The original home of the coffee plant is Abyssinia, now Ethiopia. Kaffa, the province in the south-western highlands where they first blossomed gave its name to coffee. Although the formal cultivation and use of coffee as a beverage began early in the 9th century, coffee trees grew wild in the forests of Kaffa prior to that. Thus, many people in that region were familiar with the berries and the drink.
According to Ethiopia’s ancient history, an Abyssinian goat-herd, Kaldi, who lived around AD 850 discovered coffee. He observed his goats dancing excitedly and bleating loudly after chewing the bright red berries that grew on some nearby green bushes.
Kaldi tried a few berries himself, and soon felt a sense of elation. He filled his pockets with the berries and ran home to announce his discovery. At his wife’s suggestion, he took the berries to the Monks in the monastery near Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile River.
Kaldi presented the chief Monk (Abbot) with the berries and related his account of their miraculous effect. “Devil’s work!” exclaimed the monk, and hurled the berries in the fire. Within minutes the monastery filled with the aroma of roasting beans, and the other monks gathered to investigate. The beans were raked from the fire and crushed to extinguish the embers. The chief Monk ordered the grains to be placed in the ewer and covered with hot water to preserve their goodness. That night the monks sat up drinking the rich fragrant brew and vowed that they would drink it daily to keep them awake during their long, night devotions.
While this popular account provides a religious approval for the drinking of roasted coffee berries, it is believed that Ethiopian monks were already chewing the berries as a stimulant for centuries before it was brewed. Ethiopian records establish that Ethiopian and Sudanese traders who traveled to Yemen over 600 years ago chewed the berries en route to their destination to survive the harsh difficult journey. Residents of Kaffa, as well as other ethnic groups such as the Oromo were also familiar with coffee. They mixed ground coffee with butter and consumed them for sustenance. This practice of mixing ground coffee beans with ghee (clarified butter) to give it a distinctive, buttery flavor persists to this day in parts of Kaffa and Sidamo, two of the principal coffee-producing regions of Ethiopia.
Brewed coffee, the dry, roasted, ground, non-alcoholic beverage is described as Bunna (in Amharic), Bun (in Tigrigna), Buna (in Oromiya), Bono (in Kefficho), and Kaffa (in Guragigna). Arabic scientific documents dating from around 900 AD refer to a beverage drunk in Ethiopia, known as ‘buna.” This is one of the earliest references to Ethiopian, coffee in its brewed form. It is recorded that in 1454 the Mufti of Aden visited Ethiopia, and saw his own countrymen drinking coffee there. He was suitably impressed with the drink which cured him of some affliction. His approval made it popular among the dervishes of Yemen who used it in religious ceremonies and subsequently introduced it to Mecca.
The transformation of coffee as a trendy social drink occurred in Mecca through the establishment of the first coffee houses which were known as Kaveh Kanes. These coffee houses were originally religious meeting places, but soon became social meeting places for gossip, singing, and story-telling. With the spread of coffee as a popular beverage, it soon became a subject for heated debate among devout Muslims.
The Arabic word for coffee, kahwah, is also one of several words for wine. In the process of stripping the cherry husk, the pulp of the bean was fermented to make potent liquor. Some argued that the Qu’ran forbade the use of wine or intoxicating beverages, but other Muslims in favor of coffee argued that it was not an intoxicant but a stimulant. The dispute over coffee came to a head in 1511 in Mecca. The governor of Mecca, Beg, saw some people drinking coffee in a mosque as they prepared a night-long prayer vigil. Furious he drove them from the mosque and ordered all coffee houses to be closed. A heated debate ensued, with coffee being condemned as an unhealthy brew by two devious Persian doctors, the Hakimani brothers, who wanted coffee banned, because melancholic patients who otherwise would have paid the doctors to treat them, used it as a popular cure. The Mufti of Mecca spoke in defense of coffee. The issue was finally resolved when the Sultan of Cairo intervened and reprimanded the Khair Beg for banning a drink that was widely enjoyed in Cairo without consulting his superior. In 1512, when Khair Beg was accused of embezzlement, the Sultan had him put to death. Coffee survived in Mecca.
The picture of Arabic coffee houses as dens of iniquity and frivolity was exaggerated by religious zealots. In reality, the Muslim world was the forerunner of the European Café society and the coffee houses of London which became famous London clubs. They were meeting places for intellectuals, where news and gossip were exchanged and clients were regularly entertained by traditional story-tellers. Coffee houses quickly became such an important center for the exchange of information that they were often referred to as “Schools of the Wise.”With thousands of pilgrims visiting the holy city of Mecca each year from all over the world, knowledge of this “wine of Araby” began to spread.
Today Ethiopia is Africa’s major exporter of Kaffa and Sidamo beans, now known as Arabica, the quality coffee of the world, and the variety that originated in Ethiopia. Coffea Arabica, which was identified by the botanist Linnaeus in 1753, is one of the two major species used in most production, and presently accounts for around 70 percent of the world’s coffee.
The other major species is Coffea Canefora, or Robusta, whose production is increasing now due to better yields from Robusta trees and their hardiness against decease. Robusta coffee is mostly used in blend, but Arabica is the only coffee to be drunk on its own unblended, and this is the type grown and drunk in Ethiopia.
In Ethiopia’s province of Kaffa a large proportion of the coffee Arabica trees grow wild amidst the rolling hills and forests of the fertile and beautiful region. At an altitude of 1,500 meters, the climate is ideal and the plants are well protected by the larger forest trees which provide shade from the midday sun and preserve the moisture in the soil. Traditionally, these are the ideal conditions for coffee growing.
(Adapted from Selamta, The In-Flight Magazine of Ethiopian Airlines ; edited by Professor Nkiru Nzegwu)