The Legend of Coffee

According to Coffee.org¹, legend has it that in 850 A.D. a goat herder named Kaldi discovered – in the African country of Ethiopia – what we now know as the modern-day coffee plant. Kaldi wanted to know what could be responsible for the " his flock’s abnormal behaviour." Fearing his sheep were possessed, he observed the flock closely from high up on the mountain and found them feasting on little red berries from the branches of a strange tree. He tried some of the berries himself and experienced a surge of exhilaration. He rushed to tell the local Imam, and that night the two shared a brew made of the berries, danced around, and generally got high on caffeine. The legend further extended that they discovered the berries enhanced wakefulness – and wakefulness promoted prayer. Sooner than you can say espresso, the Imam and his monastery became famous throughout Arabia for the spirited praying of its coffee-drinking brethren. Other folk tales include Sheikh Al Shadilli who observed birds of unusual vitality feeding on berries, and, upon trying the berries, experienced the same vitality. Who will ever know how it was discovered…we are just glad someone did!

Ethiopian Yirgacheffe Plant

The Ethiopian Yirgacheffe Plant (photo from the Espresso and Coffee Guide Website⁴)

The first drink made from the coffee tree was allegedly a wine drink made from coffee cherries, honey, and water. According to the Oxford dictionary, the word "coffee" entered the English language in 1582 via the Dutch koffie, borrowed from the Ottoman Turkish kahve, in turn borrowed from the Arabic qahwah.

The website 214coffee.weebly.com² summarises the evolution of coffee from Ethiopia very nicely on their website.

  • It’s believed that around the 15th century, coffee plants were brought from Ethiopia over to the Arabian Peninsula by merchants. Some of the earliest coffee plantations grew in Yemeni district of Arabia and by the 16th century it was known in Persia, Egypt, Syria, and Turkey. Coffee was distributed from the port named Mocha, a name associated with coffee still to this day.
  • In the 16th century the Ottoman Empire began expanding into the Arabian Peninsula by conquering territories. Through this expansion they came across coffee and its effects. It is worthwhile to note that in the Ottoman Empire is where the first coffee houses were formed: the first coffee house is believed to have been formed in 1554 in Constantinople (Modern Day Istanbul).
  • In 17th century, the Republic of Venice (now a part of modern-day Italy) was trading significantly with the Ottoman Empire. Eventually the trade of coffee occurred. As coffee began arriving in Venice it soon began to move throughout Europe. Some people reacted to this new beverage with suspicion or fear, calling it the “bitter invention of Satan.” The local clergy condemned coffee when it came to Venice in 1615. The controversy was so great that Pope Clement VIII was asked to intervene. He decided to taste the beverage for himself before deciding, and found the drink so satisfying that he gave it papal approval. Once coffee was accepted by the Catholic Church it freely traveled all throughout Europe. In 1645 the first coffee house in Venice was opened, followed by in England in 1650 and France in 1672.
  • Up until this point the Europeans did not produce any coffee. The race among Europeans to obtain live coffee trees or beans was eventually won by the Dutch in 1616. Pieter van den Broecke, a Dutch merchant, obtained some of the closely guarded coffee bushes from Mocha, Yemen, in 1616. He took them back to Amsterdam and found a home for them in the Botanical gardens, where they began to thrive. This apparently minor event received little publicity but was to have a major impact on the history of coffee³. The Dutch continued to plant coffee plantations through Asia in areas such as Sumatra and Ceylon now Sri Lanka). Within a few years, the Dutch colonies had become the main suppliers of coffee to Europe
  • The French Navy had protection treaties with numerous countries in the North Africa which allowed them to eventually acquire coffee plants. They took these coffee plants and started plantations in Central and South America. By 1726 the first coffee harvests took place in Central America.
  • Given the U. S’ British colonial roots coffee had already made its way to the U.S. However, in the late 18th century following the Tea Act (and subsequent taxation) and the Boston Tea Party Protests, tea had become disfavoured by many Americans. Moreover, with the American Revolution following the Tea Party Protests, many Americans switched to drinking coffee. It became unpatriotic to drink tea, given its British roots. This was the beginning of the coffee culture supplanting the tea culture in the U.S.
  • By the 19th century coffee had become a worldwide commodity. Brazil had become the world’s largest coffee producer (it still is today). This was given the success of the plantations and the increased demand from the U.S.

The timeline below, as posted on 214coffee.weebly’s website gives a nice overview of how coffee migrated from Ethiopia to become a worldwide commodity.


  2. and associated references