Tag Archives: Yemen

The Pre-History of Coffee

Ethiopia is the birthplace of Coffee, at least from anecdotal evidence. So if one is to talk about Ethiopia (as I am), then it seems at least worthwhile to acknowledge Ethiopia’s role in developing this most popular of beverages.

Quite fun fact: Not only is coffee the world’s most traded food commodity. It’s also the world’s second most traded commodity period (with petroleum being the first).

One of the many discovery stories of the bean goes as follows: The ancient people of Ethiopia were a collection of nomadic tribes, rather than one centralized government or even a series of a city states. They would take their flock of animals from place to place, looking for the best place for their domesticated animals to feed. A goatherder took his flock into a new area, and found that his goats were a bit more frisky than normal. Upon inspection, he found them eating brownish-purple berries. Tasting the berries himself, he discovered that he could watch his flock without becoming sleepy. He introduced the berries to the local imam who verified the ability to keep oneself awake with the berries. The imam, in turn, gave the berries to his flock (so to speak) in order to keep them awake during his sermons. The bean, through time, became an ingrained part of several religious ceremonies.

What the bean wasn’t used for was in drinks. Instead it was eaten raw or in a paste format, probably mixed with the leaves of the coffee plant. It’s a fair bet that this was not only used in religious ceremonies, but also taken before battles.

Now the goatherder story is nice and family friendly, but it’s probably taking a fair amount of liberties with the truth. It’s also just as likely (if not, more so) that people who were familiar with the euphoric effects of khat were looking for a new buzz, so to speak. Khat is a plant in which a ‘high’ is obtained by chewing on the leaves of the plant. It is not outside the realm of possibility that a single khat addict found themselves eating the leaves of many dozens of plant products to see if any of them had an affect similar to khat. When they discovered the coffee plant, they noted the affects of the coffee leaves and beans upon their system, and things progressed from there into the hands of the local imam.

Never underestimate man’s desire to alter his consciousness as the primary motivation for food invention and discovery.

Back to Ethiopia – I can hear some of you saying “Yeah, but Kate…if Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee, why is it called Coffea arabica, rather than, say Coffea ethiop or Coffea abyssinia?”

It’s a fair question. The answer lies in the country of Yemen, trade with India and the slave trade from Ethiopia. Coffee, the drink as we know it, was most likely created in Yemen, who had learned how to steep drinks from the traders who had come from the tea-rich areas of what is now Sri-Lank and India. The applied this process to the coffee beans and leaves brought with the slaves that had been acquired from the East African area. The Europeans, who were the ones who felt the need to go around and classifying everything in latin binomial names, followed the bean to the Arab peninsula, never thinking that the bean may have been imported from elsewhere.

Technorati Tags: Drink, Food History, Coffee