More than 1,000 years
ago, a goatherd in Ethiopia’s south-western highlands plucked a few red
berries from some young green trees growing there in the forest and
tasted them. He liked the flavour – and the feel-good effect that
followed. Today those self-same berries, dried, roasted and ground, have
become the world’s second most popular non-alcoholic beverage after tea.
And, as David Beatty discovers in words and pictures, the Ethiopian
province where they first blossomed – Kaffa – gave its name to coffee.
story of coffee
has its beginnings in Ethiopia, the original home of
the coffee plant,
which still grows wild in the forest of the
While nobody is sure exactly how coffee was
originally discovered as a beverage, it is believed that its cultivation
and use began as early as the 9th century. Some authorities claim that
it was cultivated in the Yemen earlier, around AD 575. The only thing
that seems certain is that it originated in Ethiopia, from where it
traveled to the Yemen about 600 years ago, and from Arabia it began its
journey around the world.
Among the many
legends that have developed concerning the
origin of coffee, one of the most popular account is that of Kaldi,
an Abyssinian goatherd, who lived around AD
850. One day he observed his goats behaving in abnormally exuberant
manner, skipping, rearing on their hindlegs and bleating loudly. He
noticed they were eating the bright red berries that
grew on the green bushes nearby.
Kaldi tried a few himself, ad soon felt a
novel sense of elation. He filled his pockets with the berries and ran
home to announce his discovery to his wife. ‘ They are heaven-sent, ’
she declared. ‘ You must take them to the Monks in the monastery. ’
Kaldi presented the
chief Monk with a handful of berries and related his discovery of their
miraculous effect. ‘ Devil’s work! ’ exclaimed the monk, and hurled the
berries in the fire.
Within minutes the monastery filled with the heavenly aroma of roasting
beans, and the other monks gathered to investigate. The beans were raked
from the fire and crushed to extinguish the embers. The Monk ordered the
grains to be placed in the ewer and covered with hot water to preserve
their goodness. That night the monks sat up drinking the rich and
fragrant brew, and from that day vowed they would drink it daily to keep
them awake during their long, nocturnal devotions.
While the legends attempt to condense the discovery of coffee and its
development as a beverage into one story, it is believed that the monks
of Ethiopia, may have chewed on the berries as a stimulant for centuries
before it was brewed as a hot drink.
Another account suggests that coffee was brought to Arabia from
Ethiopia, by Sudanese slaves who chewed the berries en route to help
them survive the journey. There is some evidence that coffee was ground
and mixed with butter, and consumed like chocolate for sustenance, a
method reportedly used by the Galla tribe of Ethiopia, which lends some
credence to the story of the Sudanese slaves. The practice of mixing
ground coffee beans with ghee (clarified butter) persists to this day in
some parts of Kaffa and Sidamo, two of the principle coffee producing
regions of Ethiopia,. And in Kaffa, from which its name derives, the
drink is brewed today with the addition of melted ghee which gives it a
distinctive, buttery flavour.
From the beginning, coffee’s invigorating powers have understandably
linked it with religion, and each tradition claims its own story of
origins. Islamic legend ascribes the discovery of coffee to devout
Sheikh Omar, who found the coffee growing wild while living as a recluse
in Mocha, one famous coffee producing place in Yemen.
He is said to have boiled some berries, and discovered the stimulating
effect of the resulting brew, which he administered to the locals who
were stricken with a mysterious ailment and thereby cured them.
There are numerous versions of this story concerning the Sheikh Omar,
which relate how he cured the King of Mocha’s daughter with coffee, and
another where wondrous bird leads him to a tree full of coffee berries.
Arabic scientific documents dating from around AD 900 refer to a
beverage drunk in Ethiopia, Known as ‘buna’, and the similarities in the
words suggests that this could be one of the earliest references to
Ethiopian, coffee in its brewed form. It is recorded that in 1454 the
Mufti of Aden visited Ethiopia, and saw his own countrymen drinking
coffee there. He was reportedly impressed with the drink which cured him
of some affliction, and his approval made it soon popular among the
dervishes of the Yemen who used it in religious ceremonies, and
introduced it to Mecca.
It was in Mecca that the first coffee houses are said to have been
established. Known as Kaveh Kanes, they were originally religious
meeting places, but soon became social meeting places for gossip,
singing and story-telling. With the spread of coffee as a popular
beverage it soon became a subject for heated debate among devout
The Arabic word for coffee, kahwah, is also one of several words for
wine. In the process of stripping the cherry husk, the pulp of the bean
was fermented to make a potent liquor. The Quran forbade the use of wine
or intoxicating beverages, but those Muslims in favour of coffee argued
that it was not an intoxicant but a stimulant. The dispute over coffee
came to a head in 1511 in Mecca.
The governor of Mecca, Beg, saw some people drinking coffee in a mosque
as they prepared a night-long prayer vigil. Furious he drove them from
the mosque and ordered all coffee houses to be closed. A heated debate
ensued, with coffee being condemned as an unhealthy brew by two
unscrupulous Persian doctors, the Hakimani brothers, who were known to
produce whatever testimony suited the highest bidder. The doctors wanted
it banned, for it was a popular cure among the melancholic patients who
other-wise would have paid the doctors to cure them. The mufti of Mecca
spoke in defense of coffee.
The issue was only resolved when the Sultan of Cairo intervened and
reprimanded the Khair Beg for banning a drink that was widely enjoyed in
Cairo without consulting his superior. In 1512, when Khair Beg was
accused of embezzlement, the Sultan had him put to death. Coffee
survived in Mecca.
The picture of Arabic coffee houses as dens of iniquity and frivolity
was exaggerated by religious zealots. In reality the Middle Eastern was
the forerunner of the European Café society and the coffee houses of
London which became famous London clubs. They were enlightened meeting
places for intellectuals, where news and gossip exchanged and clients
regularly entertained by traditional story-tellers.
From the Arabian Peninsula coffee traveled to the East. The Arabs are
credited with first bringing coffee to Sri Lanka (Ceylon) as early as
1505. It is said that fertile coffee beans, the berries with their husks
unbroken, were first introduced into South-West India by one Baba Budan
on his return from a pilgrimage to Mecca in the 17th century.
By 1517 coffee had reached Constantinople, following the conquest of
Egypt by Salim I, and it was established in Damascus by 1530. Coffee
houses were opened in Constantinople in 1554, and their advent provoked
religiously inspired riots that temporarily closed them. But they
survived their critics, and their luxurious interiors became a regular
rendezvous for those engaged in radical political thought and dissent.
From time to time coffee continued to be banned, the target of religious
zealots, and at one time second offenders were sewn into leather bags
and thrown into the Bosphorus. But coffee was profitable and finally
achieved respectability when it became subject to tax.
Venetian traders had introduced coffee to Europe by 1615, a few years
later than tea which had appeared in 1610. Again its introduction
aroused controversy in Italy when some clerics, like the mullahs of
Mecca, suggested it should be excommunicated as it was the Devil’s work.
However, Pope Clement VIII (1592- 1605) enjoyed it so much that he
declared that ‘coffee should be baptized to make it a true Christian
The first coffee house opened in Venice in 1683. The famous Café Florian
in the Piazza San Marco, established in 1720, is the oldest surviving
coffee house in Europe. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries coffee
houses proliferated in Europe. Nothing quite like the like the coffee
houses, or café, had ever existed before, the novelty of a place to
enjoy a relatively inexpensive and stimulating beverage in convivial
company established a social habit that has endured for over 400 years.
The first coffee house in England was opened in Oxford, not London, by a
man called Jacob in 1650. A coffee club established near all
Souls’College eventually becoming the Royal Society. London’s first
coffee house was in St. Michael’s Alley and opened in 1652. And the most
famous name in the world of insurance, Lloyds of London, began life as a
coffee house in Tower Street, founded by Edward Lloyd in 1688 who used
to prepare lists of ships that his clients had insured. With the rapid
growth in popularity of coffee houses, by the 17th century the European
powers were competing with each other to establish coffee plantations in
their respective colonies. In 1616 the Dutch gained a head start by
taking a coffee plant from Mocha to the Netherlands, and they began
large scale cultivation in Sri Lanka in1658. In 1699 cuttings were
successfully transplanted from Malabar to Java. Samples of Java coffee
plants were sent to Amsterdam in 1706, were seedlings were grown in
botanical gardens and distributed to horticulturists throughout Europe.
A few years later, in 1718, the Dutch transplanted the coffee to Surinam
and soon after the plant became widely established in South America,
which was to become the coffee center of the world.
In 1878 the story of coffee’s journey around the world came full circle
when the British laid foundations of Kenya’s coffee industry by
introducing plants to British East Africa right next to neighboring
Ethiopia, where coffee had first been discovered a 1,000 years before.
Today Ethiopia, is Africa’s major exporter of Arabica beans, the quality
coffee of the world, and the variety that originated in Ethiopia, is
still the only variety grown there. Coffea Arabica, which was identified
by the botanist Linnaeus in 1753, is one of the two major species used
in most production, and presently accounts around 70 per cent of the
The other major species is Coffea Canefora, or Robusta, whose production
is increasing now due to better yields from robusta trees and their
hardiness against decease. Robusta coffee is mostly used in blend, but
Arabica is the only coffee to be drunk on its own unblended, and this is
the type grown and drunk in Ethiopia, The arabica and robusta trees both
produce crops within 3-4 years after planting, and remain productive for
20-30 years. Arabica trees flourish ideally in a seasonal climate with a
temperature range of 59-75o F, whereas Robusta prefers an equatorial
province of Kaffa a large proportion of the arabica trees grow wild
amidst the rolling hills and forests of the fertile and beautiful
At an altitude of 1,500 meters the climate is ideal and the plants are
well protected by the larger forest trees which provide shade from the
midday sun and preserve the moisture in the soil. Traditionally, these
are the ideal conditions for coffee growing.
There are two methods of processing coffee: the wet and the dry.
Commercially the wet method is preferred, but the small producer who
picks the cherries wild may save time by sun-drying the beans after
picking, and the sell them direct to customers in the local market.
At the Haro Farmer’s Co-operative near Jimma the husk of the cherry is
removed mechanically and the bean then fermented in water for 48 hours
to remove the sugar. The beans are the dried on racks in the sun for
about a week before being bagged up and sold at an auction. A
smallholder, who may have anything from a half to two hectares, sells
his beans to the Co-op which processes them and sells them at auction,
returning a share of the profits to the farmer.
In the Jimma district alone annual production is approximately 30,000
tons. Nationally the country produces 200,000 tons a year, of which
almost half is for domestic consumption, the highest in Africa.
Some 12 million people are dependent on Ethiopia’s coffee industry,
managed by the Ethiopian Coffee Export Enterprise – ECEE – formerly the
Ethiopian Coffee Marketing Corporation. An independent, profit-making
organization, ECEE trades on the open market and controls about 50 per
cent of the market following liberalization.
ECEE processes its coffee at five plants in Addis-Ababa – with a total
capacity of almost 500 tons a day – and a plant in Dire Dawa. The
organization is also building a new 250-ton a day processing plant for
ECEE’s key markets are Germany, Japan, USA, France and the Middle East –
and is focusing on the US specialty market and Scandinavia. ECEE’s major
emphasis is on quality products such as premium blends, organic coffee
and original unblended coffees from one specific plantation or farm.
Within Ethiopia, there are some distinctive varieties that are highly
sought after. The highest grown coffee comes from Harar, where the
Longberry variety is the most popular, having a wine-like flavour and
tasting slightly acidic.
Coffee from Sidamo in the south has an unusual flavour and is very
popular, especially the beans known as Yirgacheffes. In many ways
Ethiopian coffee is unique, having neither excessive pungency nor the
acidity of the Kenyan brands. It is closest in character to the Mocha
coffee of the Yemen, with which it supposedly shares a common origin,
and it cannot be high roasted or its character is destroyed. The best
Ethiopian coffee may be compared with the finest coffee in the world,
and premium washed arabica beans fetch high prices on the world market.
No visit to Ethiopia, is complete without participating in the elaborate
coffee ceremony that is Ethiopia's traditional form of hospitality.
Invariably conducted by a beautiful young girl in traditional Ethiopian
costume, the ceremonial apparatus is arranged upon a bed of long
grasses. The green beans are roasted in a pan over a charcoal brazier,
the rich aroma of coffee mingling with the heady smell of incense that
is always burned during the ceremony. The beans are then pounded with a
pestle and mortar, and the ground coffee then brewed in a black pot with
a narrow spout.
Traditional accompaniments are popcorn, also roasted on the fire, and
the coffee is sugared to be drunk from small handless cups.
Selamta, The In-Flight Magazine of
Volume 13, Number 2
April – June 1996