Ethiopia lies in East Africa, where the topography features everything from arid desert lowlands to fertile subtropical highlands. It’s also the place where the first humans emerged, and — perhaps more importantly — where coffee was born. Like humans, coffee spread all over the world after leaving Ethiopia, whether the locals liked it or not. Resisting the encroachment of humans and coffee was always futile, and we’re all better off for it.
Today, coffee isn’t just the primary means by which humans ingest the world’s most popular legal stimulant; it’s almost a religion. Every coffee believer has their own daily ritual of preparing, brewing, and imbibing the black magic, with around 2 billion cups downed every day. And like a religion, coffee’s creation myth rivals any origin story ever told.
Versions of the story vary, but Ethiopians hold that coffee was discovered by a goat herder and musician named Kaldi. Kaldi would spend his days making up songs on a pipe as his goats foraged for food on the mountainside. When the sun began to set, he would call them with a special note played on the pipe and they would follow him home. But one day, the goats did not come when called.
When Kaldi went in search of his goats, he found them bleating and excited, almost dancing. As he watched the display, he realized the goats were feeding from the leaves and berries of a plant he’d never noticed before. He supposed that was the cause of their excited state, so he tried some himself. The berries energized him, and he began to dance with his goats.
Kaldi’s story also features the first rejection of coffee by someone in power, and the beans hadn’t even been roasted yet. The tale says Kaldi took the fruits to a holy man, who tasted them and then threw them in a fire, believing they were unholy. It was when the beans began to crackle and give off that distinctive aroma that they took notice. Legend has it the beans were recovered from the embers, ground up, and steeped in water.
The story of Kaldi the Goatherd likely has some elements of truth to it, but it may also be nothing more than a nice folktale. Coffee isn’t exclusive to Ethiopia. It grows wild all over sub-Saharan Africa, from Madagascar in the east to Sierra Leone in the west, down through the jungles of Congo south to Zimbabwe, and north to Ethiopia. A much more scientific take says the true origin of coffee lies in the assholes of African cats. Specifically, civets.
Civets climb coffee trees and feast on the juiciest berries above. The cats digest the outer berry, but the green bean is excreted after digestion. As the cats moved, so did the coffee plants, so scholars credit wild civets with spreading the wild growth of coffee plants in Africa. Ethiopians became the first people known to gather and cultivate coffee. Other areas of Africa weren’t as easily accessible, so no one knows if coffee flourished in those areas earlier. But it’s unlikely Ethiopians went right to roasting the green bean, grinding it, and adding it to hot water.
In the earliest uses of coffee plants, people ate the beans outright or used the leaves to make a weak tea. The answer to the question of how people started roasting and grinding beans to make a beverage is simple: war.
Humans are programmed to love three things: sex, booze, and fighting. Coffee pairs well with all three.
Almost as fast as the Ethiopians discovered the coffee berry was edible — probably through watching those goats not getting sick or dying — they began using it as a foodstuff. And since it was a fruit, they also started making booze with it (because humans try to make alcohol out of everything).
But it was military necessity that probably led to the roasting of coffee beans.
Ethiopia’s Oromo tribes were renowned raiders of the Ethiopian highlands and beyond. One of the things that made their fighters so efficient and effective was their food. While other armies tended to eat meals, Oromo warriors mixed coffee beans with animal fat and seeds as an early kind of PowerBar. Roasting the beans helped them keep for prolonged campaigns. One fatty coffee bar kept an Oromo going for the day, but no one really knows how or when the ground beans were first infused with hot water.
Whatever the case, coffee has literally and figuratively fueled armies for more than 1,000 years. Since they were first put to use by humans, coffee beans have been the seeds of conquest and revolution. There’s a reason kings, chieftains, and religious leaders have all tried (in vain) to stop its use. Coffee tends to bring people together and then amp them up. Amped-up Ethiopian warriors might have been the first to take coffee out of Ethiopia.
The country we now know as Yemen lies directly across the Red Sea from the shores of East Africa. In AD 520, much of the area was part of the Kingdom of Aksum, an empire that literally rivaled the Persian empire. That year, Kaleb of Axum sent a force that toppled the government of a Jewish kingdom based in Yemen and installed a viceroy who ruled for some 50 years.
Some historians think the Aksumites may have established coffee farms during that period. There’s no compelling evidence for or against this idea, but just because some European didn’t write it down doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. It was the Persians who recaptured the area and gave the Ethiopians the boot — but theory holds that they kept the coffee.
If Aksumite warriors weren’t yet fueled by coffee at that point (the first Arab mention of coffee wouldn’t come until 400 years later), then coffee would have spread through trade with the Arabian Peninsula. Either way, Arabs took to the beverage. Coffee plantations and irrigation ditches were built in Yemen over the next few centuries.
The prophet Muhammad converted much of the Arabian Peninsula to Islam by the time he died in 632, and the Islamic empire’s ban on intoxicating substances would only add fuel to the coffee roasting fire. Some Islamic stories contend that coffee was a gift from the Archangel Gabriel, and the use of coffee was propagated later by Sufi mystics because it kept them awake as they studied and prayed into the night. They called it qawah, the Arab word for “wine,” which is where the word coffee is derived.
From the Yemeni port of Mocha, coffee began its spread throughout the Islamic world. Even though various religious and civil leaders tried to ban coffee consumption (sometimes with the threat of execution by giant sword), by the end of the 15th century, coffeehouses had sprung up in Mecca, Cairo, and Istanbul.
The Ottoman Turks tried to monopolize coffee cultivation, but it was no use. By the early 17th century, Europeans were on the coffee bandwagon, trading and cultivating it throughout their colonies. After escaping its cradle, coffee conquered the world. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen.
This article first appeared in the Winter 2022 edition of Coffee or Die’s print magazine as “How Coffee Conquered the World.”