anywhere in European writing. Interest in this beguiling substance grew.


Europeans traded with China for porcelain coffee cups.


As Europeans traded with China in the centuries to come, their thirst for porcelain only increased. Recognizing the potential for controlling the world's only supply of this "white gold," the Chinese emperor Hong Wu hatched a plan. First, he closed every porcelain factory in China. Then, he centralized all production and knowledge of porcelain in a single city. Hong Wu called his fortress factory city: Kin Te-Chen. All employees of Kin Te-Chen were carefully screened and supervised. Every ounce of material was kept under lock and key. The secret was safe, or so it seemed.

After four hundred years of failed European attempts to learn the secret, one outsider finally succeeded. In 1712, a Jesuit priest named Francois Xavier d'Entrecolles gained the trust of the inhabitants of Kin Te-Chen. Through his time there, he gathered information on the hidden process. Seeking no money, he sent a letter back to his mission that outlined the secret process. He felt the information should serve all mankind and not remain in one place.

His testimony helped the first European manufacturers to replicate porcelain. Although they tried to keep it secret, the recipe got out within a decade. Nice try.

The Immortal Mug

It's easy to just brew coffee, pour a mug and ignore both of them. Like it or not, you're part of a process that began thousands of years ago. From the first pottery in Mali, to the first mugs in the Middle East, to the first coffee in Ethiopia, to the mystery of Chinese porcelain, to the perfection of the mug, to the moment you take your first morning sip.

It's easy to live our lives oblivious to the forces that create the world. Rituals such as drinking coffee don't need to be routine. Taking a moment to recognize the wonder of reality goes great with a morning coffee.

Put aside time for a coffee with friends and family. The social aspect of coffee existed from the beginning of its history. Since an Ethiopian herder shared a coffee with a monk, conversation goes great with coffee. 

But remember: You can't drink coffee out of any old glass. You need the proper mug, and what better way to honor the African origin of coffee than to drink from our African American mugs? Check out our beautiful selection of African American coffee mugs.

Don't forget the mug. 

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