Ethiopia is in East Africa, where the topography features everything from arid desert plains to fertile subtropical highlands. It’s also where the first humans emerged and, perhaps more importantly, where coffee was born. Like humans, coffee spread all over the world after leaving Ethiopia, whether the locals liked it or not. Resisting the encroachment of humans and coffee has always been futile, and we are all better off for it.
Today, coffee is not only the primary means by which humans ingest the world’s most popular legal stimulant; it is almost a religion. Every coffee addict has their own daily ritual of brewing, brewing, and drinking black magic, with an estimated 2 billion cups downed every day. And like a religion, the coffee creation myth rivals any origin story ever told.
Versions of the story vary, but Ethiopians maintain that coffee was discovered by a goat herder and musician named Kaldi. Kaldi spent his days making up songs on a pipe while his goats searched for food on the mountainside. When the sun began to set, he would call them with a special note played on the pipe, and they would follow him home. But one day the goats didn’t come when they were called.
When Kaldi went in search of his goats, he found them bleating and excited, almost dancing. While viewing the exhibit, he realized that the goats were feeding on the leaves and berries of a plant he had never noticed before. He assumed that was the cause of their arousal, so he tried some himself. The berries energized him and he started dancing with his goats.
Kaldi’s story also features the first rejection of coffee by someone in power, and the beans hadn’t even been roasted yet. The story goes that Kaldi brought the fruits to a holy man, who tasted them and then threw them into the fire, believing them to be ungodly. It was when the beans started to crackle and give off that distinctive aroma that they noticed. Legend has it that the beans were taken from the embers, crushed and soaked in water.
The story of Kaldi the goatherd probably contains elements of truth, but it could also just be a pretty folk tale. Coffee is not exclusive to Ethiopia. It grows wild throughout sub-Saharan Africa, from Madagascar in the east to Sierra Leone in the west, through the jungles of the Congo to southern Zimbabwe and northern Ethiopia. A much more scientific take says that the true origin of coffee lies in the assholes of African cats. Specifically, civets.
Civets climb coffee trees and feast on the juiciest berries above. Cats digest the outer berry, but the green bean is excreted after digestion. As the cats moved, so did the coffee trees, so researchers credit wild civet cats with spreading the wild growth of coffee trees in Africa. The Ethiopians became the first known people to pick and grow coffee. Other parts of Africa were not as easily accessible, so no one knows if coffee flourished in those parts earlier. But it is unlikely that the Ethiopians took to roasting the green bean, grinding it and adding it to hot water.
A much more scientific take says that the true origin of coffee lies in the assholes of African cats. Specifically, civets.
In the earliest uses of coffee plants, people ate the beans pure or used the leaves to make a weak tea. The answer to the question of how people started roasting and grinding beans to make a drink is simple: war.
Humans are programmed to like three things: sex, alcohol and fighting. Coffee goes well with all three.
Almost as soon as the Ethiopians discovered that the coffee berry was edible – probably by watching those goats not get sick or die – they started using it as food. And since it was a fruit, they also started making alcohol with it (because humans try to make alcohol with everything).
But it was probably military necessity that drove the roasting of coffee beans.
The Oromo tribes of Ethiopia were renowned raiders of the Ethiopian highlands and beyond. One of the things that made their fighters so efficient and effective was their food. While other armies tended to eat meals, Oromo warriors mixed coffee beans with animal fat and seeds as an early type of PowerBar. Roasting the beans has helped them keep for extended campaigns. A greasy coffee bar kept an Oromo going all day, but no one really knows how or when the ground beans were first steeped with hot water.
Either way, coffee has literally and figuratively fueled armies for over 1,000 years. Ever since they were first used by man, coffee beans have been the seeds of conquest and revolution. There’s a reason kings, chiefs, and religious leaders have all tried (unsuccessfully) to stop its use. Coffee tends to bring people together and then amplify them. High-energy Ethiopian warriors might have been the first out of Ethiopia coffee.
The country we now know as Yemen lies directly across the Red Sea from the shores of East Africa. In 520 AD, much of the region was part of the Kingdom of Aksum, an empire that literally rivaled the Persian Empire. That year, Kaleb of Aksum sent a force that overthrew the government of a Jewish kingdom based in Yemen and installed a viceroy who ruled for about 50 years.
Some historians believe that the Aksumites may have established coffee farms during this period. There is no compelling evidence for or against this idea, but just because a European didn’t write it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. It was the Persians who took over the area and gave the Ethiopians the boot – but the theory is that they kept the coffee.
If the Aksumite warriors were not yet fueled by coffee at that time (the first Arabic mention of coffee would not come until 400 years later), then coffee would have spread through trade with the Arabian Peninsula. Either way, the Arabs took the drink. Coffee plantations and irrigation ditches were built in Yemen over the following centuries.
The Prophet Muhammad converted much of the Arabian Peninsula to Islam when he died in 632, and the Islamic Empire’s ban on intoxicants would only add fuel to the fire of coffee roasting. Some Islamic stories claim that coffee was a gift from the Archangel Gabriel, and the use of coffee was later propagated by Sufi mystics because it kept them awake while they studied and prayed at night. They called him qawahthe Arabic word for “wine”, from which the word coffee is derived.
From the Yemeni port of Moka, coffee began to spread throughout the Islamic world. Even though various religious and civil leaders attempted to ban the consumption of coffee (sometimes with the threat of execution by a giant sword), by the end of the 15th century coffeehouses had sprung up in Mecca, Cairo and Istanbul.
The Ottoman Turks tried to monopolize the coffee culture, but it did not help. At the start of the 17th century, Europeans were on the coffee bandwagon, trading and growing it in their colonies. Straight out of its cradle, coffee has conquered the world. For yours is the kingdom, the power and the glory forever. Amen.
This article first appeared in the Winter 2022 edition of coffee or dieunder the title “How coffee conquered the world”.
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