March 07, 2021

The Origins of Coffee

By Scott Thomas
Artist rendering of goats and a shepherd depicting the effects of caffeine on the goats.

History of Coffee

Coffee grown worldwide can trace its heritage to the ancient coffee forests on the Ethiopian plateau. Coffee trees still grow as they have for centuries in the Ethiopian highlands, where legend says the goat herder Kaldi first discovered the potential of these beloved beans.

It is said that Kaldi discovered coffee after noticing that his goats, upon eating berries from a certain tree, became so energetic that they did not want to sleep at night.

Kaldi reported his findings to the abbot of the local monastery who made a drink with the berries and discovered that it kept him alert for the long hours of evening prayer. The abbot shared his discovery with the other monks at the monastery, and slowly knowledge of the energizing berries began to spread.  As word moved east and coffee reached the Arabian peninsula, it began a journey which would spread its reputation across the globe.

The other story is that a Muslim dervish was condemned by his enemies to wander in the desert. In his delirium, the man heard a voice instructing him to eat the fruit from a nearby coffee tree. He tried to soften the beans in water, and when this failed, he simply drank the liquid. Interpreting his survival and energy as a sign of Allah, he returned to his people, spreading the faith and the recipe.

Spreading around the world

Coffee cultivation began in the 15th century. For many centuries, Arabia’s Yemen province was the world’s only source. The demand was very high, and beans leaving the Yemeni port of Mocha were highly guarded. No fertile plants were allowed to leave the country.

Despite the restrictions, Muslim pilgrims to Mecca smuggled coffee plants back to their homelands, and coffee crops soon took root in India.

Coffee also made its way to Europe through Venice, where fleets traded perfumes, teas, dyes and fabrics with Arabic merchants along the Spice Route. Many European merchants grew accustomed to drinking coffee overseas and brought it back with them. The beverage gained popularity when street vendors began selling it.

The demand for coffee ensured that it would flourish outside its original homeland. In the 17th century, the Dutch introduced it to their colonies in Indonesia, and the French were the first to start planting it in the Americas.

Coffee grows best in an area known as the Bean Belt — the band around the Earth in between the Tropics of Capricorn and Cancer.

Today, coffee is the second most traded commodity on the planet – only petroleum outranks it!

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