Coffee History 101: The Legend, Origin & Remarkable Spread

Coffee History 101: The Legend, Origin & Remarkable Spread
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Ethiopia is undeniably one of the most important nations in coffee history as this ancient and mysterious nation is considered to be the birthplace of the coffee plant. It is generally believed that coffee was first discovered in Ethiopia as early as the ninth century. Today, over 4.0 million farmers in Ethiopia are involved in the cultivation and picking of coffee, and that coffee remains a central part of Ethiopian culture.

It should, thus, come to no surprise that the most popular legend of coffee hails from the ancient and mysterious nation of Abyssinia (currently day Ethiopia).

The Ethiopian Coffee Legend

Coffee History: Khaldi and his goats after tasting coffee for the fist time

The story goes that one eventful day, Kaldi, a goat herder from the highlands of Kaffa, noticed that his goats were behaving very strangely and had begun to jump around in an excited manner, bleating loudly and dancing on their hind legs. He found that the source of their excitement was a small cluster of shrubs with bright red berries. Urged by curiosity Kaldi decided to try the berries himself.

To his delight, Kaldi too felt the energizing effects of the coffee cherries. After filling his pockets with the red berries, he practically pranced around as his goats did on his way back home to his wife. His wife, devout in her spirituality, advised him to go to the nearby monastery in order to share these “heaven sent” berries with the monks there.

At the monastery however, Kaldi’s coffee beans were not greeted with elation as he expected, but with distain. One of the monks called Kaldi’s bounty “the Devil’s work” and unwittingly tossed it into a burning fire. But this turned out to be a blessing in disguise as the intoxicating aroma of the roasting beans made the monks give the berries a second chance. They removed the roasted berries from the fire and crushed them to put out the glowing embers and covered them with hot water in a large jug in order to preserve them.

All the monks in the monastery smelled the aroma of the coffee and came to try it out. The monks found that the red berries’ uplifting effects were beneficial in keeping them awake during their prayer and holy devotions and vowed that from day-on, they would drink this new found beverage each day as an aid to their religious devotions.

Ethiopian Coffee History

Although the legend of Kaldi, his goats and the monks say that coffee was discovered as a stimulant and as a beverage on the same day, it is far more likely that coffee beans were chewed as a stimulant before they were made into a beverage. Some historians believe that this custom of chewing coffee beans was brought (along with coffee itself) from Kaffa to Harrar and Arabia by Sudanese slaves who chewed coffee to help survive the arduous journeys of the Muslim slave trade routes.

It is also likely that the beans were ground and mixed with ghee (clarified butter) or with animal fat to form a thick paste, which was rolled into small balls then consumed as needed for energy on long journeys. Today, the tradition of consuming ground coffee in ghee remains in some areas of Kaffa and Sidamo. Similarly, in Kaffa, some people add a little melted clarified butter to their brewed coffee to make it more nutritionally dense and to add flavor.

Another way of consuming coffee was in the form of porridge. This method of consuming coffee could be seen amongst several other indigenous tribes of Ethiopia around the tenth century.

Through time, coffee started to be consumed as a beverage in Ethiopia and beyond. In some tribes, coffee cherries were crushed and then fermented into a kind of wine. In others, coffee beans were roasted, ground and then boiled into a decoction. Gradually, the custom of brewing coffee took hold and spread elsewhere.

Around the 13th century, coffee spread into the Islamic world, where it was well regarded as medicine and also aided in prayer. It was boiled for intensity and strength, much like medicinal herbal decoctions were boiled. This tradition of boiling coffee can still be found in Ethiopia, Turkey and much of the rest of the Mediterranean, known under such names as Ethiopian coffee, Turkish coffee, Greek coffee and other similar names.

Coffee’s Journey Around the World

Coffee History in the Horn of Africa & The Middle East

Spread of Coffee in the Arab World
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It is recorded that coffee cherries, were eaten by slaves taken from present day Sudan into Yemen and Arabia through the port of Mocha. Certainly, coffee was being cultivated in Yemen by the 15th century and probably much earlier. In an attempt to prevent its cultivation elsewhere, the Arabs imposed a ban on fertile coffee beans exports. Eventually, the restriction was circumvented in 1616 by the Dutch, who brought live coffee plants back to the Netherlands to be grown in greenhouses.

Initially, the authorities in Yemen actively encouraged coffee drinking. The first coffee houses (kavehkanes) opened in Mecca and then quickly spread throughout the Arab world. Coffee houses played a huge role in this spread as more and more people were attracted to these places where social and business life could be conducted in comfortable surroundings for the price of a cup of coffee. Soon, however, the Arabian coffee houses became centers of political activity and were suppressed. Over the next few decades coffee and coffee houses were banned numerous times, even though they kept reappearing. Finally, an acceptable way out was found to keep them open by introducing a on both coffee and coffee houses.

Coffee History in Europe

By the late 1600’s, the Dutch were growing coffee at Malabar in India, and in 1699, they took some plants to Batavia in Java (current day Indonesia). Within a few years the Dutch colonies had become the main suppliers of coffee to Europe.

Coffee was first brought to Europe by Venetian traders in 1615 and was initially mainly sold by lemonade vendors and was believed to have medicinal qualities. During this period, two other globally significant hot beverages also appeared in Europe. The first was hot chocolate, which was first brought by the Spanish from the Americas to Spain in 1528. The second was tea, which first was brought to Europe in 1610.

The first European coffee house was opened in Venice, Italy, in 1683. However, the most famous coffee house in Europe was Caffe Florian in Piazza San Marco, which opened in 1720 and is still open for business today. Also worthy of note, the largest insurance market in the world, Lloyd’s of London, began life as a coffee house. It was established in 1688 by Edward Lloyd, who prepared lists of the ships that his customers had insured.

Coffee History in North America

The first literary reference to coffee being drunk in North America is from 1668. Soon after, coffee houses were established in New York, Philadelphia, Boston and other towns. The Boston Tea Party Of 1773 was planned in a coffee house, the Green Dragon. Both the New York Stock Exchange and the Bank of New York started in coffee houses in what is today known as Wall Street.

Coffee History in the Americas
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Coffee History in Central and South America

The Dutch were the first to start the spread of the coffee plant in Central and South America, where today it reigns supreme as the main continental cash crop. Coffee first arrived in the Dutch colony of Surinam in 1718, to be followed by plantations in French Guyana and the first of many in Brazil in the state of Pará. In 1730, the British introduced coffee to Jamaica. Today the most expensive and famous coffee in the world is grown in the Blue Mountains.

The 17th and 18th centuries saw the establishment across Brazil of vast sugar plantations (fazendas), owned by the country’s elite. As sugar prices weakened in the 1820’s, capital and labor migrated to the southeast in response to the expansion of coffee growing in the Paraiba Valley, where it had been introduced in 1774. By the beginning of the 1830’s Brazil was the world’s largest coffee producer with some 600,000 bags of 60 kilos a year, followed by Cuba, Java and Haiti, each with annual production of 350 to 450,000 bags. World production at that time amounted to some 2.5 million bags per year.

This rapid expansion of production in Brazil and Java, among others, had caused a significant decline in world prices until the late 1840’s. However, mainly due to a lack of inland transport and manpower, Brazilian expansion slowed considerably, and prices made a strong recovery reaching their peak in the 1890’s. The rise in prices, in turn encouraged the growth of coffee cultivation in other regions in the Americas such as Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico, and El Salvador.

In Colombia, coffee was first introduced by the Jesuits as early as 1723. However, the growth of a coffee industry was hampered by civil strife and the inaccessibility of the best coffee-growing regions.

However, following the “Thousand Days War” which lasted until 1903, Colombian farmers turned to coffee as their salvation. New railways build on the profits of coffee allowed for more coffee to be grown and transported. And the opening of the Panama Canal, in 1914, permitted exports from Colombia’s previously unreachable Pacific coast. In 1905, Colombia exported 500,000 bags of coffee, and by 1915 exports had doubled.

In spite of a global political turmoil, social upheaval, economic hardships, and two World Wars, the demand for coffee continued to rise throughout in the 20th century. This rise in demand was followed by high global prices, which in turn lead to an expansion in production throughout the coffee-growing regions of the world. With the process of decolonization that began in the years following the Second World War, many newly independent nations in Africa, notably Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Burundi, found coffee export revenues crucial to their newly sovereign economies.

The Importance of Coffee

The importance of coffee to the global economy of the modern world cannot be overstated. It is one of the most valuable primary products in world trade, in many years second in value after oil and is a vital source of foreign exchange to producing countries. Its cultivation, processing, trading, transportation and marketing provide employment for hundreds of millions of people around the world, and it is crucial to the economies and politics of many developing countries. For many coffee-growing Less Developed Countries, coffee exports are a significant source of their foreign exchange earnings.

Coffee is a traded commodity on major futures and commodity exchanges, the most important being the London and New York exchanges. It is also one of the three most popular drinks in the world, with over 2.25 billion cups of coffee consumed each day around the world.


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