Coffee and Its Origins

Article and Photos by Lawrence Aritao. Also available on Medium via http://bit.ly/2VMR4jl.

Even in legends, the beloved coffee plant, whose cherry yields two opposing beans, lends itself to two storylines.

An ancient kingdom named Abyssinia once ruled the land we now call Ethiopia. Abyssinia also ruled part of Eritrea, and at one point, even Yemen. In this kingdom grew the plant which gave coffee to the world.

Where, precisely, did coffee originate?

Historical and botanical texts tell us that the coffee plant first took root in fertile Ethiopia. However, a minority report in W. Ukers’ All About Coffee says that the plant may have grown elsewhere before or at the same time. The coffee plant could have first originated in nearby Yemen, on the opposite side of the Gateway of Tears (the narrow strait between Yemen and Ethiopia). If that were true, then coffee would have made its way across the strait with ancient Abysinnians settlers.

We may never know if the minority report is true, but the parallel whispers of history are worth exploring. For instance, you may have heard of the Ethiopian myth behind coffee’s discovery, the one of Kaldi the goat-herder.

As the legend goes, Kaldi found goats of unusual friskiness and vigor. Upon investigation, he found that coffee cherries were the source of their extraordinary vim, and so discovered the original coffee plant. What you may not know is that Yemen has its own counter-myth, citing how one of its Sufi monks discovered coffee:

A monk spotted birds of unusual energy one day. He traced their vigor to the coffee cherries they ate, and tested them on himself. He experienced their power and so discovered the enhancing properties of coffee.

The history of coffee also runs parallel to the rise and fall of ancient kingdoms. It mirrors the light and shadow of human civilization, and it begins with a humble plant crossing the gateway of tears into the wider world.

Once kept in the iron grip of jealous early cultivators, coffee eventually broke free of the Mediterranean basin, and journeyed to India’s Mysore Mountains- a story I shall save for another day.

 

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