Rewriting history: Coffee’s legendary Ethiopian roots

Ethiopian women
Ethiopian women use a traditional charcoal burner to roast coffee, before grinding it and serving it at a roadside kiosk in Addis Ababa. Coffee is an important part of Ethiopian cultural histrory. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Most historical accounts will tell you that coffee was introduced to Kenya by European missionaries in the 1890s. What they will not tell you is that by some accounts the coffee plant originated in neighbouring Ethiopia.

Coffee is an important part of Ethiopian and Yemenite cultural history. Whether coffee was first used in Ethiopia or Yemen is the subject of much debate and each country has its own myths, legends and facts.

The most popular legend of coffee is from Ethiopia.

It is said that Kaldi, an Abyssinian goat herder from Kaffa was herding his goats through a highland area near a monastery around what is believed to be the year 850AD. One day Kaldi observed that his goats were behaving in a very exuberant manner, jumping around, bleating loudly and practically dancing on their hind legs. The source of the excitement proved to be a nearby shrub with bright red berries which the goats were chewing.

Curiosity had the better of Kaldi and he tried the berries himself. Like his goats, Kaldi experienced the energising power of the berries and rushed home to his wife. For reasons which I will leave to those with a fertile imagination, his wife advised him to share these “heaven sent” berries with the monks at the monastery.


The chief monk was not amused and called these berries the work of the devil, promptly throwing them into the fire. Presumably, he considered the effects of the berries to be an affront to the avowed celibate life of the monks. Soon thereafter, the smell of fresh roasted coffee filled the halls of the pious monastery, enticing the other monks. After the chief monk dozed off, due to the lack of caffeine, mind you, a young rebellious monk snatched the cooling beans from the fire pit.

This daring innovator mixed the beans with water thus becoming the world’s first barista! The resulting brew kept the monks awake all night thanking their creator. From that day onwards, they vowed that they would drink this newfound beverage each day as an aid to their religious devotions.

While this story is thought to be largely apocryphal, it does give us an idea of the origins of coffee.

Uplifting drink

Meanwhile, word of these fragrant and energizing berries travelled to another corner of Ethiopia and caught the imagination of the Galla tribe. The Galla mixed the berry with ghee and pressed the sumptuous mixture into a power bar. Their warriors marched into battle with the new energizing snack and they were invincible. It is said that the Sudanese slaves picked up the habit of chewing coffee from the Galla as it helped them survive the arduous journeys of the Muslim trade routes. Through these slaves, coffee was introduced to the Arabian Peninsula.

Around 1100, enterprising young Arabs returned to Yemen with coffee from Ethiopia which they cultivated in plantations and created a most satisfying, uplifting drink by boiling the beans in water. It was called qahwa which means that which prevents sleep.

With time, coffee became a popular beverage in Ethiopia and beyond. In some tribes, coffee cherries were crushed and then fermented into some sort of wine with a sharp taste on the palate while elsewhere, coffee beans were roasted, ground and then boiled into a decoction. While the Koran forbids wine and such other intoxicants, Muslims enamored with coffee argued that the brew was actually a stimulant!

Around the 13th century, coffee spread to the larger Islamic world where it was revered as a potent medicine and powerful prayer-aid. In 1475, the first coffee shops opened in Constantinople becoming hotspots for lively discussions and political debate.

Coffee made landfall in Europe in 1570 in the port city of Venice where traders of the world exchanged their unique treasures. At first only available to the very wealthy, this exotic find made its way to the streets of Venice through premier lemonade stands for medicinal purposes.

By 1600, Arabia and Muslim Africa enjoyed a monopoly in coffee production. In order to keep it that way their laws forbid the export of fertile beans which were those with the cherry still wrapped around the seed. Before they were exported, coffee beans were boiled to make them infertile by shedding the husk to beat clever smugglers.

But nothing is fool-proof! An Indian named Baba Budan managed to leave Mecca with a few fertile beans concealed against his stomach after his pilgrimage. Returning to India, he secretly cultivated the beans and the descendants of those well-travelled beans known as “Old Chik” are still producing coffee, accounting for one third of India’s coffee production today!

European ‘invasion’

In 1658, the Dutch drove out the Portuguese from the island state of Ceylon (today’s Sri Lanka) and secured the Dutch East India Company a monopoly over the cinnamon trade. In the process they also took over the small coffee plantations which were first introduced by the Arabs.

By 1668, coffee had become very popular in Europe and America, overtaking beer as New York City’s favorite breakfast beverage as it was said to go much better with eggs!

The Dutch finally broke the Muslims’ monopoly on coffee in 1696. While some say the Dutch stole the seedlings, others claimed that they were legally exported. Adrian Van Ommen, the Dutch Governor of Malabar in India sent coffee seedlings to his friend, the Dutch Governor of Batavia (now Jakarta, Indonesia).

After several natural disasters, more seedlings were planted and by 1704, the first coffee was harvested eventually establishing “Java” coffee as a household name. The descendants of these plants would be given to European Kings as precious gifts which were planted in Royal Gardens. Thefts by Europeans from these Royal Gardens would see the cultivation of coffee spread throughout the world from the Caribbean to South America using slave labour. As a result, today Brazil commands more than 30 per cent of world coffee production.

Coffee is second only to oil as the world’s most traded commodity in modern times.