Ethiopia: The Origin of Coffee
Adapted from Selamta, The In-Flight Magazine of Ethiopian Airlines
Edited By Professor Nkiru Nzegwu
Abyssinia, now Ethiopia, is the original home of the coffee (arabica) plant. Kaffa, the province in the south-western highlands where they first blossomed, gave its name to coffee. The formal cultivation and use of coffee as a beverage began early in the 9th century. Prior to that, coffee trees grew wild in the forests of Kaffa, and many in the region were familiar with the berries and the drink. According to Ethiopia’s ancient history, an Abyssinian goatherd, Kaldi, who lived around AD 850, discovered coffee. He observed his goats prancing excitedly and bleating loudly after chewing the bright red berries that grew on some green bushes nearby. Kaldi tried a few berries himself, and soon felt a sense of elation. He filled his pockets with the berries and ran home to announce his discovery. At his wife’s suggestion, he took the berries to the Monks in the monastery near Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile River.
Kaldi presented the chief Monk with the berries and related his account of their miraculous effect. "Devil’s work!" exclaimed the monk, and hurled the berries in the fire. Within minutes the monastery filled with the aroma of roasting beans, and the other monks gathered to investigate. The beans were raked from the fire and crushed to extinguish the embers. The chief Monk ordered the grains to be placed in the ewer and covered with hot water to preserve their goodness. That night the monks sat up drinking the rich fragrant brew and vowed that they would drink it daily to keep them awake during their long, nocturnal devotions.
While this popular account provides a religious approval for the drinking of roasted coffee berries, it is believed that Ethiopian monks were already chewing the berries as a stimulant for centuries before it was brewed. Ethiopian records establish that Ethiopian and Sudanese traders who traveled to Yemen over 600 years ago chewed the berries en route to their destination to survive the harsh difficult journey. Residents of Kaffa, as well as other ethnic groups such as the Oromo were also familiar with coffee. They mixed ground coffee with butter and consumed them for sustenance. This practice of mixing ground coffee beans with ghee (clarified butter) to give it a distinctive, buttery flavor persists to this day in parts of Kaffa and Sidamo, two of the principle coffee producing regions of Ethiopia.
Brewed coffee, the dry, roasted, ground, non-alcoholic beverage is described as Bunna (in Amharic), Bun (in Tigrigna), Buna (in Oromiya), Bono (in Kefficho), and Kaffa (in Guragigna). Arabic scientific documents dating from around 900 AD refer to a beverage drunk in Ethiopia, known as ‘buna." This is one of the earliest references to Ethiopian, coffee in its brewed form. It is recorded that in 1454 the Mufti of Aden visited Ethiopia, and saw his own countrymen drinking coffee there. He was suitably impressed with the drink which cured him of some affliction, and his approval made it popular among the dervishes of Yemen who used it in religious ceremonies and subsequently introduced it to Mecca.
The transformation of coffee as a trendy social drink occurred in Mecca through the establishment of the first coffee houses. Known as Kaveh Kanes, these coffee houses were originally religious meeting places, but soon became social meeting places for gossip, singing, and story-telling. With the spread of coffee as a popular beverage, it soon became a subject for heated debate among devout Muslims.
The Arabic word for coffee, kahwah, is also one of several words for wine. In the process of stripping the cherry husk, the pulp of the bean was fermented to make potent liquor. Some argued that the Qu'ran forbade the use of wine or intoxicating beverages, but other Muslims in favor of coffee argued that it was not an intoxicant but a stimulant. The dispute over coffee came to a head in 1511 in Mecca. The governor of Mecca, Beg, saw some people drinking coffee in a mosque as they prepared a night-long prayer vigil. Furious he drove them from the mosque and ordered all coffee houses to be closed. A heated debate ensued, with coffee being condemned as an unhealthy brew by two devious Persian doctors, the Hakimani brothers, who wanted coffee banned, because melancholic patients who otherwise would have paid the doctors to treat them, used it as a popular cure. The Mufti of Mecca spoke in defense of coffee. The issue was finally resolved when the Sultan of Cairo intervened and reprimanded the Khair Beg for banning a drink that was widely enjoyed in Cairo without consulting his superior. In 1512, when Khair Beg was accused of embezzlement, the Sultan had him put to death. Coffee survived in Mecca.
The picture of Arabic coffee houses as dens of iniquity and frivolity was exaggerated by religious zealots. In reality, the Muslim world was the forerunner of the European Café society and the coffee houses of London which became famous London clubs. They were meeting places for intellectuals, where news and gossip were exchanged and clients were regularly entertained by traditional story-tellers.
From the Arabian Peninsula, coffee traveled to the East. Muslim traders and travelers introduced coffee to Sri Lanka (Ceylon) in 1505. Fertile coffee beans, the berries with their husks unbroken, were taken to South-West India by a Baba Budan on his return from a pilgrimage to Mecca in the 17th century.
By 1517 coffee had reached Constantinople, following the conquest of Egypt by Salim I, and by 1530, it was established in Damascus. Coffee houses were opened in Constantinople in 1554, and their advent provoked religiously-inspired riots that temporarily closed them. But they survived their critics, and their luxurious interiors became a regular rendezvous for those engaged in radical political thought and dissent.
Venetian traders introduced coffee to Europe in 1615, a few years after tea which had appeared in 1610. Again its introduction aroused controversy in Italy when some clerics, in the manner of the mullahs of Mecca, suggested it should be excommunicated as it was the Devil’s drink. Fortunately, Pope Clement VIII (1592- 1605) enjoyed the drink so much that he declared that "coffee should be baptized to make it a true Christian drink." The first coffee house opened in Venice in 1683. The famous Café Florian in the Piazza San Marco, established in 1720, is the oldest surviving coffee house in Europe. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, coffee houses proliferated in Europe. Nothing quite like the coffee houses, or café, had ever existed before, the novelty of a place to enjoy a relatively inexpensive and stimulating beverage in convivial company. This established a social habit that has endured for over 400 years.
In 1650, the first coffee house in England was opened in Oxford, not London, by a man called Jacob. The coffee club established near all Souls’ College eventually becoming the Royal Society. London’s first coffee house, in St. Michael’s Alley, was opened in 1652. The most famous name in the world of insurance, Lloyds of London, began life as a coffee house in Tower Street. It was founded in 1688 by Edward Lloyd who used to prepare lists of ships that his clients had insured. With the rapid growth in popularity of coffee houses, by the 17th century, the European powers were competing with each other to establish coffee plantations in their respective colonies. In 1616 the Dutch gained a head start by taking a coffee plant from Mocha in Yemen to the Netherlands, and they began large-scale cultivation in Sri Lanka in1658. In 1699 cuttings were successfully transplanted from Malabar to Java. Samples of Java coffee plants were sent to Amsterdam in 1706, where seedlings were grown in botanical gardens and distributed to horticulturists throughout Europe.
A few years later, in 1718, the Dutch transplanted coffee to Surinam, and soon after the plant became widely established in South America, which was to become the coffee center of the world. In 1878 the story of coffee’s journey around the world came full circle when the British laid foundations of Kenya’s coffee industry by introducing plants to British East Africa right next to neighboring Ethiopia, where coffee had first been discovered 1,000 years before.
Today Ethiopia is Africa’s major exporter of Kaffa and Sidamo beans, now known as Arabica, the quality coffee of the world, and the variety that originated in Ethiopia. Coffea Arabica, which was identified by the botanist Linnaeus in 1753, is one of the two major species used in most production, and presently accounts for around 70 percent of the world’s coffee.
The other major species is Coffea Canefora, or Robusta, whose production is increasing now due to better yields from robusta trees and their hardiness against decease. Robusta coffee is mostly used in the blend, but Arabica is the only coffee to be drunk on its own unblended, and this is the type grown and drunk in Ethiopia, The arabica and robusta trees both produce crops within 3-4 years after planting and remain productive for 20-30 years. Arabica trees flourish ideally in a seasonal climate with a temperature range of 59-75 degrees Fahrenheit, whereas Robusta prefers an equatorial climate.
In Ethiopia’s province of Kaffa a large proportion of the coffee arabica trees grow wild amidst the rolling hills and forests of the fertile and beautiful region. At an altitude of 1,500 meters, the climate is ideal and the plants are well protected by the larger forest trees which provide shade from the midday sun and preserve the moisture in the soil. Traditionally, these are the ideal conditions for coffee growing. There are two main processing methods: the wet and the dry. Commercially the wet method is preferred, but the small producer who picks the cherries wild may save time by sun-drying the beans after picking them and then sell them direct to customers in the local market.
Ethiopia's distinctive coffee varieties are highly sought after. Each region's coffee tastes slightly different, according to the growing conditions. The highest grown coffee comes from Harar, where the Longberry variety is the most popular, having a wine-like flavour and tasting slightly acidic. Coffee from Sidamo in the south has an unusual flavour and is very popular, especially the beans known as Yirgacheffes. Ethiopian coffee is unique, having neither excessive pungency nor the acidity of the Kenyan brands. Mocca (the anglicized version is Mocha) coffee of Yemen is closest to the Ethiopian coffee in character since the latter shares a common origin with the beans of Kaffa and Sidamo. Ethiopian coffee is among the finest coffee in the world. Connoisseurs worldwide savor the beans from Yirgacheffe for their distinctive flavor. It cannot be high roasted so as not to destroy its character and flavor.
According to official Ethiopian sources, these are some of the unique gourmet Ethiopian coffees.
Harar coffee grows in the Eastern Highlands. The bean is medium in size, with a greenish-yellowish color. It has a medium acidity and full body and a distinctive mocha flavor. It is one of the highest premium coffees in the world.
Wollega (Nekempte) coffee grows in Western Ethiopia, and the medium-to-bold bean is mainly known for its fruity taste. It has a greenish, brownish color, with good acidity and body. There are many roasters who put this flavor in their blends, but it can also be sold as an original gourmet or special origin flavor.
Limu coffee is known for its spicy flavor and attracts many roasters. It has good acidity and body and the washed Limu is one of the premium coffees. It has a medium-sized bean, and is greenish-bluish in color and mostly round in shape.
Sidama coffee has a medium-sized bean and is greenish-grayish in color. Sidamo washed coffee, known for its balanced taste and good flavor, is called sweet coffee. It has fine acidity and a good body and is produced in the southern part of the country. It is always blended for gourmet or specialty coffee.
Yirgacheffe coffee has an intense flavor known as flora. The washed Yirgacheffe is one of the best highland grown coffees. It has fine acidity and a rich body. Roasters are attracted to its delicate fine flavor and are willing to pay a premium for it.
Lastly, there are also other coffees, such as Tepi and Bebeka, which are known for their low acidity but a better body.
Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony
No visit to Ethiopia is complete without experiencing the elaborate coffee ceremony that is Ethiopia's traditional form of hospitality. The coffee ceremony is an integral part of social life. The ceremony is typically conducted by a young woman in the traditional Ethiopian white dress with colored woven borders. The process starts with the arranging of the ceremonial apparatus on a bed of long scented grasses. The lady brings out the washed green coffee beans, proceeds to roast them in a flat pan over a charcoal brazier, shaking the roasting pan back and forth so the beans will not burn. Once the coffee beans begin to pop, the rich aroma of coffee mingles with the heady smell of incense that is always burned during the ceremony. To further heighten this sensory experience, after the coffee beans have turned black and shining and the aromatic oil is coaxed out of them, the lady takes the roasted coffee and walks around the room so that the smell of freshly roasted coffee fills the air. She returns to her seat to grind the beans with a pestle and mortar. The ground coffee is then brewed in a black pot with a narrow spout, known as jebena, filling the room with aroma.
The brewed coffee is strained through a fine sieve several times before it is served to family, friends, and neighbors who have waited and watched the procedure. The lady gracefully and expertly pours a golden stream of coffee into little cups called 'cini' (si-ni) from a height of one foot or more without spilling the beverage. The coffee is taken with plenty of sugar, complemented by a traditional snack food, such as popcorn, peanuts, or cooked barley. It is common to wait for a second and third cup of coffee. The second and third servings are important enough that each serving has a name; the first serving is called "Abol"; the second serving is "Huletegna"(second) and the third serving is "Bereka." The coffee is not ground for the second and third serving, a portion of ground coffee is usually saved for these two occasions.
Coffee ceremonies are major social events. They create a time to discuss topical issues and politics, resulting in the transformation of the spirit, given that it feeds and nurtures social relations. An ancient proverb best describes the place of coffee in Ethiopian life, "Buna dabo naw", which means "Coffee is our bread!"
Notes and References
"Ethiopian Cofee," Selamta, The In-Flight Magazine of ETHIOPIAN AIRLINES. Volume 13, Number 2 April – June 1996
"Coffee Ceremony," Ethiopian Restaurant.com http://www.ethiopianrestaurant.com/ethiopian_coffee.html
Doyle, Emily. "Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony," Epicurean.com. http://www.epicurean.com/articles/ethiopian-coffee-ceremony.html
Ethiopian Specialty Coffee, "History of Coffee," http://www.ethiopianspecialtycoffee.com/history.htm