While the true details surrounding the “discovery” of coffee are unverified, its origins begin with a legend—well, two actually.
Yep, there are actually (at least) two takes on coffee’s origin story. We know for sure that coffee came from Africa, but the exact details are unclear. One Ethiopian legend has coffee originating as a drink in Ethiopia, while a Yemeni legend has coffee originating in—you guessed it—Yemen.
The Ethiopian Origin Story
Ethiopian legend says that around 850 AD in Ethiopia, a goat herder named Kaldi discovered that when his goats ate a small red berry, they became more energetic. Not only energetic, the goats were dancing.
So Kaldi did what anyone seeing dancing goats would do—he picked some of the berries and tried them for himself. He discovered that eating the berries made him feel full of energy.
Kaldi wanted to share the benefits of the “magic berries” he discovered with other people. So he tried taking them to a monastery, where a monk, intimidated by the magic berries, threw them into a fire to destroy them.
Naturally, this resulted in the captivating aroma of roasted coffee. After the fire was stoked, the mesmerized monks picked up the roasted coffee beans, ground them, and brewed the first ever cup of coffee.
The Yemeni Origin Story
A different legend tells the story of Sheikh Omar, a doctor/priest in ancient Yemen. One day, for unclear reasons (there are multiple variations on this part of the story) Omar was exiled by his hometown to a cave in the desert. After some time, Omar found himself starving and desperate to eat something, and came across some red berries he found on a bush. I think you know where this is going.
The bitter flavor caught Omar off-guard, but since he was starving, he was intent on consuming them somehow. He roasted the beans, ground them up, and tried boiling them in water, producing an elixir that kept him energized for “days.” (Sounds like he was exaggerating a little bit, but hey, who doesn’t.)
When the people from his hometown, which was called—wait for it—Mocha, learned about the elixir, they let Omar come back. So kind!
What Does Science Say?
While these legends might seem to be just that—legends—there is historical evidence to show that coffee, as we know it, has origins in both Ethiopia and Yemen.
We don’t know exactly where the first cup of caffeinated goodness was brewed, but since the coffee plant is native to Ethiopia, it’s definitely one possibility. However, the oldest scientific evidence we currently have of coffee being roasted and brewed for human consumption is in Yemen.
We know that during the 15th century, coffee was consumed by Sufi monks in Yemen to stay alert during long religious ceremonies. There’s historical evidence pointing to the coffee they drank being brought in bean form (and later in plant form) by traders from Ethiopia.
Coffee Spreads to the Middle East
After coffee was well known in Ethiopia and Yemen, it spread to Egypt, Persia, and Turkey. (It became particularly important in Turkish culture, and Turkish Coffee quickly took on a life of its own.)
Coffee houses, or “schools of the wise” as they were called, began to sprout up all over parts of the Middle East.
These buildings attracted all those who wanted to “exchange information”—to listen to information from other places and share their own information in kind.
The coffee houses became huge hubs of social activity. Coffee was so popular in Arabia it became known as “The Wine of Araby.”
Soon, as it would happen, coffee became “too” popular for some of those in power, and coffee became forbidden in many areas of Arabia, as well as parts of Egypt and Ethiopia.
But the bans didn’t last long.
The people rioted in the streets until they were allowed to drink their coffee again.
Coffee Spreads to Europe (and Everywhere Else)
As you might expect during this period in history, once Europe caught wind of this invigorating new drink, it didn’t take long for coffee to spread across continents and across the globe.
Countries all over Europe started their caffeine craze during the 1600s—a craze that’s effectively still going on today. European countries like England, Austria, France, Holland, and Germany all had their own trendy coffee-houses that served a similar purpose as the “schools of the wise” in the Middle East. In England, they were referred to as “penny universities.”
The Dutch were quick to start up coffee plantations in Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka). Even though their first efforts were wiped out by multiple natural disasters, they planted more crops in Indonesia, including Sumatra.
Indonesia became so well-known for coffee exports, that Java (the capital of Indonesia) became a persistent buzzword for coffee that has stuck around for about 3 entire centuries.
In the 1700s, coffee arrived in the Caribbean by way of the French, while the Portuguese began growing beans in Brazil. By the late 1800s, the Spanish had further spread coffee plantations to other regions of Central and South America.
Do Any of These Places Sound Familiar?
Coincidentally (OK - maybe not), you might recognize every region/country mentioned in this article as still being famous for either growing coffee or consuming it today. That’s right, most of the world’s coffee today is still grown in the same parts of Africa, South and Central America, the Caribbean, and Indonesia.
From dancing goats and people chewing bitter-tasting berries to the strongest coffee precision roasted to perfection, the origins of coffee are truly eclectic.