The journey of coffee from a humble, pestilent North African shrub to the world’s second most valuable export by developing countries (beaten only by oil), is as rich and dark as the liquid it creates.
Growing to an average height of around 3.5 meters, the genus of plant named Coffea arabica produces a bitter red/purple fruit (aka “cherry”) in which contains the double seed we lovingly know today as the coffee bean. By simply examining the etymology of it’s name, a brief history of the beverages journey can be simply drawn. Beginning with its Ethiopian heritage where the bean is directly translated to buna, the name then became gahhwat al-bun in Arabic before shortened to just gahwa, kahway or qahwa. While in Turkish hands the drink was known as kahve until it made a home in the west with caffe (Italian), café (French) and finally coffee. But like most good stories, there is more in the tale than just a name.
As with any research which predates the invention of the printing press or modern literacy, there are a host of fantasies, fables and fiction which (while often making for better reading) offer elements of potential truths amongst clear fancies. For the first recorded Europeans who delighted in the rich brew known as kahway, it was tales of multicolored coffee birds and plague ravaged princesses which were accredited to the brew. The bards of Islam wrote that before a decisive battle, the prophet Mohammed received a cup of coffee from the angel Gabriel giving him the stamina to dismount 40 warriors before mounting 40 women (as you do). Another ancient meme tells of the great King Solomon entering a town of plague ridden inhabitants on a mission from yet again the angel Gabriel, to brew up a pot of coffee and distribute it to the afflicted citizens to heal their symptoms. Most popular of all tales however, is that of the humble herder Kaldi and his dancing goats.
As a roving Ethiopian goat herder, Kaldi one day encountered his flock eating cherries from a mystery shrub after which they all began to dance. Upon sampling of the cherry himself, Kaldi too felt compelled to join in and soon all were having a bit of a boogy. Believing he had found a fruit of utmost importance, he took samples to his local Abbot for analysis. After regaling him with the story of his dancing goats, the Abbot believed the fruit to be a product of the devil and in reaction threw them upon the fire whence they came. Yet after smelling of the richly roasted seed at the heart of the cherry, converted his belief exclaiming that they must be of divine origin to produce such a rich aromatic flavour. The Abbot thereafter distributed an infusion of the bean to his monks as an expression of divinity and to assist in remaining awake during evening prayer. While there are many various versions of the tale of Kaldi and his excitable goats, the use of coffee for religious benefit lies accurately at the heart of the drinks discovery.
The scientific history of coffee begins with human coprolite samples (fossilized poo) showing digestion of the coffea cherry as early as 8000 BCE. While these samples are testament to the early consumption of coffee, it’s a long way from the hot black brew we identify today. In Uganda (home of the Robusta variety of coffee – Coffea canephora) blood brother ceremonies surrounding the chewing of the coffee cherry were also practiced although it is believed that the first wide spread consumption of coffee was from the Oromo tribe in southwest Ethiopia – the same location where the superior Coffea arabica variety originated.
For the Oromo, coffee was considered to be buna qala (the “Tears of Waga” [supreme being]), the coffee berry was cooked with barley and butter before being eaten as a means of sustenance or as part of birthing rituals. Local ancient proverbs best describe the role of coffee in everyday Ethiopian life as buna dabo naw, simply meaning “coffee is our bread”. While Ethiopia can lay claim to both the birth place of man and coffee alike, it would take the influence of neighbouring Yemen across the Red Sea, before the two would be strongly united.
How exactly coffee was first introduced into Yemen is still a topic of much debate yet with Ethiopia already trading as far as China in the 4th and 5th centuries AD, it’s not so big a feat that coffee should make the 600 or so miles to the coast of the Arabian Peninsula. As with tale of Kaldi (minus the goats) it was religion which would plant the foundation for the drink to flourish. Dedicated to the study and worship of the Prophet Muhammad, Sufis (a mystical branch of Islam) used coffee to help keep awake during late night worship sessions. Already involved in the practice of astronomy and alchemy it is believe that the skills needed to understand infusion were first introduced to the Sufis by the world’s oldest tea brewing nation, China.
With records of tea ceremonies dating back to the 1st century AD, it was also in China where the earliest mention of coffee outside of the Horn of Africa would be found. In 1270 AD, Chinese Emperor Duzong of the Song Dynasty, invited Sufis astronomers to Peking to aid in the orientation of a new observatory. There is little doubt that during this visit the Yemeni would have been exposed and partaken in the common Chinese tea ceremony. Whether this empowered the order with their first alchemical means to understand infusion or not will never be known but the timing and convenience are well placed. An alternative theory is again rooted in the influence of the Chinese back on the home shores of Yemen. In 1413-1415 the 4th voyage of the legendary Chinese Treasure Fleets sent ships laden with riches across the unknown world to establish new trade and alliances in an as of yet undiscovered world (Columbus wouldn’t discover America until about 78 years later). The first of these fleets to make land in Yemen came into the port of Aden where they would have traditionally used tea to host local dignitaries and religious leaders including heads of the Sufis order. A further three fleets would revisit Aden over the next two decades establishing strong trade between Asia and Arabia.
Whether inspired by the Chinese, plague ravaged princesses or dancing goats, coffee during this early period would barely be recognised today arriving as one of many possible brews;
- Kish’r: An infusion of the dried coffee cherry with the bean removed (still consumed in Yemen today)
- Qish’r: Coffee leaf tea infusion with ginger flavouring (still consumed in Yemen today)
- Kati: Infusion of the pan fried green coffee leaves (still consumed in Ethiopia today)
- Amertassa: Infusion of dried green coffee leaves (still consumed in Ethiopia today)
- Sultana Coffee: Lightly roasted dried coffee cherries (sold as a tea today)
The final major step remaining in the evolution of the modern cup of coffee was the roasting of the bean, a technique which was again credited to the alchemical prowess of the Sufis. The change in which the coffee cherry underwent from a tasteless pale green seed to a rich black bean of overwhelming aroma and taste, came to represent the transformation of the soul through the influence of Islam and the deep black shade resplendent of Ka’ba – the sacred stone of Mecca in Saudi Arabia.
“The Sufis master operates upon the base metal of the soul of the disciple and with the help of the spiritual methods of Sufism transforms the base metal into gold” – Anonymous Sufis Master
By the start of the 16th century coffee was already well established throughout all levels of the Yemeni society with archaeological digs revealing the remains of local Haysi pottery formed in demitasse style coffee cups designed for domestic use. Despite its popularity coffee supply still depended heavily on trade from Ethiopia as the Coffea plant would not be commercially grown in Yemen until the 1540s. But once the coffee harvest was established in Yemen a new champion port would rise to meet demand and a new name for the drink would be born – Mocha.
With coffee having spread throughout the Red Sea on the back of Islam, the role of the new coffee house would be essential in offering a venue for Arabian men to enjoy a hot brew (indications reveal it was more likely qish’r) in a setting of intellectual sobriety. Yet coffee would require one final major player before it could be introduced to the Western world – a port called Mocha.
[For further reading, see: The Mocha Trade]
- Black Gold: A Dark History of Coffee – Anthony Wild. Harper Perennial, London. 2005
- Oromo Religion: Myths and rites of the Western Oromo of Ethiopia, an attempt to understand – Lambert Bartels. D. Reimer, 1983
- Ethiopoan Coffee Ceremony – Epicurean blog
- Coffee History, Historic Myths, Discovery and Historic Migration Timeline by Gamboa – El Valle Information blog
- The Mirror of Literature, Amusement and Instruction, Vol 17, No. 485, 1831 – Project Gutenberg site
- The Cambridge History of China, Volume 7: The Ming Dynasty, 1368–1644, Part 1. – Fredrick W Mote & Denis Twitchette, Cambridge University Press, 1988