Ethiopia is considered to be the birthplace of the coffee plant and of coffee culture. It is thought that coffee was discovered in Ethiopia as long ago as the ninth century. Today, over 12 million people in Ethiopia are involved in the cultivation and picking of coffee, and coffee remains a central part of Ethiopian culture.
Ethiopian Coffee Expressions
Perhaps one of the clearest reflections of coffee's role in Ethiopian culture is in its language. Coffee plays such a heavily ingrained role in Ethiopian culture that it appears in many expressions dealing with life, food and interpersonal relationships.
One common Ethiopian coffee saying is "Buna dabo naw". This literally translates to "Coffee is our bread". It demonstrates the central role that coffee plays in terms of diet and illustrates the level of importance placed on it as a source of sustenance.
Another common saying is "Buna Tetu". This is an Amharic phrase that literally means "Drink coffee". It applies not only to the act of drinking coffee but also to socializing (much like the way people use the phrase "meet for coffee" in English).
If one says, "I don't have anyone to have coffee with," it is not taken literally, but assumed to mean that the person does not have good friends in whom they can confide. This relates closely to the enormous social role that coffee consumption plays in Ethiopia and the fact that people often gather over coffee for conversations that cover daily life, gossip and deeper issues alike.
Similarly, if someone says, "Don't let your name get noticed at coffee time," they mean that you should watch out for your reputation and avoid becoming the topic of negative gossip.
The Ethiopian Coffee Legend
The most popular legend of coffee in Ethiopia usually goes something like this:
Kaldi, an Abyssinian goat herder from Kaffa, was herding his goats through a highland area near a monastery. He noticed that they were behaving very strangely that day, and had begun to jump around in an excited manner, bleating loudly and practically dancing on their hind legs. He found that the source of the excitement was a small shrub (or, in some legends, a small cluster of shrubs) with bright red berries. Curiosity took hold and he tried the berries for himself.
Like his goats, Kaldi felt the energizing effects of the coffee cherries. After filling his pockets with the red berries, he rushed home to his wife, and she advised him to go to the nearby monastery in order to share these "heaven sent" berries with the monks there.
Upon arrival at the monastery, Kaldi's coffee beans were not greeted with elation, but with disdain. One monk called Kaldi's bounty "the Devil's work" and tossed it into a fire. However, according to legend, the aroma of the roasting beans was enough to make the monks give this novelty a second chance.
They removed the coffee beans from the fire, crushed them to put out the glowing embers and covered them with hot water in an ewer in order to preserve them (or so the story goes).
All the monks in the monastery smelled the aroma of the coffee and came to try it out. Much like the tea-drinking Buddhist monks of China and Japan, these monks found that coffee's uplifting effects were beneficial in keeping them awake during their spiritual practice (in this case, prayer and holy devotions). They vowed that from then on they would drink this newfound beverage each day as an aid to their religious devotions.
There is an alternate coffee origin myth, which attributes the discovery of coffee to a very devout Muslim man named Sheikh Omar who was living as a recluse in Mocha, Yemen.
Ethiopian Coffee History
It is thought that the legendary character of Kaldi would have existed around 850 A.D. This account coincides with the commonly held belief that coffee cultivation began in Ethiopia around the ninth century. However, some believe that coffee was cultivated as early as 575 A.D. in Yemen.
Although the legend of Kaldi, his goats, and the monks says that coffee was discovered as a stimulant and as a beverage on the same day, it is far more likely that coffee beans were chewed as a stimulant for centuries before they were made into a beverage. It is likely that the beans were ground and mixed with ghee (clarified butter) or with animal fat to form a thick paste, which was rolled into small balls then consumed as needed for energy on long journeys. Some historians believe that this custom of chewing coffee beans was brought (along with coffee itself) from Kaffa to Harrar and Arabia by Sudanese slaves who chewed coffee to help survive the arduous journeys of the Muslim slave trade routes. Supposedly, Sudanese slaves picked up this custom of chewing coffee from the Galla tribe of Ethiopia.
Today, the tradition of consuming ground coffee in ghee remains in some areas of Kaffa and Sidamo. Similarly, in Kaffa, some people add a little melted clarified butter to their brewed coffee to make it more nutritionally dense and to add flavor (a bit like the butter pu-erh tea of Tibet).
According to some sources, there was also a way of eating coffee as a porridge, and this method of consuming coffee could be seen amongst several other indigenous tribes of Ethiopia around the tenth century.
Gradually, coffee became known as a beverage in Ethiopia and beyond. In some tribes, coffee cherries were crushed and then fermented into a kind of wine. In others, coffee beans were roasted, ground and then boiled into a decoction. Gradually, the custom of brewing coffee took hold and spread elsewhere. Around the 13th century, coffee spread to the Islamic world, where it was revered as a potent medicine and powerful prayer aid, and was boiled much like medicinal herbal decoctions are boiled -- for intensity and strength.
You can still find traditions of boiling coffee in Ethiopia, Turkey and much of the rest of the Mediterranean, where they are known as Ethiopian coffee, Turkish coffee, Greek coffee and other, similar names.
The Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony
The Ethiopian coffee ceremony is central to the communities of many Ethiopian villages. You can read more about this in my article The Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony.
The Etymology of Coffee
In the local language, the word for coffee is "bunn" or "buna". The origin of coffee is Kaffa. So coffee was sometimes referred to as "Kaffa bunn," or coffee from Kaffa. For this reason, some believe that the term "coffee bean" is an anglicization of "Kaffa bunn". Given that coffee beans are actually berries, this theory makes even more sense.
For more about languages and the word coffee, check out Words for Coffee Around the World.