Coffee: A Short Origin Story
How it all started
The beginning: Kaffa, Ethiopia. Like lots of things, coffee was discovered by mistake. And we can thank an Ethiopian goat shepherd named Kaldi. It was a regular day in 850 AD out on the land with the goats in a region called Kaffa. He noticed that when they ate berries from this particular tree they became energetic and wouldn’t sleep. Kaldi, craving a little spring in his step, gave the berries a try and felt the same. He reported his discovery to the local monastery. The monks experimented, using the berries to make a drink that would keep them alert during many hours of night time prayer. They told their friends.
Yemen, just across the Red Sea from Ethiopia. Coffee plants were brought to Yemen from Ethiopia. There Sufi monks prepared an infusion of the coffee cherry leaves to stay awake and pray. Roasting and grinding activities began in Yemen, as did the first coffee plantation.
From the Ottoman Empire to Boston and New York. Once the Arabian Peninsula (including Yemen) was conquered by the Ottoman Empire, coffee started its global movement to places like Constantinople, Cairo, Damascus, Mecca, and Medina. Muslims had replaced wine with coffee, having prohibited alcohol, which was likely an impetus for the rise of coffee houses. Kahve interestingly means “wine of Arabia.” Coffee thus became part of everyday life in these cities. Coffee houses were places to gather. It’s clear that Starbucks did not come up with this third space; revived, maybe.
With the Pope’s approval, coffee spread through Europe. Venice’s first coffee house opened in 1645. England got one in 1650, France in 1672, and Boston in 1676. Coffee houses became key hubs of social and even business activity. They were popular and plentiful.
Because coffee can’t be grown everywhere, it was a precious commodity. The coffee plant was especially valuable. Holland and France tried to acquire plants and grow coffee but couldn’t, what with not having a tropical climate.
Off to the Colonies. The Dutch finally managed to get a coffee plant to their colony of Java in Indonesia in the 18th Century. They acquired the plants through trade with merchants in the Yemenite port of Mocha. And thus Mocha Java was born. It was first shipped to Europe in 1719. From there? Sumatra and Ceylon. These names are sounding familiar, no? Sumatra and Ceylon remain regions where coffee is grown.
It turns out the colonies were the ideal locations for cultivating coffee. France took its coffee plant to its colonies in Central America in 1720. Coffee plantations took off in Central and South America. Miraculously this seeding from France was the parent of all the coffee trees throughout the Caribbean, South, and Central America. Can you imagine if that voyage from France had gone awry or the plant had died?
And the New World. Coffee reached the east coast of America in mid-1600s. Coffee shops emerged, as was the trend. And when colonists revolted against a tax on tea – you know a little revolt known as the Boston Tea Party – coffee became the drink of choice, just as it had replaced wine for Muslims.
Missionaries and travellers, traders and colonists carried coffee seeds to new lands, and coffee trees emerged in many places. By the end of the 18th Century, coffee had become the world’s most profitable export crop. All thanks to the Ethiopian goat sheppard. Thanks, Kaldi.