Coffee History 101: The Legend, Origin & Remarkable Spread

As the reputed birthplace of the coffee plant, Ethiopia is unquestionably one of the most significant countries in coffee history. It is generally accepted that Ethiopia was where coffee was originally found in the ninth century. Currently, coffee is grown and harvested by more than 4.0 million farmers in Ethiopia, and coffee continues to play a significant role in the country’s culture.

So, it should come as no surprise that the most well-known coffee mythology originates in the enigmatic and historic country of Ethiopia, previously known as the Kingdom of Abyssinia.

The Ethiopian Coffee Legend

An illustration showing Kaldi the goat herder dancing with his goats (from the Ethiopian legend of how coffee originated in Ethiopia).

According to legend, on one memorable day, Kaldi, a goat herder from the Kaffa Highlands, discovered that his goats were acting quite strangely. They had started to hop around erratically, bleat loudly, and dance on their hind legs. He discovered the reason for their excitement to be a small group of shrubs with vivid red berries. Curiosity driving, Kaldi made the choice to test the berries for himself.

Kaldi was delighted to experience the energetic effects of the coffee cherries as well. He virtually pranced around like his goats did as he made his way back home to his wife after stuffing his pockets with the crimson berries. His wife, who was deeply religious, suggested that he take these “heaven sent” berries to the local monastery and give them to the monks there.

Yet instead of the joyous reception Kaldi had anticipated at the monastery, his coffee beans were met with contempt. One of the monks mistakenly threw Kaldi’s reward into a blazing fire after calling it “the Devil’s work.” Yet, this ended up being a blessing in disguise because the monks were persuaded to try the berries by the enticing aroma of roasting beans. The roasted berries were removed from the fire, crushed to extinguish the embers, and preserved by being submerged in hot water in a huge jug.

All of the monks in the monastery came to sample the coffee after smelling its aroma. The monks discovered that the energizing properties of the red berries were helpful in keeping them awake during their prayer and holy devotions and made a pledge that from that day forward, they would drink this newly discovered beverage every day to aid their religious devotions.

Ethiopian Coffee History

It seems more likely that coffee beans were chewed as a stimulant before they were converted into a beverage, contrary to the narrative of Kaldi, his goats, and the monks, which claims that coffee was found as a stimulant and as a beverage on the same day. Some historians argue that Sudanese slaves who chewed coffee to assist them survive the grueling trips along the Muslim slave trade routes brought this custom of chewing coffee beans from Kaffa to Harrar and Arabia, along with the coffee itself.

Also, it’s possible that the beans were mashed and combined with ghee (clarified butter) or other types of fat to create a thick paste that was then formed into little balls and eaten as needed for energy during lengthy treks. In some parts of Kaffa and Sidamo, the custom of drinking ground coffee in ghee is still practiced today. Similar to this, some Kaffa drinkers add a small amount of melted clarified butter to their brewed coffee to increase its nutritional value and flavor.

Porridge was one additional way to consume coffee. Around the tenth century, this way of drinking coffee was practiced by a number of different indigenous Ethiopian groups.

Coffee became a popular beverage over time in Ethiopia and other countries. Some tribes crushed coffee cherries before fermenting them into a type of wine. Others involved roasting, grinding, and boiling coffee beans to create a decoction. The practice of making coffee was eventually adopted and extended to other places.

Coffee entered the Islamic world around the 13th century, where it was highly valued as medicine and also helped with prayer. Similar to how herbal decoctions were boiled for therapeutic purposes, it was boiled for strength and intensity. Ethiopian coffee, Turkish coffee, Greek coffee, and other names with a similar meaning are some of the names for this tradition of boiling coffee that is still practiced in these countries as well as most of the rest of the Mediterranean.

Coffee’s Journey Around the World

Coffee History in the Horn of Africa & The Middle East

A cartoon image depicting an ancient marketplace in the Horn of Africa & middle East.

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It is known that slaves transported from the modern-day Sudan to Yemen and Arabia via the port of Mocha consumed coffee cherries. Coffee was undoubtedly grown in Yemen by the 15th century, and most likely much earlier. The Arabs prohibited the export of fertile coffee beans in an effort to stop its production overseas. The Dutch eventually found a way around the ban in 1616 by taking the coffee plants live to the Netherlands to grow in greenhouses.

At first, Yemen’s government actively promoted coffee consumption. After opening in Mecca, the first coffee shops, or kavehkanes, swiftly spread throughout the Arab world. Coffee shops were a major factor in this spread as more and more people were drawn to them since they offered pleasant settings for conducting social and professional activities for the cost of a cup of coffee. Yet, the Arabian coffee shops quickly became into hotbeds of political activity and were shut down. Coffee and coffee establishments were repeatedly outlawed over the following few decades even though they kept coming back. Finally, by introducing a on both coffee and coffee establishments, a workable solution to keep them open was discovered.

Coffee History in Europe

The Dutch began cultivating coffee in Malabar, India, in the late 1600s, and in 1699 they sent some plants to Batavia, Java (current day Indonesia). The Dutch colonies quickly rose to prominence as Europe’s primary coffee producers.

When coffee was first introduced to Europe in 1615 by Venetian traders, it was mostly sold by lemonade vendors and was thought to have curative properties. Two more globally recognized hot beverages also made their appearance in Europe around this time. The first was hot chocolate, which the Spanish introduced to Spain for the first time in 1528 from the Americas. The second was tea, which arrived in Europe for the first time in 1610.

In 1683, the first coffee shop in Europe was established in Venice, Italy. The most well-known coffee shop in Europe, nevertheless, is Caffe Florian in Piazza San Marco, which first opened its doors in 1720 and is still operational today. Notable is the fact that Lloyd’s of London, the biggest insurance market in the world, started off as a coffee shop. Edward Lloyd founded it in 1688 by creating a record of the ships that his clients had insured.

Coffee History in North America

In North American literature, coffee consumption first appeared around 1668. Coffee shops soon appeared in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and other cities. The 1773 Boston Tea Party was organized in the Green Dragon, a coffee shop. Both the New York Stock Exchange and the Bank of New York had their beginnings on what is now referred to as Wall Street in coffee shops.

Map of the North and South America encircled with roasted coffee beans.

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Coffee History in Central and South America

The growth of the coffee plant throughout Central and South America, where it now reigns supreme as the principal cash crop on the continent, was first sparked by the Dutch. The first coffee plantations were established in French Guyana, the state of Pará in Brazil, and the Dutch colony of Surinam in 1718. The British brought coffee to Jamaica around 1730. The Blue Mountains are where the most expensive and well-known coffee in the world is cultivated today.

Brazilian elite-owned huge sugar plantations, or “fazendas,” were established in the 17th and 18th centuries. Capital and manpower moved to the southeast in reaction to the expansion of coffee production in the Paraiba Valley, where it had been introduced in 1774, when sugar prices declined in the 1820s. Brazil produced about 600,000 bags of 60 kilos of coffee annually during the start of the 1830s, followed by Haiti, Cuba, and Java, each of which produced 350–450,000 bags annually. Around 2.5 million bags were produced annually in the entire world at the time.

Up to the late 1840s, the world’s prices had significantly decreased as a result of this rapid increase of production in several countries, including Brazil and Java. Brazilian expansion slowed down significantly, though, primarily because to a shortage of inland transportation and labor, and prices recovered strongly, peaking in the 1890s. In response, the increase in prices stimulated the expansion of coffee farming in other parts of the Americas, including Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico, and El Salvador.

The Jesuits brought coffee to Colombia for the first time in 1723. Unfortunately, civil unrest and the difficulty of traveling to the greatest coffee-growing regions hindered the development of the coffee business.

Yet, Colombian farmers looked to coffee as their savior after the “Thousand Days War” that lasted until 1903. More coffee was grown and delivered thanks to new railways that were built with the money from coffee sales. Also, the Panama Canal’s construction in 1914 made it possible to transport goods from Colombia’s hitherto inaccessible Pacific coast. Colombia shipped 500,000 bags of coffee abroad in 1905; by 1915, this number had doubled.

The 20th century saw an increase in coffee demand despite social unrest, two World Wars, economic hardship, and global political unrest. High global pricing that accompanied this increase in demand eventually led to an increase in production across the globe’s coffee-growing regions. Many newly independent African countries, most notably Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, and Burundi, discovered that coffee export income were essential to their fledgling economies as part of the decolonization process that started in the years after World War II.

The Importance of Coffee

It is impossible to overestimate the contribution of coffee to the modern world’s global economy. It is one of the most valuable primary goods traded in the world, ranking second in value to oil for many years, and provides the producing nations with a crucial source of foreign exchange. In addition to being vital to the economies and politics of many developing nations, its cultivation, processing, trade, transportation, and marketing support the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people worldwide. The export of coffee accounts for a sizeable portion of the foreign exchange revenues for many of the less developed countries that cultivate coffee.

Major futures and commodity markets, with the London and New York exchanges being the most significant, are where coffee is traded as a commodity. With more than 2.25 billion cups used daily worldwide, coffee is also one of the top three most consumed beverages.

Ethiopian Roots HQ

Ethiopian Roots HQ

Ethiopian Roots is an online platform dedicated to promoting Ethiopia and exploring the rich tapestry of Ethiopian culture and factors that play a signifacnt role in affecting the day-to-day lives of Ethiopians in and outside of Ethiopia.

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