Mountain Goats

There are several legendary accounts of the origin of the coffee beverage, but the most popular one is attributed to an Ethiopian goat herder called Kaldi.

One day in about 850AD he noticed his goats acting particularly frisky after feeding on the ripe berries from a bush that was later to be known as an arabica bush. He tried the berries himself and had a similarly uplifting experience.

The local monks somehow heard about his story and soon started eating the berries themselves – as a means to help them to stay awake during long periods of prayer. They went on to find that, if they were crushed and infused with water, the berries could produce a (probably cold) drink that gave a similar stimulating effect. It is presumed that the monks started sharing their knowledge of this drink with other monasteries and so the collecting and use of coffee berries grew throughout the region.

‘Magic’ berries

Knowledge of these ‘magic’ berries was soon to spread across the Bab-el-Mandeb straits (at the southern end of the Red Sea) to the Middle Eastern country of Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula. It did not take long for the Yemeni Arabs to start cultivating the coffee plants and begin to use the berries for personal use and financial gain.

It may well be that coffee became very popular in the area due to restrictions of the Muslim religion, which forbids the consumption of alcoholic beverages.

The uplifting properties of coffee, being not dissimilar to the effects of moderate alcohol intake, made it an acceptable substitute. No doubt this is the origin of the term ‘Wine of Araby’ or ‘Arabian Wine’ for the coffee drink.

Not until between 1000AD and 1200AD (probably in Arabia) was it discovered that, by roasting and crushing the bean of the cherry, and then infusing it with hot water, a delicious drink similar to the coffee of today could be made.

Coffee enters the vocabulary

The actual word “coffee” appears to have entered the English language some 400 years ago from the Italian ‘caffe’. This word may be derived from the Turkish ‘kahve’, which in turn came from the Arabic ‘gahwa’ or ‘gahhwat al-bun’ meaning ‘wine of the bean’.

The Ethiopian name for coffee is still ‘buna’. Alternatively the name could have come from the Kingdom of Kaffa, which was a region of Ethiopia at the time the coffee plant was first discovered.

The names of the two most common types of coffee plant are coffea arabica and coffea robusta (more correctly known as coffea canefora), the former name meaning a coffee plant from Arabia and the latter meaning a resilient or ‘robust’ coffee plant.