We have been drinking coffee in the West for about three hundred years and today Americans are said to drink 400 million cups of this black, bitter and mysterious drink every day! The Greek poet and author Homer, who is understood to have lived in the 7th or 8th centuries BC is believed to have drunk coffee and some say that it was being used as a medicine for hundreds of years before that.
But scientists and historian are pretty sure of one thing – the coffee plant was born in Africa! There are many accounts of travelers in Ethiopia describing the beautiful coffee trees and research has shown that the climate, the soil and the isolated plateau in this part of Africa are perfect for this type of bean. In the 1920s a Russian plant geneticist Nikolai Vavilov said that Ethiopia was one of the eight places in the world where the planet’s cultivated plants originated; and coffee was one of them.
Legend has it that in the ninth century a shepherd was out in the Kaffa region (hence the word ‘coffee’) in the Ethiopian Highlands when his goats started to eat reddish berries from a bush. They became excited and he said they appeared to ‘dance’. The shepherd tried the berries himself and felt instantly energized. He ran back to the monastery and reported his findings to the abbot. The abbot boiled and distilled the berries to create a bitter and rich drink. He felt so alert that he was able to enjoy his long evening prayers without feeling sleepy.
The abbot excitedly shared his new discovery with his fellow monks and slowly the news of this incredible drink spread outside of the community. Before long people in Yemen, Arabia and Egypt were enjoying it too. It was first roasted and brewed in Arabia, and in Egypt it rapidly developed to become part of daily life. It was from the Egyptian port of Alexandria that the first traders sold coffee in the late 1500s and it thus journeyed firstly into Italy and then to the rest of continental Europe.
In Europe it became very popular and was placed in the center of European culture. With an increase in demand for this ‘modern’ drink and the imposition of import taxes, research went into finding new places to grow the coffee bean to supply the increasing needs of a growing coffee market. The Dutch took the beans to their colonies of Batavia and Java, the French to Martinique and from there is spread into the tropical regions of Asia and the Americas.
In Ethiopia coffee was woven into religious ceremonies, medicine and diet. It was also used as a way to bring people together socially. It was appreciated by Christians and Muslims, but some Orthodox Church leaders felt it was intoxicating and a Muslim drink and it was thus banned. But the ban did not stop the Ethiopians from drinking it and its popularity continued to grow. When the ban was lifted in 1889 it became the national drink for all Ethiopians. Mixed with cherries, pepper, spices and added to butter, coffee beans became a treat served to special guests and in some parts of the country it became so important that it was even used as money to trade for goods.
Over a hundred million people in the Third World are dependent on coffee crops, and in Ethiopia 90% of their coffee exports come from small family and community farms, making it a vital cash crop for the country. This valuable commodity (second in the world to oil), according to Jackie Chan is a “language in itself” and is enjoyed across the planet in many guises.
Centuries ago, on a plateau in Ethiopia it was found to keep people alert, and in the 20th century, during his time in the White House, Ronald Reagan said, “I never drink coffee at lunch. I find it keeps me awake for the afternoon.”
Coffee....Ethiopia’s gift to history!