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When was coffee discovered as a drink?

The coffee plant and the benefits of coffee berries were discovered in Ethiopia as early as the 6th century, although its real application came much later. Much of the accounts of its earliest discovery do mention the making of the coffee in much more primitive ways than we know it today.

Still, coffee roasting and brewing started as early as the 16th century as a traditional and religious practice and then in the 17th century for commercial application.

The actual documented mass drinking of coffee as a practice started in the early 15th century in Yemen’s Sufi monasteries. In this practice, Arab Sufi monks adapted coffee as a drink to make them stay awake for midnight prayers.

Coffee was therefore used in religious practices and helped them to stay awake as they fasted during the day and helped them to stay awake during religious celebrations such as Ramadan. Drinking coffee in Yemen became so popular and engraved into everyday use, to the point that coffee later became a lucrative trade item. This way, it then spread to other Islamic regions including Mecca and Cairo in Egypt.

By the 16th century, coffee reached the Middle East, North Africa, Karnataka, Persia, and Turkey. The religious leaders in Mecca, Cairo, and the Catholic Church tried to stop drinking coffee through bans in the 15th century but this did not stop the spread of the practice.

It then spread to Italy and the rest of Europe, Southern Asia, and America. Nowadays, it is practiced all over the world.

Discovery of the coffee plant and first use in Ethiopia

3 ladies selling coffee beans

We can trace the use of coffee in Ethiopia as early as the 9th century based on the legendary stories told about coffee use in Ethiopia. There are several accounts though, which is why it is hard to establish the actual origin of coffee. Nevertheless, the use of coffee in Yemen is also linked to Ethiopian merchants who exported coffee into Yemen as early as the 15th century.

In one account from the Moroccan Sufi mystic Ghothul Akbar Nooruddin, Abu al-Hasan al-Shadhili discovered coffee in the 15th century after noticing birds feeding on the berries. He decided to try the berries and experienced a similar vitality to the birds.

The Abd-Al-Kadir manuscript details a different account about the discovery of coffee in Ethiopia by a man called Oman, also a disciple of al-Shadhili. According to the account, Oman, who was known to cure the sick through prayers, discovered coffee when he tried the berries during his exile from Mecca.

Oman, who was starving, found shrubbery berries bitter and decided to try roasting coffee beans to improve the flavor. They became hard instead, and he decided to boil them, after which a brown liquid was produced. Drinking the liquid helped him stay revitalized and sustained him for days. He was asked to return to Mecca after people heard of this miraculous discovery and was even made a saint.

A different account is given stating that a goat herder called Kaldi discovered coffee’s energizing effects in his excited herd after the goats fed on it. Kaldi then brought the berries to a monk who ground them then dissolved them in water before drinking. However, this story is taken as an apocryphal since it did not appear in writing until 1671, 800 years after the event took place.

Nevertheless, the benefit of drinking coffee, including its ability to quell hunger and its energizing effects, was also well known to Ethiopian ancestors who lived in Kaffa Province. As hunters, they used coffee to keep them energized during long treks that took days. The name coffee is borrowed from the Islamic word qahwa which was a type of wine. This word is also sometimes traced from the Arabic word quwwa or Kaffa, a kingdom in Ethiopia.

However, from coffee genetic retention studies, we cannot determine where exactly in Africa coffee grew or who the first people to use it as a stimulant before the seventeenth century. The Coffee plant was originally domesticated in Harar and its native populations were in Ethiopia, Sudan, and Kenya.

Being popular within Muslim religious settings, the coffee origin was then attributed to Muhammad's birthday. Legends attributed its origin to him as having gotten it from Archangel Gabriel and brought it to man to replace wine, which was not allowed in Islam.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church imposed a ban on coffee consumption in the 18th century but attitudes towards coffee by Ethiopians softened and drinking practice spread fast in the country between 1880 and 1886.

Discovery and First use in Yemen

yemen flag with cup coffee on the side

We can trace the first earliest credible use of coffee in Yemen to the late 15th century. Sufi Imam Muhammad Ibn Said Al Dhabhani imported goods from Ethiopia to Yemen during this time. Coffee procured from Hurrar, Abyssinia, and Kaffa regions of Somalia was imported into Yemen by Somali merchants from Berbera and Zeila. In what was then British-controlled Aden, the port of Mocha became a hub for the importing of coffee from across the sea.

Sufis in Yemen used coffee to aid concentration. They also used it as a spiritual intoxication and to keep awake during night time devotions.

First coffee brewing houses

The use of coffee then spread to other Islamic and Arabic regions including Mecca, Egypt and North Africa from the Yemeni port of Mocha.

Coffee houses then sprouted up in Cairo and Syria and then Istanbul as early as the 16th century. Conservative, orthodox imams, then banned coffee in 1511 due to its stimulating effects. Ottoman Turkish Sultan Suleiman I lifted the ban in 1524 through an order to resume coffee drinking. Coffee drinking was banned in Cairo in 1532 but despite the ban, its use spread to the rest of the Middle East, the Safavid Empire and the Ottoman Empire and then to Italy and the rest of the world.

We can trace the introduction of coffee in Europe to the Island of Malta in the 16th century. Turkish Muslim slaves imprisoned by the Knights of St John in 1565 used to make coffee as their traditional beverage.

Coffee was among the goods traded through the European port, during trade deals between the Republic of Venice and the people of North Africa, Egypt, and the East. Venice's merchants then introduced coffee drinking to their city.

We can trace the opening of the first coffeehouse in Austria to Vienna, in 1683. Soon after, the use of coffee in France, Germany, India, Italy, and the Netherlands spread throughout the 16th century. The drink first appeared in America, Poland, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Japan in the 17th century.


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