Where did the history of coffee begin?

Image-of Kali-goat-herder-with-goats

Where did the history of coffee begin?

The historic origin of coffee is relatively recent compared to other widely consumed beverages such as tea and beer. Common consensus and folklore have it that coffee originated in the highlands of Ethiopia anywhere between 800AD and 1000AD.

The legendary tale of the discovery of coffee is that a young Ethiopian goatherd by the name of Kaldi noticed how frisky and animated his goats became after eating the red berries from a particular tree. The goats were so energised that they were unable to sleep at night.The intrigued young Kaldi decided to try the fruit himself. Almost immediately Kaldi felt alert and energised, running around and dancing with his goats. Kaldi felt as we all do after a cup or two of our favourite drink today.

There are several versions of the story from then on. My favourite is that a Sufi monk heard about Kaldi’s antics. The monk approached Kaldi to find out if the berries could help prevent him falling asleep during prayers. When he tried the berries for himself they had exactly the same effect on him as on Kaldi. The monk then came up with the idea to turn the berries into a tasty drink, which he then sold to fellow monks who were keen to stop being reprimanded for falling asleep.

Nobody really knows how or exactly when coffee was discovered but this charming legend with all it’s embellishments just add to the mystique of this popular drink.

There is no doubt that the origins of coffee owed much to the interaction of the people of Ethiopia and present day Yemen. The Arab trading routes from the port of Mokah in Yemen were to become responsible for coffee’s domination of the Middle East. We don’t know why, but it was Yemen that came to grow coffee trees rather than Ethiopia in those early days.

The religion of Islam aided the spread of coffee as it was often used in religious ceremonies, assisting in the all night prayer sessions…legally or not.

The first coffee houses probably first appeared in Yemen in the early 15th century. Coffee was often seen as a way for people to get “drunk” and to commit disorders by sultans, governors and leaders in the 14th and 15th centuries. Whether this was actually due to caffeine intake or because drinking coffee was a sociable thing to do and gave people a chance to discuss grievances and embolden their opposition to their rulers is another matter. Over a period of 200 years coffee was frequently made illegal and then very quickly made legal again.

In 1571, when the Ottoman Turks took control of Yemen, they quickly realised how valuable a commodity coffee was. They passed strict laws which stated how coffee was to be exported. They wanted to prevent coffee being grown outside Yemen and so export coffee all over the world and bring home the riches that entailed. As we all know, trying too impose your will on a people makes them want to do the opposite even more. It didn’t take long for one brave soul to smuggle some valuable coffee cherries out aboard a ship.

In a later blog we will look at the spread of coffee from the Middle East to India and Europe.

(Founder of Norfolk Coffee Co)

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