Caffeine is a wonder-drug, but like many long-ago discoveries, it’s history is contested and divisive. While it’s fairly well established scientifically that coffee plants first grew in Ethiopia, the story of who discovered it and when people began roasting and steeping it is contentiously argued.
Coffee‘s Origin Myths
The tale of the discovery of the coffee plant is told in a number of origin myths. In one of the most popular Kaldi, an Abyssinian goat herd noticed his goats acting very excited and animated. He also saw that his “dancing goats” were all eating from the same plant, so he decided to try the cherries and found their wonderful properties of making him awake and active. Excited about his discovery, he filled his pockets with cherries and rushed home to his wife, who then encourage him to share his discovery with the monks.
The monks were not nearly as enthusiastic about coffee as Kaldi and threw them into the fire, decrying them as “devil’s work.” However, the smell of the roasting beans in the fire was so intoxicating that they raked them out of the fire, crushed them to quench the embers and then stored them in water to preserve them.
The other kind of origin story for coffee takes place in Yemen. There are two Yemenite origin stories for coffee. In one, the Yemenite Sufi mystic Gothul Akbar Nooruddin Abu al-Hasan al-Shadhile was traveling through Ethiopia when he saw some energetic birds who had been eating berries from the bunn plants (the Ethiopian term for the coffee plant). Feeling tired himself, he decided to try them and, discovering that they invigorated him, he brought the news with him along his travels and back to Yemen.
In the other, Sheikh Omar was exiled from Mocha into the wilderness. On the verge of starvation, he found coffee cherries but because they were too bitter to eat raw, he tried roasting and then boiling them. But, when he noticed how good the liquid smelled, he decided to drink the boiling water instead. Discovering coffee’s magic properties of invigoration, he began sharing his newfound knowledge with others. This knowledge soon spread back to Mocha where they quickly revoked his exile and invited him back to the port city to share his revitalizing drink with the city.
All three of these stories are widely understood as apocryphal as the discovery of coffee cherries and the roasting and steeping of beans likely did not happen on the same day, but rather over a long period of time.
A More Scientific History
Most think that coffee cultivation began about the 9th century. Yet some people think that coffee came to be cultivated in Yemen as early as 575 C.E. Regardless of the exact date, it’s likely that people in Ethiopia, Yemen and other nearby countries chewed the cherries and beans of wild coffee plants for centuries before it became a common beverage.
It is thought that the steeped beverage of coffee was invented and popularized by Yemenite Sufis who used the drink to help them complete their journeys to Mecca and stay awake for late night prayers.
Some people ground coffee and mixed it with ghee, clarified butter. They then rolled the mixture into small balls that could be eaten on long journeys. This is still done in some places including Kaffa and Sidamo, in Ethiopia.
Regardless of exactly where and when it originated, the discovery of coffee continues to impact our lives today. But in order to become the global beverage it is today, coffee needed to travel around the world in the hulls of ships and on the backs of pack animals.
In order to travel the world, coffee first had to make its way to the Islamic world, which it did in approximately the 13th century CE. There, coffee was seen as a potent medicine and an aid to prayers. It soon spread beyond medicine and religion as a cultural lubricant in newly established coffee houses, the first of which was documented in Constantinople in 1554.
By the 15th century, the first coffee plantations had been established in Yemen and by the early 17th century, coffee had been introduced to Christian Europe through Venetian merchants who shipped it from Middle Eastern ports and sold it across Europe.
The Growth of Coffee Houses
The first European coffee house opened in 1645 in Venice. More houses soon popped up in England (1650), France (1672) and even in Boston, in the New World (1676). The Dutch broke the Middle East’s monopoly on coffee in the 18th century with the establishment of coffee plantations on their colony of what is now modern Indonesia.
Coffee houses in the Middle East and in Europe and the New World became breeding grounds for some of the greatest minds of the time. Modern insurance companies, as well as the stock market started in coffee houses. The French Revolution and the American Revolution were planned in coffee houses.