The Dancing Goats Found it First
Coffee, as popular legend goes, was discovered in Ethiopia by a goatherd named Kaldi.
Back in the day, goatherds let their goats roam about the countryside to munch on whatever the goats could find. When the goats were tired of their meanderings, they found their way back to shelter to enjoy a cool drink and deep slumber.
But one night, deep slumber was not to be had. Strangely, the goats were awake all night. An imam of the local monastery thought the goats were either poisoned or bewitched. Kaldi followed the goats the next day, and he found them dancing around an unfamiliar dark-leafed shrub bearing red berries.
Kaldi shared his discovery of the mysterious plant with the imam, who, being of a deductive turn of mind, experimented on the plant’s fruit and its seeds. When the imam drank the beverage that resulted from boiling the berries, he experienced a state of intoxication unknown before the world’s first coffee buzz. To his surprise, his pulse quickened and his thoughts raced, although it was nighttime.
Around the sixth century coffee was carried across the Red Sea to Arabia (modern day Yemen), where it was cultivated first as a medicine, then as a beverage. The Arabs made wine by fermenting the pulp of the berries; they also made a drink by boiling green, unroasted seeds, or beans. In the late 13th century they began roasting and grinding the coffee beans before adding them to boiling water.
Around the World in Six or More Centuries
The Arabs carefully protected their discovery of coffee and their monopoly on the coffee market by forbidding the seeds and plants to leave the country. However, by the 1500s, Turkey, Egypt, and Syria all boasted coffee plants, and around 1650 the legendary Muslim pilgrim Baba Budan carried seven coffee seeds secretly bound to his belly back to his native India. Additionally, Constantinople, Damascus, and other Near Eastern cities boasted coffeehouses, where European travelers and traders were introduced to the enticing drink.
The Dutch were the first Europeans to cultivate coffee commercially, first in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), then on the Indonesian island of Java, and finally in South America. Like the Dutch, the French and Portuguese were also interested in the money-making potential of coffee. In 1714 the gourmand Sun King, Louis XIV of France, wheedled a coffee tree out of the Dutch. The French botanists built the first-ever greenhouse for the royal plant, as it was living in the decidedly non-tropical Paris. The plant thrived and produced seedlings.
The French guarded the royal coffee vigilantly, but they couldn’t stop the visionary Chevalier Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu from stealing some of the royal seedlings and making sail for the Caribbean. During the voyage, a fellow traveler tore up most of the seedlings in a jealous rage, after which the ship was attacked by pirates, nearly sank in a storm, and finally was becalmed. Never doubting his vision, de Clieu shared his meager water ration with the one remaining coffee seedling. This scraggly plant finally made it to Martinique and flourished. Coffee soon grew in French colonies around the world, including the Island of Bourbon (Réunion), whose farmers cultivated the acclaimed bourbon variety of arabica beans.
The Portuguese were jealous of the Dutch and French success with coffee, and soon found an opportunity of wooing their coffee away literally. Brazilian Francisco de Melo Palheta was asked to negotiate a border dispute between French and Dutch Guiana. He not only successfully negotiated the settlement but also charmed the wife of French Guiana’s governor. She in turn sent him several coffee seedlings hidden in a bouquet of flowers. Today Brazil produces and exports 35 million bags of coffee a year, supplying one-third of the world’s coffee.
Coffee’s voyage around the world was not complete until it was introduced to Kenya and Tanzania, mere hundreds of miles away from its native Ethiopia, in 1893.