Origins of the Bean

Coffee has influenced the world significantly. It has played a role in politics, history, economics, philosophy and technology over the past 1000 years. It is believed that coffee was first discovered in either Ethiopia or Yemen approximately 2000 years ago. Coffee’s discovery is attributed to a young goat herder named Kali. Legend has it that Kali witnessed his herd nibbling on the cherries that surround the coffee bean. He also noticed that they seemed very frisky after doing so. Kali tried the fruit for himself, and feeling energized, he brought some back for the village elders to try. Interestingly enough the Yemenis have developed their own legend about the discovery of coffee. Their story centers around a man named Omar who was exiled far away from the city and condemned to die. Omar, in an attempt to sustain himself, ate the beans and subsequently gained enough energy to travel all the way back to the city. The city elders perceived Omar’s survival to be divinely ordained, and once again permitted him to live within the city walls.Coffee’s dissemination was greatly enabled by the growth and spread of Islam. As Muhammad and his successors unified North Africa and the Middle East under this new, Monotheistic religion they discovered and then subsequently spread the use of coffee beans throughout the region. Though unknown for certain, historians speculate that this was the time that the beans were dried, roasted, and ground into a drink that resembled how we consume coffee today.

Coffee became a highly traded commodity in North Africa. Some speculate that by the 15th century coffee shops were beginning to emerge. However, several Muslim leaders feared that coffee consumption led to insubordination and law breaking. In some regions, coffee was even outlawed. However, once the Ottoman Turks took over and unified the region under a single Islamic banner coffee was once again legalized everywhere.The Turks realized how valuable a commodity coffee was. This stimulant had the ability to motivate people and give them increased boosts of energy and at this point the Turks had a monopoly on the bean. The Turks passed strict laws on coffee exportation because they wanted to ensure that coffee was not grown anywhere outside of Yemen. In order to maintain their monopoly the coffee cherries had to first be boiled in water, or partially roasted before being shipped to Suez, the overland to Alexandria for trading with European ports. This monopoly fostered a black market for unvarnished beans and records show that eventually some beans escaped Yemen and were planted in India.

Coffee beans grown and exported from the coffee belt

Click the above image for information on the coffee belt