All great legends have their origin stories. The same goes for great beverages too. And definitely in regards to legendary beverages on top of that! And so it should come as no surprise that coffee has a history that is fascinating and exciting. From a chance encounter to one of the world’s most consumed beverages, coffee has an epic tale to tell.
Goat’s delight, fuel for monks and popes, and trips abroad
The first coffee plants were wild variants that grew throughout the Ethiopian Highlands and in a few neighboring African countries. According to popular legend, the art of enjoying coffee was discovered not by humans but by goats.
This tale may be apocryphal, meaning it is placed on dubious factual grounds but it is fun nonetheless. The story goes that a goatherder named Kaldi was tending to his flock somewhere in Ethiopia. He noticed, however, that his goats were frolicking and running with a kind of unnatural vigor and energy.
On closer inspection, he noticed they had been nibbling the fruits of a peculiar tree. So Kaldi grabbed some of the cherries, brought them before the abbot of the local monastery. The abbot prepared a brew with the fruits and served it for the other monks present.
The drink was a big hit, especially in regards to getting the monks up early, helping them stay up late studying and praying, and giving them energy throughout the day for their various tasks and chores. From Ethiopia, the drink migrated to the Maghreb, where it passed from a favored drink of the Ethiopian Christians to Sufi Muslim mystics who found the drink to lift their spirits and allow them to enter a spiritual trance-like state.
From the Maghreb, coffee spread around the Muslim world, taking the place that wine once held around the Middle-East. Now, coffee houses were found all over and became a favored drink as prohibitions against alcohol grew in the region. In fact, our modern English word “coffee” comes from the Arabic word “qahwah” which actually originally referred to wine.
Coffee then began to enter Europe, from port cities and trading hubs like Venice and the Netherlands, and places that had contact with the Ottoman Empire and the Arab world. The drink began replacing the normal morning beverage, beer and became so popular the Catholic establishment brought the case of coffee before the pope in Rome.
The problem with coffee, they asserted, was its non-Catholic origins, and the way that it made people ecstatic and overly energetic. Some Catholic clergy even called it a “Satanic drink”. Pope Clement VIII decided to weigh in by trying coffee himself. However, the pope found the drink anything but demonic and instead gave the drink the approval of the papacy itself. And even today, Rome is one of the centers for coffee culture with cafes located all around Saint Peter's Basilica.
But how did coffee spread around the globe? As European nations got a taste for coffee, they decided to try to introduce it to the various colonial holdings they had taken control of during the Age of Exploration. When a group of Dutch traders stole a coffee plant from the Arabian port city of Mocha, they first tried to introduce it to their colonial holdings in India and then on the island of Java, where lo and behold the plant took root.
They also presented a plant to King Louis XIV of France, who housed and guarded the plant in a special botanica he had built just for the plant. The seeds of this plant were then given to one of his trusted admirals who brought the seeds to the French colony of Martinique. This was all after naval attacks, bad weather, and some serious bad luck when the French mission reached Martinique. And it was here the first coffee plant in the Americas took root, spawning generation after generation of coffee plants that persist today.
But coffee’s story has not ended yet. Once the plants started to grow they were introduced across the continent, becoming cash crops and subsistence resources in colonies and then in free and independent republics. Today Brazil is the largest producer of coffee, and the first seeds of these coffee plants just so happened to have been stolen by Portuguese sailors who took a trip to Martinique!
By the 18 and 1900s coffee had been introduced around the globe and became a hit wherever it traveled. From Korea to the United States coffee became a beloved drink among rulers and common people alike.
Today coffee is one of the most consumed beverages on Earth and it is grown across the globe too. And over time as coffee has traveled the globe, so too have the variations and adaptations to coffee. From frappuccinos to cold brews. Coffee is an exciting and agile beverage that will continue to evolve and grow. And though it was discovered by goats, it was certainly perfected by humans!
- “History of Coffee.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 22 Oct. 2020, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_coffee.
- “National Coffee Association.” NCA, www.ncausa.org/about-coffee/history-of-coffee.
- “What Is the History of Coffee? A Complete Guide.” Craft Coffee Guru, 22 Oct. 2020, www.craftcoffeeguru.com/what-is-the-history-of-coffee-and-why-we-drink-it/.