The origin story of coffee could use an update. While archaeological evidence suggests the coffee shrub, genus Coffea, and specifically C. Arabica, is millennia old, growing up unobtrusively in the southern reaches of the Ethiopian highlands, the legend of coffee’s earliest discovery, which comes from the region, only dates to around the year 800 C.E.
The story is the oft-related tale of Kaldi the goatherd. As the story goes, after Kaldi watched his flock jump excitedly around after eating berries from a certain bush, the goatherd decided to taste the beans for himself. As one version would have it, after crunching the berries in his mouth, the young man burst into song and poetry—behavior that likely sparked the interest of those around him. Whatever actually transpired, with that taste of berry, Kaldi is said to have plucked the coffee bean from obscurity, after centuries of anonymity. But the legend of Kaldi (which likely recounts events that took place much earlier in history), shrouds the fact that coffee was already a private pleasure for humans several centuries earlier.
Indeed, around 525 C.E., approximately 300 years before the date assigned to our goatherd, coffee plants journeyed out of Ethiopia with the armies of the Axumite Kingdom as they invaded the Himyarite Kingdom in Yemen, where they remained for the next 50 years. As it happened, the locale shared similar climate and geography to their own highlands. So, not surprisingly, members of the invading Akumites soon introduced coffee cultivation there, sowing the seeds of Yemen’s future dominance of the coffee trade.
This act of early colonialism brings an interesting challenge to the place of Kaldi and his friends as the world’s earliest coffee consumers. If the original story involved the chewing of the coffee cherries among those who lived in Ethiopia, it is a Yemeni myth that places the first coffee drinkers in this region of the Arabian Peninsula.
According to local Yemen lore, the first person to drink coffee was actually a priest who was banished to the mountains for unsuitable behavior toward the daughter of the king. Facing sure starvation, the young man supposedly discovered a plant with white flowers and survived by drinking a fluid he extracted from its beans. Having made it through his exile, the priest took the beans with him on a pilgrimage to Mecca, thus serving as the first exporter of one of today’s most important commodities.
To shore up its claim as the home of coffee drinking, Yemen offers up another legend—of a Sufi dervish named Hadji Omar, who was driven by his enemies out of Mocha into the desert where, also to ward off starvation, he tasted berries he found growing on a shrub. Finding them unacceptably bitter, the dervish first roasted them and then tried to soften them with water so they could be eaten more easily. The latter did little to improve their edibility, but the brown liquid that Sufi produced roused him from his lethargy and raised his spirits. When Omar returned to Mocha, his survival was considered a miracle, and the coffee drink he discovered achieved great popularity.
The folklore presented above offers far more than just a series of entertaining stories. It connects the human story to botanical truth. Archaeological evidence demonstrates the ancient coffee plant most likely came from what is today Ethiopia. Other scientific evidence suggests that coffee bean and plants ended up in Yemen in the second decade of the 6th century. In this version of events, Ethiopia and Yemen can each rightly claim a share in the origin story of the pleasures of coffee.
Legends are useful because they allow us to piece together what may have happened after the discovery was made that the beans, while bitter, were not poisonous. If the latter were the case there may well have been a lot of dead goats, and we would all be drinking some other stimulating beverage to get through a long afternoon.
Critically examining the historical forces that shape such legends also force us to reckon with some important contemporary issues—not the least of which is the equity historically denied to growers and harvesters.
The C. Arabica species of coffee that was first consumed in Ethiopia and Yemen remains the most prized, with those grown at higher altitudes still commanding the highest prices on the world market. Yemen, in fact, enjoyed a monopoly on the export of coffee beans that lasted throughout the Medieval and early modern periods, as the country exported the beans to an ever-expanding cadre of devotees across the globe. That only changed in the mid-17th century when, as yet another anecdote has it, a few plants were smuggled out of the Port of Mocha by a Portuguese merchant. With this theft, coffee became part of Europe’s colonial enterprises. And yet, despite the horrors of the conflict that currently ravages Yemen, it is still possible to obtain its coffee—allowing those of us fortunate enough to live in relative safety to support the livelihood of those farmers whose connections to coffee date back centuries.
Easier to acquire today, coffee continues to occupy a prominent place in the economy of Ethiopia, where significant efforts have been introduced to celebrate coffee’s rich past there, as well as ensure its viability well into the future. Since 2008, particular attention has been paid to sustainable practices that ensure a fair market price for the beans, guarantee equity for the small-scale farmers that produce 95 percent of Ethiopia’s agricultural output—of which coffee and sesame seeds are the leading products—and to the teaching of practices that prevent the degradation of the land.
Today, an estimated 2 billion cups of coffee are consumed each day by people around the world with a sworn love for it. The place of coffee in our daily lives and imaginations, however, is all the richer if we take a moment to appreciate the history of how it got here today. Food and drink, after all, have the power to connect us, across time and distance, to strangers who in another age might have been our friends. Through a combination of curiosity, experimentation, and some distant highlands, hundreds of years ago, this curious bean was first found to be suitable for drinking. Its origin story is a potent brew—and appreciating it makes that first bitter sip of a new coffee drinker today just a bit sweeter.