For many of us, the day just doesn’t begin without a good cup of coffee. But how did coffee itself begin? We probably will never know the “right” answer to that question but there is probably more than a grain of truth to the most widespread myth of coffee’s origins.
In this story, Kaldi a sheepherder in what is now Ethiopia, noticed that his sheep were frolicking after eating some red berries. He tried some of the berries himself and was soon dancing right along his sheep. When he told the local monks, they tried the berries and were able to receive divine inspiration that night. And thus, according to myth, did man learn of caffeine around 850 AD.
Whether the story of Kaldi is true or not, it is highly probable that coffee originated in Ethiopia. Ethiopia is the only place on earth where one can still find wild coffee trees growing in the forest and although Brazil is the largest coffee producer in the world, there are more home roasters in Ethiopia than anywhere in the world and they produce far more varied coffees than can be found anywhere else. Thus, even if the fanciful tale of Kaldi is not true, it is still highly likely that coffee was indeed discovered in what is now Ethiopia.
But how and why did these red berries become the drink we now call coffee? The first clue as to how that happened is in the name itself. Our coffee is, in Arabic, called qahwa which also means wine. But wine, like all alcohol, is forbidden by Islam. Nonetheless Sufi mystics in Yemen (like their Christian predecessors in the Kaldi myth) discovered that coffee helped them receive divine inspiration. And that demand, in turn, gave enterprising Arab merchants an idea for a new drink (a substitute for qahwa) and for a new type of agriculture. And so coffee plantations and coffee, the drink, were born.
That of course was not the end of it. For coffee is not just a drink; like wine it is a drink around which people gather to socialize. And not just any people; to this day students are most likely to congregate in coffee houses to study, philosophize, discuss politics, and gossip. So it should come as little surprise that some of the first coffee houses grew up around Cairo University. To this day, it is said that every Egyptian meets his second wife in his coffee shop.
From Egypt, coffee traveled to Istanbul where the Turks added to this henceforth relatively simple drink clove, cardamom, cinnamon and anise—thus creating the coffee we know to this day. And from Turkey coffee made the trek to the West in the seventeenth century. But Westerners did not greet coffee with bread and salt. Far from it. The West had been at war with Muslim Middle East for centuries and coffee, imported as it was from Muslim plantations was seen by many as the devil’s drink. Pope Clemente VIII’s advisors hoped he would ban the vile substance. The Pope considered the matter but before passing judgment decided to try it. Upon tasting this devil’s own brew, he was delighted and (so it is said) declared “This devil’s drink is delicious. We should cheat the devil by baptizing it.”
But baptizing coffee proved no easy task. Arab merchants weren’t about to let Christian infidel get in on the highly profitable coffee trade. To stop them, Arab traders would not allow any coffee berries to travel West unless they were first steeped in boiling water, making them infertile. But no monopoly lasts forever and so it was with coffee. The coffee monopoly was broken when a Muslim pilgrim named Baba Budan smuggled seven coffee seeds by taping them to his stomach and cultivated them in southern India. Almost at the same time, the Dutch who controlled much of the world’s trade, transported a coffee tree from Aden in Yemen to Holland where, sadly for the Dutch, the coffee trees failed to thrive away from the warmer weather.
This however turned out to be but a temporary setback. For the Dutch had colonies. And coffee trees did indeed thrive in Sri Lanka, Ceylon and Java where the Dutch promptly established the first European coffee estates.
After that, coffee quickly entered European politics. In 1713-1714, the mayor of Amsterdam presented young Louis XIV with a coffee plant which he had planted in Versailles; from there it is smuggled to Martinique and soon coffee is grown (mostly by slaves) throughout European colonies. But coffee trees are only part of the story. For, as we have already seen, coffee is a social drink and so the story of coffee is very much the story of coffee houses.
As in the Middle East, the spread of coffee was closely followed by the spread of coffee houses. What we, today, would call the coffee culture. And in Europe too, coffee began to be a substitute for alcohol. Unlike people who started their days in taverns, pubs, and bars, the Europeans who started their day in a coffee house, began the day alert and stimulated and the quality and quantity of their work improved. Coffee, it is said, sobered up Europe.
It also gave the writers, thinkers and philosophers a place to meet. Hemingway, Picasso and Jean Paul Sartre frequented Paris’ Café de Flore; Goethe and Wagner preferred Café Greco in Spain and Leon Trotsky loved the atmosphere in Vienna’s Café Central. I bet you too have your favorite coffee shop. (I know I do.)
But no matter how and where you prefer to drink your coffee, in a coffee shop, at home in an espresso machine or in a coffee maker, raise a cup to the memory of Kaldi the Sheepherder and his sheep. For had it not been for them, you would not be drinking coffee.