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So you want to know about the origin of coffee? Before we get to the proven facts of the origin, I will tell you about the legends of coffee first.

The history of coffee: Kaldi the sheep herder

If you want to know about the origin of coffee, you will have to come along on a trip through time with me. The journey starts in the 9th century, Ethiopia. Legend tells of a sheep herder named Kaldi who herded his sheep in the forest of Kaffa. One day Kaldi saw his sheep nibbling berries from a plant, and noticed that his sheep became much more alive after a while. Curious as to what happened to his sheep, he decided to eat the berries as well and so discovered the energizing properties of the coffee plant.

The history of coffee: A Sufi mystic and his apprentice

As beautiful as the legend about Kaldi is, there is no hard evidence that this story truly happened. For another legend I want you to to travel forward to 15th century Yemen. Back then there lived a Sufi mystic called Ghothul Akbar Nooruddin Abu al Hasan al-Shadhili who discovered coffee on a trip to Ethiopia. Along the way to his final destination, he noticed birds eating from the coffee plant. The birds surrounding those plants were highly active and were wildly chattering. When he ate the berries in turn, he became more awake and energetic just like the birds. It sounds pretty much like the story of Kaldi, just a few centuries further along the time-line.

Kaldi History of coffee

The next legend is about the mystics’ apprentice: Omar. Omar was exiled from the city of Mocha and was sent to the caves of Ousab. The caves were located in the desert and offered little to eat. Omar searched and found a strange plant with berries which he tried to eat. The berries tasted bitter and Omar started roasting them over fire, resulting in hard roasted berries that were inedible. He then boiled the roasted berries and so invented coffee. He returned to Mocha and showed the people the drink he discovered. Impressed by this discovery and the taste of the drink, the people decided to let him back into the city and make him a saint to boot.

The history of coffee: The start of proven history

One thing we have learned from these legends and later written stories is that the origin of coffee lays in Ethiopia. After it’s discovery the product was ‘exported’ to Egypt en Yemen by travellers. By the 16th century coffee the popularity of coffee spread out to Persia all the way to the Ottoman empire. The reason that coffee didn’t spread out any further, was because the merchants in the middle east sterilized the beans when they were exported. This ensured that coffee remained a commodity and a plant only to be bought in the middle east.

First India and later the rest of the world.

Around the year 1670 some people managed to smuggle unsterilised beans to India and the first plants were grown in Mysore. It didn’t take long for the plant to find it’s way to Italy and the rest of Europe. Since coffee was seen as a drink that only the Muslim community drank, it took the blessing op Pope Clement VIII for coffee to be accepted by Christian Europe. When the British East India Company and the Dutch V.O.C got their hands on the plants and beans, it didn’t take long for coffee to spread throughout the America’s and Indonesia.

Colonial coffee america history of coffee

Coffee conquered the America’s from north to south

When coffee first arrived in North America, the colonials didn’t drink it at all. There was a lot of tea and alcohol available at the time. Coffee was rare and expensive and so the people thought little of it at first. When war broke out in North-America around the year 1770, the British tea merchants couldn’t trade as much as they used to. Tea became scarce but coffee remained expensive. In the year 1773, after The Boston Tea Party, the colonials decided to ban tea altogether and coffee became more and more popular. After these events coffee was quickly introduced to Mid- and South-America. When it became known that the rainforest was a great place to grow coffee, it’s popularity grew at an amazing rate. Unfortunately the rainforests in Mid- and South-America have suffered immensely because of the popularity of coffee ever since.  But that is a different subject altogether.

Coffee conquered the world

At the same time that coffee was spreading throughout the America’s, coffee was also finding it’s way into Asia. The Dutch brought coffee to Indonesia and Papua New Guinea and from there spread further. If you would look at the map of the world, you can see a ‘belt’ of coffee producing countries crossing the globe. A drink that started as a commodity is now considered the worlds’ favourite drink.

www.scaa.org (Specialty Coffee Association of America)
www.scae.com (Specialty Coffee Association of Europe)
Book: How to Make Coffee – Lani Kingston
Book: Coffee: Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Coffee – Jack Frisks

PS: Check out this link to another great article about the history of coffee: Coffeeble