Legends of the First Cup: The Obscure Origins of Coffee

KaldiCoffee is the world’s most popular drug, but how it originated and who brewed the first cup is one of history’s greatest mysteries. Given the impact coffee has had on human civilization, you’d expect more would be known about where it came from. Another curiosity about coffee is how late in history it was discovered. But when you consider the facts, the obscure origins of coffee are understandable.

Coffee is made by a counter-intuitive 3-step process: roasting, crushing, and boiling in water. The only natural habitat of the coffee shrub is in the remote mountains of Ethiopia. The red berries themselves are far too bitter to eat, and unlike tea, require a lot of preparation before they become palpable. You have to roast the berries, crush them with a mortar, and then infuse the crushed beans in hot water. Only then do you get a black, bitter sludge that may smell great but is certainly an acquired taste for many.

So who first put 1 plus 1 plus 1 together to make coffee? Certainly the farmers and goat herders of Ethiopia knew of the psycho-active effects of the red berries. Some Ethiopian clans used the berries to give their warriors an extra boost for battle. But goat herders don’t write histories.

Kaldi, a 9th-century Ethiopian herder, is often credited as the legendary inventor of coffee. He supposedly saw the effect coffee had on his goats and tried it for himself. When the local Islamic monks heard about the effects of the berries, they threw them on a fire in disapproval. But then, we’re supposed to believe that the odor of roasting coffee beans caused those monks to abandon their religious objections on the spot and become java junkies. That really doesn’t make much sense.

Further making the Kaldi story suspect is that it does not appear in writing until 1671, long after the story is supposed to have happened and long after coffee had swept through Europe. Another similar legend replaces Kaldi with a Sufi mystic—same details, different characters, and still no clue as to how you go from bitter red berry to aromatic brown liquid.

Maybe Desperation and Time to Play with Obscure Food Created the Modern World

One tale makes the most sense, but still has no way of being proven. In this story, Omar, the aide of a sheik, is exiled to a remote desert cave where he could find little else to eat but the too-bitter-to-eat berries growing on a nearby coffee bush. He tried roasting the berries, which only slightly improved them but they were now too hard to eat. So he tried boiling them to soften them up but discovered the leftover water invigorated him more than eating the berries. Returning from exile, he brought the secret of coffee with him.

What makes this story the most believable is that Omar, or whoever first discovered the crude brewing process, must have had a lot of time and few choices. To a person living in an ancient agricultural and herding society, the red coffee beans presented a natural red flag, their bitterness. The human palate is mostly tuned to sweetness. Indeed, sweetness is a natural sign that something is safe to eat while bitterness and bright color is a sign that something could be dangerous to eat.

And the mountains of Ethiopia aren’t exactly a trading or cultural crossroad, so it’s understandable that the coffee plant would be unknown to civilization until the 15th century. Coffee, like other dietary staples like beer and cheese, appears to have been invented by accident. So maybe we’re all benefiting to some obscure kitchen disaster that happened at a campsite or monastery somewhere around the Horn of Africa in the last 500 years.

Next time, we’ll explain how coffee created the modern world.

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