The Origin of Coffee

Assorted coffee drinks in cups on coffee beans background

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Culturally, coffee is a major part of Ethiopian and Yemenite history. This cultural significance dates back as many as 14 centuries, which is when coffee was (or was not) discovered in Yemen (or Ethiopia... depending on who you ask). Whether coffee was first used in Ethiopia or Yemen is a topic of debate and each country has its own myths, legends, and facts about the beverage's origin.

Ethiopia's Coffee Origin Myth

The most popular legend of coffee in Ethiopia usually goes something like this:

One day in a highland area near an Abyssinian monastery, a goat herder from Kaffa named Kaldi was herding his goats. The goats began to jump around—almost dancing—and bleat loudly, which was strange behavior for his herd. Kaldi found that a small shrub (or a cluster of shrubs, according to some legends) was the source of the excitement. Deciding to try the bright red berries for himself, Kaldi also felt the coffee cherries' energizing effects.

Amazed at this discovery, the goat herder filled his pockets and rushed home to tell his wife. Calling the find "heaven sent," she advised Kaldi to share the berries with the monks.

Kaldi did not receive the warmest of welcomes at the monastery. One monk referred to his coffee beans as "the Devil's work" and tossed them into the fire. According to the legend, the aroma that wafted up from the roasting beans caught the monks' attention. After removing the beans from the fire and crushing them to extinguish the embers, they attempted to preserve them in an ewer filled with hot water.

This newly brewed coffee had an aroma that attracted even more monks. After trying it, they experienced the uplifting effects for themselves. They vowed to drink it daily as an aid to their religious devotions and to keep them awake during prayers.

Ethiopian Coffee History

That legend did not appear in writing until 1671 and most accounts date Kaldi to 850, so it's hard to say how much is truth and myth. Kaldi's story does coincide with the commonly held belief that coffee cultivation began in Ethiopia during the 9th century (the Yemenite origin points to an earlier date).

Additionally, Kaffa's goat legend suggests that both the stimulant and beverage possibilities of coffee were discovered in a single day. However, historians think that coffee had been chewed as a stimulant for centuries prior to this. It's thought that the ground beans were mixed into a thick paste with ghee (clarified butter) or animal fat, then rolled into small balls. This would have been a useful source of energy on long, arduous journeys.

It's further believed by some historians that the custom of chewing coffee beans was brought (along with coffee itself) from Kaffa to Harrar and Arabia by enslaved Sudanese. Supposedly, the enslaved Sudanese picked up the custom from the Galla tribe of Ethiopia. In some areas of Kaffa and Sidamo, the tradition of consuming ground coffee in ghee remains. Some people in Kaffa also add melted ghee to brewed coffee for extra flavor and to make it more nutritionally dense.

Around the 10th century, several indigenous Ethiopian tribes ate coffee in something similar to porridge. Gradually, eating coffee waned and the beans became better known as a beverage. Coffee cherries were fermented into a type of wine by some tribes, while others roasted, ground, and boiled the beans into a decoction.

The custom of brewing coffee became the most common form and it spread elsewhere. When it spread to the Islamic world during the 13th century, coffee was brewed stronger and more intense, similar to herbal decoctions. In this form, it was revered as potent medicine and a powerful prayer aid. Ethiopian coffee, Turkish coffee, and Greek coffee continue these traditions of boiling coffee.

Yemen's Coffee Origin Myths

Yemen also has a coffee origin myth (or two) as well as a well-founded stake in the beverage's actual history. The first legend from Yemen is rather basic by comparison to the Kaldi myth. However, in an interesting twist, it attributes the origin of coffee to Ethiopia:

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 bunn plant (known elsewhere as the coffee plant). Weary from his journey, he decided to try these berries for himself and he found that they produced an energetic state in him as well.

The second coffee origin myth from Yemen claims that coffee originated in Yemen. The story is centered around Sheikh Omar, a doctor-priest and a follower of Sheik Abou'l Hasan Schadheli from Mocha, Yemen, who was exiled to a desert cave close to the mountain of Ousab.

According to one version, this exile was for some sort of moral transgression. According to another version, Omar was exiled because he practiced medicine on the princess instead of on his master—who was on his deathbed. After curing her, he decided to "keep" her (interpret that as you wish) and he was exiled by the king as punishment.

After some time of exile and on the verge of starvation, Omar found the red berries of the coffee plant and tried to eat them. One version of the story says that a bird brought him a branch bearing coffee cherries after he cried out in despair for guidance from his master, Schadheli.

However, he found them to be too bitter to eat raw. Hoping to remove their bitterness, he threw the berries into the fire. This basic "roasting" technique hardened the berries, making them unsuitable for chewing. Omar then attempted to soften them. As the roasted berries boiled, he noticed the pleasant aroma of the increasingly brown liquid and decided to drink this decoction rather than eat the beans. He found the drink to be revitalizing and shared his tale with others.

In another version of the story, Omar found the raw beans to be delicious and decided to make them into a soup. When the roasted coffee cherries were removed, the "soup" became something closely resembling the drink we know of as coffee.

The story of Omar's invigorating drink quickly reached his hometown of Mocha. His exile was lifted and he was ordered to return home with the berries he had discovered. Returning to Mocha, he shared coffee beans and the drink of coffee with others, who found that it "cured" many ailments. It was not long before they hailed coffee as a miracle drug and Omar as a saint. A monastery was built in Mocha in Omar's honor.

Yemen's Coffee History

Although there are many accounts of coffee history dating back to the ninth century and earlier, the earliest credible evidence of humans interacting with the coffee plant comes from the middle of the 15th century. This is when it was consumed in the Sufi monasteries of Yemen. Monks drank it to stay alert during their nighttime devotions and long hours of prayer.

However, it is generally believed that coffee beans were originally exported from Ethiopia to Yemen. Later, Yemeni traders brought coffee plants back to their homes and began to cultivate them there.

Yemen is also the origin of the term "mocha." While today it is most often associated with chocolate-flavored coffee drinks, such as the mocha latte, it originally referred to the city of Mocha on Yemen's Red Sea coast. It was a major trade center for the Mocha style of coffee bean—a type of coffee prized for its distinctive flavor—and some believe that Marco Polo purchased coffee beans there during his voyages. It wasn't until the 17th century that knowledge of coffee (and the misnomer of "mocha") spread to Europe.