The Origins of Coffee

No one knows for sure how coffee was discovered, but there are legends have been told about its origin. Its origins can be traced back to ceremonial uses in ancient African tribes. Today, coffee is grown all over the world with varieties of beverages with a coffee base.

There are two stories as to how coffee was discovered. The first dates back to 800AD in Ethiopia, East Africa, where a herdsman named Kaldi found that after eating berries from specific wild bushes, his sheep became balls of energy that didn’t want to go to sleep at night. Out of curiosity, he tried a few and experienced a similar effect that he thought wise to share with local monks. The Abbot wasn’t too thrilled with these findings since he couldn’t understand how wild berries could have this profound effect on people, so he threw the beans in the fire to destroy them. The hypnotizing aroma from the now burned beans made him curious enough to grind their charred remains and turn them into a drink that was not only perfect for monks who needed to stay up for hours praying but also become an integral part of the Ethiopian culture.

“This devil’s drink is so delicious… we should cheat the devil by baptizing it!”

The second story takes us to Yemen, where a Sheikh Omar famed for healing people through prayer discovered coffee while in exile from his Mocha community. Though the red berries growing in the bush energized him, Omar found them too bitter. Roasting only made them hard, but boiling resulted in this brown energizing liquid that kept him awake for long hours. This miracle drink would later become his ticket back into society, and eventually sainthood, legend has it.

Africa to the World

News of this exciting beverage spread from Africa to the Middle East when traders packed some berries for their voyage from Ethiopia that they then started growing at home. Egypt, Turkey, Syria, and Persia were all hooked by the 16th Century, and it did not escape notice that most partakers of this beverage were Islamic. Pilgrimages were incomplete without this magical liquid that made it possible to stay up for the long nocturnal prayers. Through trade, coffee found its way into Italy, the Balkans, Indonesia, Europe, and the Americas.

In Ethiopia, coffee bushes grew in the wild, and there wasn’t a need to cultivate it until its benefits became clear. As demand for beans grew, Yemeni and Dutch traders took some home to plant. Plans to grow the crop in India initially failed, but on the island of Java, present-day Indonesia, made the ideal candidate for this crop. Today, coffee is farmed in several parts of the world.

A Forbidden Social Revolution

By the 15th Century, a cup of java wasn’t just a simple drink at home, but also social gatherings. Arabs would congregate in coffee houses, then known as qahveh khaneh, to talk trade, gossip, play board games, enjoy classical music, and interact socially. There were similar gatherings in East Africa that became a great source of information, and just like in the Middle East, they were strictly the preserve of men. Europe was not left behind when these shops started sprouting. In the mid-1760s, England’s first coffee shop was opened in Oxford, and it quickly became a meeting place for intellectuals, quite different from the regular crowd you’d find in bars. The London Gazette, which carried government announcements, would be read here as traders socialized, which is how coffee shops became known as places for the elite.

Not everyone was crazy about coffee houses or the influence they were having on society. In 1511, the governor of Aleppo, Khair Beg, fearing these gathering of men over a cup of java would give them the perfect avenue to discuss his failings as a leader and even plan his ouster, pushed for the ban of coffee houses. His motion was supported by two Persian doctors, the Hakimani brothers, who were known to side with the highest bidder. They had heard that the brew worked ‘cured’ depression, which was a threat to their business.

The next 13 years would be spent debating whether this energizing drink deserved Beg’s unsubstantiated treatment. Finally, in 1524, the Ottoman Turkish Sultan Selim I lifted this ban, allowing residents to gather and enjoy their drink in public once again.

Beverage or the Devil’s Drink?

Egypt wasn’t the only part of the world finding it hard to accept a new beverage. When coffee finally landed in Venice through trade dealings with their Mediterranean neighbors, residents received it with inhibitions. Reports from the Middle East and Turkey made it clear the drink was enjoyed by Muslims, and so Catholics were not very keen on partaking of what they considered ‘the bitter invention of Satan.’ It took the intervention of Pope Clement VIII, who wittingly declared upon tasting it that “This devil’s drink is so delicious… we should cheat the devil by baptising it!” to have the ban lifted. He officially baptised coffee beans to convert it from the pagan drink it was said to be so Christians would feel free to indulge. In the streets of Venice, coffee was henceforth accepted as a drink for both Christians and Muslims, but still nicknamed ‘Devil’s Drink.”

Healer of All Manner of Conditions

A 1652 advert intimated that coffee could heal just about any ailment from headache to cough of the Lung and Scurvy. It also helped prevent miscarriages in women; who knew? Quite the leap from Devil’s Drink, right? While most of that is unproven, workers who substituted wine and beer for breakfast with coffee were noted to be more productive. Today, most offices have coffee machines to boost productivity and alertness, and so ancient coffee drinkers could have been on to something. From its humble beginnings in East Africa, coffee has indeed made a remarkable journey. Today, the industry is worth over $100 billion and is responsible for over 1.6 billion jobs globally. It is also the most popular drink after water. So, next time you enjoy a cup of Joe, think of these facts;

So, next time you enjoy a cup of Joe, think of these facts; 

  • Americans consume over 400 million cups of coffee every day.
  • Finnish people drink more coffee per capita than any other country in the world.
  • Coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world after petroleum and the second most popular beverage after water.
  • Coffee was once known as the devil’s drink.
  • In Britain, coffee shops were the reserves of intellectual men and were known as Penny Universities because a cup cost a penny.
  • Women were banished from coffee shops unless they were prostitutes.


Waithera Mbugua
Café Zansi Columnist