How Coffee Was Discovered

Everything which has been around for a long time seems to share a common trait: the more distant its origin lies, the murkiest how it was first discovered becomes. The logic is quite straight-forward: since it’s been as old as human history – even before the invention of writing language – the hard facts and historical evidence tend to be quite scarce. As a result, the answer to ‘How X was Discovered’ might heavily rely on legends, speculations, best guesses, rather than well supported rational analysis. This just applies to coffee, the most widely drunk beverage around the world.

So how was coffee discovered? There’re two possible legends or explanations. One of them is The legend of Kaldi, which I’ve read from two sources: one version from Coffee Legends on the Turkish Coffee website – by the way, the website is great and I’ve learnt quite a bit about how to make Turkish coffee from Mario Baker, the creator -, the other version is from The Coffee Dictionary by Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood on my Kindle. The two versions basicly share the same story on the discovery of coffee and are summarized as below :

Mario Baker’s Version

A young Abyssinian (Ethiopian today) shepherd named Kaldi noticed his goats jumped in a playful mood after eating some red berries from a bush. After consuming these bitter berries as well, Kaldi found himself alert and full of energy. So he picked and gave some berries to his wife. She felt the same effect and they thought it was a gift from God. After a few days, Kaldi took some fruits and leaves to a nearby monastery and told his experience to the monks. One of them followed Kaldi for confirmation. Having found it was true, he convinced other monks to cook the fruit and the leaves. However, the beverage was so terrible that they threw the remains into fire, thinking they were devil’s work. But a splendid aroma rose up from the fire and the monks relized the correct way to cook the beverage was roasting and boiling the grains, and by drinking it, they could stay awake for praying all night. Hence, coffee was discovered.

Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood’s Version

An Arab Ethiopian goatherd called Kaldi, found his goats dancing in the forest in south-west Ethiopia around ninth century. Kalti consumed the same bright-red cherry his goats ate and noticed the stimulating effect, dancing along with his goats. He then took the seeds to a nearby monastery. A monk disapproved of their use and threw them onto a fire. The resulted aroma was so enticing that the beans were raked from the fire and ground and dissolved in water to create the first cup of coffee.

As you may have noticed, the two versions above share some common grounds while being different from each other in several details. In the version of Mario Baker, Kaldi was married but Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood didn’t mention Kaldi got a wife (maybe that was why he was dancing along with his excited goats which didn’t happen in Baker’s story). Meanwhile, in Colonna-Dashwood’s story, Kaldi lived in the ninth century but this detail was missing in Baker’s version. Each of the two described the rudimentary preparation and cooking way of coffee (though not quite the same) and I sum them up as follows:

  1. The raw coffee (fruits, leaves or beans) was not tasty but invigorating;
  2. After burning in fire and dissolving in water, the cooked coffee turned into something delicious with pleasant aroma.
  3. The discovery of coffee has strong relation to religion (monks from a monastery were included in both versions) and I think it’s enough to say that it is the monks who discovered the proper way to cook coffee (not Kaldi actually).

The other legend – The Legend of Omar the Dervish – was also from Mario Baker’s website which I mentioned above, and it changed tremendously coffee’s origin. According to this legend, coffee was discovered in the City of Mocha in Yemen and its discoverer Omar was not a shepard but someone whose abilities were to cure people by the use of traditional medicines and praying to Allah. His power annoyed the Ruler and he was forced to leave the city. In the desert, he picked some cherries to eat but found they were very bitter, so Omar decided to roast the beans and place them in hot water. After having drunk the liquid to satisfy his hunger and thirst, he suddenly gained enormous strength that lasted for days. Omar then gave his ‘magical beverage’ to patients who came to him for medical treatment and they insisted Omar’s survival in exile is a religious sign. So Omar was summoned by the Ruler to return to Mocha. Religious authoroties proclaimed him as Saint and the plant and the black drink were named Mocha to honor this event.

Though the legend of Omar seems rather different from Kaldi’s – for instance, the motherland of coffee was moved to Yemen from Ethiopia -, the three general conclusions shown above apply well to the story of Omar: the raw coffee was roasted and mixed up with water to produce a tasty drink and it was closely connected to religous backgrounds (monks or religous authoroties). Coincidence or not?

Which legend is true? Kaldi or Omar? Or both?


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