The Origins of Coffee

For better or for worse, coffee has become a significant part of our lives. For some, the warm, aromatic, and energizing drink is deeply rooted in their cultural customs. For others, it’s simply a part of the daily grind (pun intended!)

While coffee seems as if it were something that just happened, there’s actually great debate over its origin story. The truth is, no one knows exactly how, when, or where coffee was discovered.

We do, however, know that coffee’s heritage can be traced back centuries to ancient Ethiopia and the Arabian Peninsula. Of course, the world will never be in total agreement on which origin story is the true version, but it’s a good place to start.

So, depending on who you ask, coffee came from either of these origin stories:

The Ethiopian Legend

The legend of Kaldi, a goat herder from Kaffa, appeared in writing in 1671. These writings date Kaldi’s story back to 850, which coincides with the belief that coffee cultivation began in Ethiopia in the ninth century.

This version of the story talks about how Kaldi was herding his goats near an Abyssian monastery when he noticed their behavior was noticeably out of the ordinary. The goats were jumping around as if they were dancing, and bleating loudly.

Upon taking a closer look, Kaldi noticed that his goats were nibbling on the bright red berries of a small shrub—or cluster of shrubs, according to some stories. Curious about his goats’ newly found energy and the bright red berries, he decided to try some for himself.

Once Kaldi felt the energizing effects of the berries, he immediately brought them to the Abbot of the nearby monastery. The first drink made with these berries was declared “the devil’s work” by the Abbot. However, it quickly became a religious experience as the drink kept the monks energized through their long hours of evening prayer.

While it’s said that the monks had spread the word about this new, energizing drink, many historians believe that coffee had been used in the form of a chewing stimulant for centuries prior to Kaldi’s discovery. It’s theorized that the coffee beans were ground and mixed with animal fat or ghee, and then rolled into a ball for chewing and sustaining long journeys.

It is also widely believed that these “coffee balls” made their way from Kaffa to Harrar and then Arabia via the enslaved Sudanese—who picked up coffee chewing from the Galla tribe of Ethiopia.

Lastly, it’s thought that the actual custom of brewing and drinking coffee (versus eating it) came later around the 10th century. Once it made its way to the Arabian world, the drink became stronger and well regarded as a medical potion and prayer aid.

Today, you’ll find that Ethiopian, Turkish, and Greek coffee maintain the same tradition of being boiled and brewed strong and thick.

The Yemeni Legend

The Yemeni version of coffee’s origin story also dates back to the ninth century and earlier, depending on who you ask and which story you get. (There are two origin stories here). However, the earliest credible evidence of humans experiencing coffee in the Middle East is dated somewhere around the 15th century. 

Interestingly enough, the first story of coffee in Arabia, specifically Yemen, attributes its origins to Ethiopia. Story one involves the Yemenite Sufi mystic named Ghothul Akbar Nooruddin Abu al-Hassan al-Shadhili traveling through Ethiopia for spiritual reasons.

During his journey, he encountered some uniquely energetic birds that were eating the fruit from the coffee shrubs. The mystic decided to try some berries for himself and found that they energized him as well.

Story number two maintains that coffee had originated in Yemen. The story involves Sheikh Omar, a doctor, priest, and follower of Sheik Abou’l Hassan Schadheli from Mocha, Yemen—who was exiled to a desert cave near the mount of Ousab.

Now, there are slightly different versions of story number two, but they both involve the Sheikh being exiled for “moral transgressions.” After being exiled for some time, Omar was on the verge of starvation when he came across the red berries of the coffee shrub and attempted to eat them.

However he encountered the berries, he ate them. However, he found them to be too bitter to simply eat raw, which is when he decided to throw the berries onto the fire in hopes to remove their bitterness. This ended up hardening the berries (hence, the basic coffee roasting technique widely used today), which made them unchewable.

Omar then attempted to re-soften the berries by boiling them in water. As the hard, roasted berries boiled, a pleasant aroma began wafting from the increasingly brown liquid. He then decided to drink his newly formed decoction rather than eat the boiled berries and found it to be revitalizing.

There’s yet another version of this story claiming that Omar thought the beans were delicious and decided to make them into soup, which became the closest thing to the coffee we drink now.

Either way, Omar spread the word of this newly revitalizing drink within his hometown of Mocha, Yemen. Because of this new discovery, his exile was lifted and he was directed to return to Mocha with the coffee beans.

It wasn’t long until this new decoction was hailed as a miracle drink and Omar was deemed a saint. A monastery was even built in his honor.

Making its Way Around the World

It’s generally believed that coffee beans made their way from Ethiopia to Yemen and then from Yemen to Europe during the 17th century. 

Once coffee made its way to Europe, it was immediately—and once again—regarded as Satan’s brew by the Venice clergy. However, coffee houses quickly sprang up and became the epicenter of social activity throughout the European countries. It also replaced the traditional breakfast drinks of beer and wine.

During the 1600s and 1700s coffee rapidly made its way over to the Americas. However, coffee especially became popular in North America in 1713 when the colonists of the New World revolted against King George III’s hefty tea tax.

Today, coffee is just a part of life—but an important part, nonetheless. Wherever it originated  from, we’re happy that it’s here. (Although we feel strongly that Ethiopia is the winner of the origin stories.)