Who started coffee?

Who discovered coffee?

Who discovered coffee?

Absently pondering nothing in particular over an espresso cup lately, my thoughts returned to the hot, steaming substance under my nose.

Coffee goes back generations, hundreds of years.  But whoever started the whole thing?  I mean, the whole process isn’t something you could stumble upon by accident.  The finding of beans, the picking, the roasting, the grinding, the boiling, and whatever else that can occur in the production of coffee.

How?  Who?  Why?

I decided to do some research, (look at Wikipedia). The sprawling history of coffee must be packed with curiosities, full of stories. Surely it could make a decent blog or two.

And here we are.  Sitting comfortably?  Cup in hand?  Excellent.  Now, try to imagine your blogger is a jaded old man with a white beard, coffee-stained teeth, a croaky voice and bad breath…

One story about the origins of coffee concerns a Yemenite Sufi mystic named Ghothul Akbar Nooruddin Abu al-Hasan al-Shadhili. Tired from his travels through Ethiopia, and possibly by introducing himself with such a long name, he observed birds of unusual vitality. Upon sampling berries that birds had been eating, he too experienced the same vitality.

According to another tale, it is Omar, disciple of Sheik Abou’l Hasan Schadheli. An ancient chronicle tells that he was once exiled to a desert cave near Ousab. Despite being without the burden of a very long name, Omar grew tired and began to starve. He decided to chew berries from nearby shrubbery and found them to be bitter. He attempted to roast the beans but they became hard. Then he tried boiling them to soften the bean, resulting in a fragrant brown liquid. Omar was newly revitalised and sustained for days. When the story of this “miracle drug” reached Mocha, Omar was asked to return and made a saint.

Kaldi, a 9th-century Ethiopian goat-herder, is the hero of our third story. He noticed energising effects when his flock nibbled the bright red berries of a certain bush, and copied them. After bringing the berries to a nearby monastery, a monk disapproved of their use and threw them into a fire. But the inviting aroma which billowed from the fire drew out inquisitive monks. Roasted beans were raked from the embers, ground up and dissolved in hot water, creating the first ever cup of coffee. Beware though. Wikipedia warns us: “the story is first known to appear in writing in 1671, and thus may be fanciful”.

Do we owe a great debt to Kaldi and his dancing goats?

Do we owe a great debt to Kaldi and his dancing goats?

That’s just three options and there are almost certainly many more. It’s unlikely we’ll ever know the full truth, and probable that it was actually “discovered” many times over. Fitting to the substance itself, there are many versions. It’s that same unknowable richness, depth and difference that forever keep drawing us back to the bean.