A Brief History of Coffee — From Excited Goats to Your Daily Cup

A brief history of coffee

Have you ever wondered who “discovered” coffee?

Every morning as I drink my cuppa joe, I always ask who was that first person who randomly picked coffee beans, roasted them, and added water to bring us the most wonderful drink?

The truth is, we really don’t know for certain who this brilliant (and maybe bored?) person is. But we have stories and urban legends on how coffee came to be.

This is going to be a long one so sit back and read on. Alternatively, if you prefer to watch a video, here’s a brief documentary on the history of coffee:

The Legend of Ethiopian Coffee-Eating Energetic Goats

Long ago, there was a goat herder named Kaldi. He lived in a plateau in present day Ethiopia (I think Ethiopia already existed back then as per biblical records but anyway).

The Ethiopian plateau is home to coffee forests. One day, Kaldi’s goats ate coffee berries. Kaldi then noticed that his goats were more energetic than usual. They pranced around and refused to sleep at night.

Confused, Kaldi went to the local abbot and reported his observations. The abbot created a drink out of the berries. Lo and behold, he too felt so awake at night. Wow he could pray without feeling sleepy at all (and let’s admit it, sometimes meditation and praying can be sleep-inducing most of the time).

Excited with this discovery, the abbot talked to the other priests about this mysterious drink.

This Ethiopian Legend began to surface in writing around the 17th century. These historical records date Kaldi to around 850 A.D. Hence, we can’t be really sure if the Ethiopian coffee legend is true. What we can be sure of though is that coffee cultivation indeed began in Ethiopia at around the 9th century A.D.

Historians also believe that coffee did not emerge in drink form until later. Coffee chewing is more probable as a way of consuming coffee in the ancient times. The coffee beans are ground then mixed with animal fat or ghee to form coffee paste. The coffee paste is rolled into small balls and consumed during long journeys.

Soon, the wonders of coffee reached the Arabian peninsula.

The Yemeni Coffee Origin Story

Yemen also has its own coffee origin story. Ghothul Akbar Nooruddin Abu al-Hasan al-Shadhili, a Yemeni Sufi monk, was said to be traveling when he saw energetic birds eating a certain type of berries. Curious, he then tried the berries and became energetic himself.

The Yemeni Sufi monk’s disciple, a sheik named Omar, was believed to have brewed the first coffee beverage. Legend has it that while Omar was in exile, he ate coffee berries but found them bitter. So he roasted and brewed the berries, producing the first coffee beverage ever.

He then went back to Mocha, Yemen, his hometown, to share his wonderful discovery. The residents of Mocha, Yemen were so impressed that they welcomed him back from exile and made him a saint.

Note the name of the place—Mocha. While Mocha now connotes a combination of chocolate and coffee, thanks to a misunderstanding, it was definitely a place in medieval Yemen.

While Yemen has its own coffee origin story, it is also generally believed that coffee was transported from Ethiopia to Yemen around ninth century. Perhaps exhausted from constantly buying coffee from Ethiopia, the Yemeni traders started cultivating their own coffee plants.

By 16th century, coffee was so popular in the Middle East so much so that it became known as the wine of Araby. The wine of Araby was spread to other parts of the world by Muslim pilgrims who flocked to Mecca each year. Yes, we have our Muslim brothers and sisters to thank for introducing the world to coffee.

From the Middle East, coffee soon reached the shores of Europe and other parts of Asia.

Coffee Reaches Europe, Asia, and America

News of a fantastic drink reached the shores of Europe. And in the 15th century, coffee was first introduced to the European continent through Italy from the Ottoman Empire. Venetian citizens traded with the Turks. Chief among the traded goods was coffee.

At first, however, several priests sought to have coffee banned and declared a drink from Satan. To resolve the issue, the Pope himself drank coffee. Much to the dismay of the religious, the Pope liked the drink so much, he exclaimed that they cheat Satan by baptizing the drink.

With its newfound status as a baptized drink, coffee became even more popular. A coffee shop, the bottega del caffé, opened in Venice in 1645. This is the first even coffee shop in Europe.

Other coffee shops opened in other European cities. London had its first coffee shop in 1650 and Paris in 1672.

Coffee trade became a profitable business. Countries then sought to grow their own coffee plants. This impelled the Dutch and the French to grow coffee in their colonized tropical territories. Indeed, most coffee that we drink today still come from the tropics.

The Middle Eastern traders were smart though. They boiled coffee beans before selling them to the Europeans, making them unsuitable for planting.

But the Dutch did not give up. Soon, they obtained their own coffee beans from Mocha, Yemen and in 1719, transported them to the Dutch East Indies, now known as Indonesia. It’s where “Java” came from, named after the largest island of the same name in Indonesia. Now, of course, we have Mocha Java.

A year later, the Dutch gave the French coffee plants from botanical gardens in Amsterdam. These plants were tokens of goodwill, meant to cement the two nations’ military agreement. The French then took the plants to Central America, where they intended to grow coffee in Martinique.

From Central America, coffee spread to South America. Nowadays, Brazil is the largest producers of coffee in the world. Coffee soon reached North America as well.

And the rest they say is history.