The history of coffee is a fascinating story. The bean has traveled the globe for centuries, being smuggled out of strict countries, stolen from royalty and has changed entire nations and economies. It’s remarkable how one small bean taken from tiny trees could become the 2nd largest commodity traded in the world today.
Culturally, coffee is a major part of Ethiopian and Yemenite history. This cultural significance dates back as many as 14 centuries, which is when coffee was believed to have been discovered in Yemen or Ethiopia, depending on who you ask.
Whether coffee was first used in Ethiopia or Yemen is a topic of debate and each country has its own myths, legends, and facts about the beverage's origin. The original domesticated coffee plant is said to have come from Harar and the native population is thought to be derived from Ethiopia with distinct nearby populations in Sudan and Kenya.
A popular story of the origin of this beloved bean starts in Ethiopia with Kaldi and his goats in 700 AD. Kaldi, was an Ethiopian goat herder who stumbled on his goats acting quite strange. They were dancing. This definitely was not normal behaviour. He discovered that they were eating red berries and concluded that this fruit was the cause of this odd behavior.
After stumbling upon this magic fruit, legend has it, he shared his findings with a monk who disapproved of these beans and he threw them into the fire. The result was a wonderful, pleasing aroma which became the world’s first roasted coffee.
Thereafter, the beans were ground and boiled to produce what we know today as coffee. Though the story of Kaldi cannot be confirmed, coffee definitely had humble origins in Ethiopia.
Another thing we know for sure is where it went next. Coffee made its way north, across the red sea into Yemen in the 15th Century. The port at which the beans first arrived was called Mocha. Due to coffee’s growing popularity and the shipment of coffee from the port city, Mocha became synonymous with coffee. So any time you hear the term “mocha,” when talking about coffee, you now know where that term originated.
Coffee was grown in Yemen and became well known in Egypt, Persia and Turkey. It was known as the “wine of Araby.” The beverage started to become a little too popular as coffee houses started to open up all around Arabia. These coffee houses were known as “Schools of the Wise” These were the places you went to share and hear information. They became the epicenter of social activity. However, in the early 1500’s, the court at Mecca declared coffee to be forbidden due to its stimulating effect. A similar thing happened in both Cairo, Egypt and in Ethiopia, but eventually all of these bans were lifted.
The course of history changes when the coffee bean spreads both east and west, East into India and Indonesia and West into Italy and onto the rest of Europe.
In the late 1600’s, the Dutch finally started growing coffee. Decades earlier, the Dutch had smuggled coffee plants from Yemen in an attempt to grow the beans in Holland, but due to the cold weather their cultivation scheme failed miserably.
The Dutch had friends in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka and sent coffee seedlings to the Dutch Governor of Java, Indonesia. While multiple natural disasters wiped out their first attempts at coffee cultivation, in 1704 more seedlings were planted and coffee from Indonesia became a staple. Java becomes another household term for coffee. Eventually the coffee plant made its way to both Sumatra and Celebes, drastically increasing Indonesia’s coffee growing capacity.
Coffee arrived in Venice in 1570 and quickly became quite popular. As the 1600’s rolled on, coffee houses sprung up all over Europe in England, Austria, France, Germany and Holland. Much like the coffee houses of Arabia, these places became social hubs where one could engage in stimulating conversation and political debates. In England, these became known as penny universities.
By the 19th century, coffee was a global phenomenon. It was being shipped and consumed everywhere. While the bean itself had little land left to conquer, innovations in coffee roasting, packaging and brewing have changed the beverage dramatically in the last 200 years.