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Sheikhs, Monks and Dancing Goats: The Historical Origins of Coffee

What is the craziest coffee story you have ever heard? How do you think the drink became one of the most popular beverages of earth and your go-to day starter? Over time, songs, books, and even theatrical performances like the all-popular coffee cantata have done their best to explain the origins of coffee.

Today, coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world and is a key force in the development of global economies. In this article, we look at its origin, its spread across the world, the challenges the commodity has had to overcome and what the future holds for your favorite morning beverage.

We start by looking at two of the most popular theories explaining the origin and spread of coffee. Was it discovered by dancing Abyssinian goats, or an exiled sheikh?

The dancing goats theory

History has it that there was an Abyssinian (now Ethiopia) herder named Kaldi who, whilst out at pasture with his goats, noticed that the animals grew over excited and even began to dance after eating the red berries of the coffee plant. They would be so energetic that they would not sleep at night. Kaldi shared his observations with the head of a local monastery who boiled the berries and brewed what is believed to be the first ever coffee. The monk confirmed that the brew kept him alert through the long hours of the night. It is believed that he shared the news with the other monks in the monastery and the drinks then began to spread from there to become one of the most traded commodities around.

Port Mocha soon became the biggest trading point for coffee from East Africa making its way to Europe and Asia. The next time you ask for a Mocha, you now know where it draws its name from.

Mocha Sheikh

coffee plant, beans and a cup

Dancing goats and monks aside, another less popular theory has it that coffee was first brewed by Sheikh Omar, a healer from what would now be modern-day Yemen. Lore has it that while in exile from Mocha and living in a cave near Ousab, the sheikh grew hungry and decided to chew on some coffee berries. They were bitter and so he decided to roast them but that only served to harden them. He then decided to boil them and this resulted in a brown liquid that granted him a sense of energy and alertness.

Sharing the discovery with the Mocha leaders saw him allowed back to the community. From here, the drink spread to Persia, Egypt, Turkey, and Syria where it was referred to as the âWine of Araby. Once it made its way to Mecca, the holy city, it was only a matter of time before the pilgrims gained knowledge and spread coffee to the rest of the world.

Given that both of these stories predate any modern civilization and the lack of written records, it is hard to quantify the truthfulness of any theory.

Coffee's voyage across the world

As the drink’s popularity grew, the demand for the Ethiopian Highlands coffee grew. In order to reach the rest of the world (mostly Europe and Asia), coffee has to pass through the Middle East. Yemen and its Mocha seaport in particular would play the biggest role in the distribution of coffee across the globe.

From the Middle East to Europe

The advent of coffee as a beverage started in the 15th century and by the 17 century there were more than 300 public coffee houses in Britain. It first showed up at Oxford University in 1637 and gained popularity among teachers and students who established the famous Oxford Coffee Club, which eventually became The Royal Society. In 1652 the first public coffee house was set up in London and by 1660, coffee and coffeehouses were a firm part of English culture.

Europe to the Americas

British explorers began to ship coffee to the new world when the first public coffee house was set up in New Amsterdam (modern-day New York) in 1696. From North America, coffee made its way to Brazil and Jamaica by 1730. By the turn of the 19th century, coffee had become one of the most valued and most popular commodities in the world.

Hindrances to the influence of coffee on social cultures of the world

historic coffee

Did you know that coffee houses were once so popular that Arab rulers in Egypt, Ethiopia, Mecca, and Cairo banned coffee in fear of a possible revolution stemming from the public coffee houses? To avoid retribution, most of these leaders disguised their reasons for banning coffee and coffee houses under the religion, claiming that it was a drug due to its stimulating effect.

In Europe, women were opposed to coffee arguing that husbands had abandoned them and their duties. They had run away to the public coffee houses where they discussed political, economic, and religious issues. Due to the fact that women were banned from coffee houses, a group of Parisian women in 1669 took the Women’s Petition Against Coffee to the Turkish Ambassador in Paris.

Little known facts about coffee

The public coffee houses of the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries were considered to be schools of wisdom. Men from many walks of life would flock these public to spaces to discuss every kind of topic shaping nation and culture.

Coffee also helped shape modern-day fair trade practices. The drink’s popularity saw it become one of the most traded commodities of all time and this prompted rulers and merchants to come up with fair trade practices to control its sale within their kingdoms.

What’s more, coffee has been called ‘the first internet’. Long before print media, radio or televisions, all you needed to get up to date with national and global politics was to pay a visit to a coffee house. Here, liberal religious leaders, political leaders, and laymen interacted freely and discussed the events of the day.

What is the future of coffee?

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, more beverages flooded the market but none has been able to knock coffee off its number one spot. While we no longer have the revered public coffee houses, the brown berry brew has permeated virtually every home on the planet. Going into the future, one can only expect its dominance to soar even higher.


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