Posted in Kafevend Blog

After investigating hot chocolate and tea over the past month, today we will begin to finish the series as we look at the origin of coffee. Like tea, whoever first discovered coffee is shrouded in a certain amount of myth. One of the most commonly found stories about coffee's discovery tells of an Ethiopian goat herder named Kaldi. One day, he noticed that his goats would get agitated and energetic after eating the berries from a certain bush. He tried them himself and felt the exhilarating effects of caffeine. Interestingly however, this story has been traced back to an Italian who wrote it in 1671 rendering it somewhat apocryphal. Other legends speak of Yemeni wise men who travelled to Ethiopia and like Kaldi observed the bean's effects on wildlife before trying it themselves.

Alongside the legends, a picture of a more gradual introduction to coffee can be gleaned from the habits of Ethiopian tribes. Instead of drinking coffee, they chew the seeds or grind them and mix them with animal fat to produce little "energy balls". It is thought that this practice was used some time ago by the Galla tribe, who taught it to Sudanese slaves owned by Arabians who traded in Ethiopia.

Whoever it was who first discovered coffee, it is commonly held to have originated in modern day Ethiopia. From there, it crossed over the Red Sea to Yemen. Whilst there are those who put coffee's first appearance in Yemen as far back as the 6th century C.E., the earliest credible evidence for coffee drinking appears in the middle of the 15th century in Sufi monasteries. Sufi monks who lived in Yemen would apparently drink coffee in order to stay alert at night during vigils and devotions.

During the 16th century, coffee spread northwards from Yemen to the rest of the Arabian peninsula along with Persia and Turkey and back over the Red Sea into North Africa. A coffee culture began to emerge in the Middle East at the same time. Coffee houses, known as qahveh khaneh, began to show up in cities. The very first coffee house is reported to have appeared in Constantinople, the city now known as Istanbul.

It wasn't all smooth sailing for coffee however. Despite the evidence showing Sufi monks as some of the first to drink coffee, other religious groups within Arabia were not pleased about it. In 1511, Imams present at a court in Mecca passed a ban on coffee, as they were opposed to its stimulating effect. The ban was overturned thirteen years later through the combined efforts of the Ottoman Turkish Sultan and the Grand Mufti.

Whilst coffee drinking took off in the Middle East, the Arabians kept their methods of production secret in order to maintain a monopoly. They were happy to sell coffee however and it was introduced to Europe in the late 16th century through Venice, as they traded with the various countries in the eastern Mediterranean. The secret of how to actually grow coffee is said to have finally got out in 1670 (though the Dutch from 1616 might disagree). The Sufi Baba Budan smuggled coffee seeds out of Yemen to India, where he set up a plantation.

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