Coffee is the third most consumed beverage across the world after water and tea. It is cultivated in at least 70 countries and remains one of the most traded commodities worldwide. People brew the beverage from roasted ground beans of a tropical evergreen shrub and mostly enjoy it hot or iced during summer. But have you ever wondered where these favourite beans got their start? Get ready for a fascinating journey of coffee through time and across continents.
What is the origin of coffee beans?
Many tales tell the story of discovering the first coffee bean and its very uniquely stimulating effect, but no one knows how or when exactly. However, coffee is a significant part of Ethiopian and Yemenite culture and history dating back to 14 centuries when (or when not) it was discovered. Whether the origin of coffee is Ethiopia or Yemen is a topic of debate, and each country has its myths, legends, and facts.
Ethiopia’s coffee origin myth
It is the most popular myth, and it claims that the original home of the coffee plant is Abyssinia, now Ethiopia. Kaffa, the province in the southwestern highlands where the plants 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 before that. Thus, many people in that region were familiar with the berries and the drink.
According to Ethiopia's ancient history, an Abyssinian goat-herder, 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 joy. He filled his pockets with the berries and ran home to announce his discovery. Then, 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 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. Then 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 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. Furthermore, 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, arduous journey.
Residents of Kaffa and 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 flavour persists 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." It is one of the earliest references to Ethiopian coffee in its brewed form. Records show that in 1454 the Mufti of Aden visited Ethiopia and saw his 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 by establishing the first coffee houses known as Kaveh Kanes. These coffee houses were originally religious meeting places, but soon became social meeting places for gossip, singing, and storytelling. 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 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 two devious Persian doctors, the Hakimani brothers, who wanted coffee banned, condemning it as an unhealthy brew. That was because melancholic patients who otherwise would have paid the doctors to treat them used it as a popular cure. But, on the other hand, the Mufti of Mecca spoke in defense of coffee.
The Sultan of Cairo intervened and reprimanded the Khair Beg for banning a widely enjoyed drink in Cairo without consulting his superior, finally resolving the coffee issue. In 1512, Khair Beg was accused of embezzlement and the Sultan had him put to death. Coffee survived in Mecca.
Religious zealots exaggerated the picture of Arabic coffee houses as dens of iniquity and frivolity. In reality, the Muslim world was the forerunner of the European Café society and London's coffee houses, which became famous London clubs. They were meeting places for intellectuals, exchanging news and gossip, and traditional storytellers regularly entertained clients. Coffee houses quickly became an important center for exchanging 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.
The coffee brewing custom became the most common form, and it spread elsewhere. The Islamic world brewed it stronger and more intense after arrival in the 13th century. They revered the herbal-like decoctions as potent medicine and powerful prayer aid. Ethiopia, Greece, and Turkey continue these traditions of boiling coffee.
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, 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 disease. Robusta coffee is mostly used for blending, but Arabica is the only coffee drank unblended and the type grown and consumed 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)
Yemen’s coffee origin myth
Yemen has two popular myths in addition to its well-founded history in coffee. Although basic compared to the Kaldi myth, the first one attributes the origin of coffee to Ethiopia!
It claims that the Yemenite Sufi mystic Ghothul Akbar Nooruddin Abu al-Hasan al-Shadhili was traveling through Ethiopia, presumably on spiritual matters. He encountered some very energetic birds that had been eating the fruit of the coffee plant. Weary from his journey, he tried these berries for himself and found that they also produced an energetic state.
The second myth centers around Sheikh Omar from Mocha. He was a doctor-priest and follower of Sheik Abou’l Hasan Schadheli but exiled to a desert cave close to the mountain of Ousab where they expected he would die of starvation. One version claims that Sheik Omar was exiled for moral transgression, and the other claims he attempted to run off with the king’s daughter after healing her.
That's the story where a magic bird leads him to a coffee bush after he cries out in despair for guidance from his master, Schadheli. He found the raw cherries delicious and decided to make a soup out of them. The 'soup' closely resembled the drink we now know as coffee when he removed the roasted cherries. In the other version of the story, he found them too bitter to eat raw and threw them into the fire. Unfortunately, this basic 'roasting' hardened the berries, making them unsuitable for chewing. Omar then attempted to soften them by adding them to water.
He noticed the pleasant aroma of the increasingly brown liquid as the roasted berries boiled and decided to drink this decoction rather than eat the beans. Omar found the drink revitalizing and shared his tale with others.
Omar found the drink revitalizing, and his tale quickly reached his hometown of Mocha. The King lifted his exile and ordered him to return home with the berries he had discovered. He shared coffee beans and the drink of coffee with others, who found that it "cured" many ailments. They hailed coffee as a miracle drug and Omar as a saint shortly after. To honour Omar, they built a monastery in Mocha.
Origin of coffee drinking
Most agree that that the original coffee plants are native to the western regions of Ethiopia. However, the coffee drink originated in Yemen. In Yemen, these plants were finally cultivated and developed into the beans and beverage that we know today. The bean is said to have been first consumed as a beverage in Yemen west in 1450 by the country's mystical Sufi monk population, who used the drink to help them stay awake during all-night meditations. History records Sufi monasteries on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula processing Yemen coffee over 500 years ago. This discovery marked the beginning of the world's coffee drinking culture as we know it today.
Farmers in Yemen took advantage of the unique terrain of their country with conditions considered not suitable for growing other crops. And for 200 years, Yemen was the only source of coffee. The Arabic coffee was named after the Mokha Port, on the coast of the Red Sea, from where shipping took place. By 1650, coffee became popular in Europe, spawning the beginning of coffee shops and café businesses.