Coffee, like many of the modern world's most popular foods, has two histories. The first encompasses the rich but largely undocumented record of its discovery and early use among the peoples of East Africa and the Arabian peninsula. The second, more familiar record, dates from the last 5 centuries when Europeans embraced the drink and carried it with them all over the world.
OUT OF AFRICA... The first thing to realize about ancient coffee history is that while there is general agreement about many facts, there are countless variations in the details. Although coffee has been cultivated in the Arabian peninsula around Yemen since the 6th century, its origins are lost in the mists of legend. One amusing tale tells the story of an East African goat herder named Kaldi who was surprised by unusual behaviour among his goats. After they had eaten berries from a nearby bush, the goats seemed to be more physically lively, even frolicsome and frisky. Few agree on the dates of this legend, except to place it well before the first millennium 1000 AD. In some versions, it was sheep not goats that are the heroes.
Whatever the case, the behaviour of the animals inspired Kaldi to inspect the bush for himself. Once he tried the berries, he felt a burst of energy too. It wasn't long before news of the coffee bush and its stimulating properties spread through the area known today as Ethiopia. A different legend traces coffee to Arabia and provides the source for the word 'mocha'. In this legend an outcast group, banished to the desert, survives by boiling the berries of an unknown plant. Their survival is regarded as a sign of religious significance and is forever associated with the nearby settlement Mocha. In fact, modern botanists have confirmed that coffee originated high (several thousand feet) in Ethiopia's central plains. It didn't take long before the reigning religious leaders of the day rendered their opinion about this new stimulant. Predictably, many considered it the product of the devil. Fortunately, members of one religious order was more open minded. Having dried the berries for easy transport back to monasteries, they placed them in water to revive the flavour, eating the fruit and sipping the liquid mixture.
The new found stimulant was pressed into service to prepare the monks for daily prayer. It took some time for coffee to evolve to become the beverage we know today. The Galla tribe of Ethiopia, according to another source, would wrap coffee beans in animal fat, eating the mix to nourish themselves in war and raids. Further, when it was combined with water, it was often green beans that were steeped much like tea leaves. Widespread coffee cultivation was slow to develop. It wasn't until the 15th and 16th centuries that coffee trees were planted extensively throughout Yemen. Coffee was still regarded as a drink used for medicinal or ritual purposes, and it was closely guarded secret. From there, it spread east to India and west across ancient trade routes to the Ottoman Empire, modern day Turkey. There coffee beans were roasted for the first time over open fires. Once crushed, the roasted beans were boiled in water. The result was the prototype of our brewed coffee. Turks introduced flavours to coffee, adding anise, cinnamon, cardamom and clove to the brew. The Turks also considered coffee an aphrodisiac. Constantinople was the site of the world's first coffee shop, opened in the latter half of the 15th century.
COFFEE TO GO... Coffee did not appear in Europe until Venetian traders brought it with them along with the spices, jewels and other treasure from the near and far east. However, it didn't take long for the reigning authorities, especially the Roman Catholic Church to issue its opinion of the new beverage. Once again, the drink faced religious censure, with many condemning coffee as a beverage of the devil and urging that it be banned. Fortunately, Pope Clement VII had already fallen under coffee's flavourful spell. Already a regular coffee drinker, the Pope actually blessed coffee and declared it a Christian beverage, suitable for the faithful! In time, many throughout Europe relished the stimulating properties of coffee.
Foreshadowing our own association of good coffee and good conversation, Europeans began to establish coffee houses across the continent, with coffee houses sprouting across Italy and in London, Paris, Vienna and Berlin throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. Some credit the spread of coffee houses with the intellectual renaissance known as the Enlightenment. Coffee houses provided informal forum where the leading thinkers and artists, along with politicians and other social leaders, could gather to debate and discuss the issues of the day.