A History of Coffee: The Mysterious Ethiopian Plant

“Even a bad cup of coffee is better than no coffee at all”  

David Lynch

Coffee is a drink celebrated around the world, from the prairies of Saskatchewan to the lush jungles of Vietnam. It’s a drink that transcends borders, cultures, and communities but how did this happen? How did a coffee plant growing in the heartland of Ethiopia evolve into the most widely consumed drink in the world? What is the history of coffee?

In our new blog series, we will be going through the history of coffee. Starting with its founding myth to its explosive rise in popularity in Arabia, then its smuggled voyages to Europe, India, and eventually the Americas. 

To begin the history of coffee, we need to go back to Ethiopia, and particularly to a goat herder named Kaldi. 

The Tale of Kaldi

A history of coffee: the mysterious Ethiopian plant
A goat herder tending to his goats

As the ancient tale goes, a goat herder by the name of Kaldi was tending to his goats as they scoured the mountainside for food. As he begins to herd them back at the end of the day, he notices the goats chewing on a plant, then gaining a sudden sense of energy. Intrigued, Kaldi takes one of these plants and begins to chew it himself, this plant was in fact, coffee. Feeling a rush of energy, Kaldi became ecstatic about his discovery and rushed to present the delectable coffee plant to the monks at the monastery. Though, the monk claimed the plant was the devil’s work and promptly hurled it into the fire. The burning coffee plant released an aromatic smell, so the monks quickly raked the beans out of the fire, grounded them up, and dissolved it in hot water, thus creating the first cup of coffee. 

Now how true the tale of Kaldi and his magical discovery of coffee can neither be confirmed nor denied, what is apparent is that coffee did, in fact, originate from Ethiopia and we have evidence of a tribe known as the Oromo, chewing coffee beans as well. Though the Oromo tradition of chewing coffee beans with animal fat and ghee do not exist today, other ceremonies do.

The coffee plant was the perfect snack for the harsh Ethiopian environment, allowing people to continue hunting and foraging without the need for much rest. Soon this delightful treat would begin its global expansion, as the coffee plant crossed the red sea, changing the history of coffee forever.

Coffee Crosses the Red Sea

“It fortifies the members, cleans the skin, and dries up the humidities that are under it, and gives an excellent smell to all the body”

Avicenna

Though it is hard to trace how coffee first made its way from Ethiopia to Yemen, there are some theories as to how the drink arrived to the Arabian peninsula. One of these theories is that the Ethiopians introduced coffee plantations in Yemen during the Aksumite invasion of the Himyarite in Arabia Felix—what is now modern-day Yemen. This war is believed to have happened sometime in the 6th century. 

Another theory to explain the movement of the coffee plant from Ethiopia to Yemen is through Sudanese slaves who brought the Oromo tradition of chewing coffee beans with them to Harrar and eventually Ethiopia. 

Regardless of which theory is correct, coffee would really make its mark in Yemen. The people of Yemen quickly began to cultivate the trees, finding the bitter taste and rich aroma of coffee irresistible. As the people of Yemen continued to grow this delectable plant, its popularity grew, and at one point the Yemeni city of Mocha (this is where the name for the drink, Mocha originated from) imported up to two-thirds of coffee from Somalia and the Ethiopian interior. 

Though any written mention of coffee would not appear until the 10th century, in a medical textbook of all things. 

Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi, better known as Rhazes was a Persian polymath, physician, alchemist, philosopher, and medical expert. Suffice it to say, he did a lot of things. One of these things was writing a medical textbook titled Al-Hawi, or The Continent which was authored in the 10th century. The book was a compendium of medical information collected by Rhazes and on one of these pages, he speaks about a drink we are all very familiar with: coffee.

He referred to it as “bunn” or “bunchum”, which translated to “coffee berry” and “the drink” respectively in ancient Abyssinia (modern-day Ethiopia). In his textbook, the drink is described as, “hot and dry, and very good for the stomach”. 

Coffee continued to be mentioned in medical textbooks when Persian polymath, Avicenna wrote about it in the book, The Canon of Medicine. Just like Rhazes, Avicenna described the hot drink through a medical perspective, stating that the drink “fortifies the members, cleans the skin, and dries up the humidities that are under it, and gives an excellent smell to all the body”. 

The first evidence of coffee being brewed for consumption was by the Sufi monks who used the drink to stay awake through the night during long hours of prayer. 

As the drink grew in popularity in Yemen, Muslim pilgrims began to introduce coffee across the Islamic world to places such as Persia, Egypt, Turkey, and North Africa. Though as the drink made its way to more people than ever before, it also brought with it a rather bitter taste socially.

The Bitter Side of Coffee

Traditional Coffee House: History of Coffee
A traditional coffeehouse

Coffee started to become associated with troublesome behavior, as Ralph Hattox notes in his book on the history of Arab coffeehouses, “The patrons of the coffeehouse indulged in a variety of improper pastimes, ranging from gambling to unorthodox sexual situations”. In response to these more troubling aspects of coffee culture, Arab rulers and religious leaders began to crack down on the coffee industry; shutting down the coffeehouses in cities such as Mecca and for a short period of time even Constantinople. 

There were often many reasons as to why rulers would shut down coffeehouses in their realm, many of which were absurd. For example, the young governor of Mecca, Khair-Beg learned that satirical verses of him were originating from the city’s coffeehouses and thus convinced his advisors that coffee carried the same properties as wine, and therefore should be banned. So in 1511, the coffeehouses of Mecca were shut down. 

Another example was when the Grand Vizier of Constantinople feared his people would rebel against him, so he closed the city’s coffeehouses with severe consequences for those who broke the law. A person caught the first time, was beaten; if caught a second time, they were sewn shut into a leather bag and thrown into the Bosphorus. 

Though these consequences were clearly severe, people continued to drink coffee in secret, addicted to its caffeine and finding themselves inspired and rejuvenated by its taste. But coffee was never going to stay solely in Arabia, and so the tides of history began to shift when in 1536 the ever-growing Ottoman Empire took hold of Yemen. From that moment on, coffee would truly go global. 

Join us next week as we explore coffee’s journey from the heart of the Ottoman Empire to the trade ports of Holland, and its perilous voyage to the New World.

Ishfar Munir
Ishfar Munir is a Business and Computer Science Double Degree student at Wilfrid Laurier. His journey into the world of coffee only begun recently, but he has already begun to fall in love with the delicious drink. In his free time, he likes to watch basketball games, write songs, and read the New Yorker.

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