Love in the time before caffeine: How the coffee trade began

If it is possible to stretch your thoughts back to a time before coffee, then it might even be possible to imagine how the coffee bean as we know it came about. Although we will never know for sure, one thing we can assume with certainty is that since its birth, the coffee bean has held the interest of all who have come into contact with it ever since.

An attractive, round, red berry at first the coffee bean comes cross as being quite inconspicuous, fruity and innocent. Yet as we have since learned many times over, red often does spell trouble. It is said that an innocent herd of goats first discovered the might of the red berry. A goatherd named Kaldi who traversed the hills of Ethiopia, where the Coffea plant is indigenous, apparently noticed a change in the behaviour of his herd once they had munched away at the berries on the strange tree. After chewing on the red berries his goats were suspiciously wide awake until all hours of the morning. Kaldi reported this behaviour back to the abbot, who was quick to dismiss the findings as rubbish. With anger he threw the berries into his fire. Soon afterwards a strange aroma was released as the berries seemed to roast into a brown colour. The beans were then rescued from the fire and once cooled were crushed and mixed with boiling water. The abbot agreed to taste this exotic smelling liquid. He found that he was able to stay alert and read his prayers way into the night. Excited at this finding, the berries were quickly introduced and the first coffee beverages were served. Although this story is said to have taken place in the 9th century it does not appear in any scriptures until 1671.

There is a different version of how the coffee drink came about; one that begins in Yemen – also a likely region for the origins of coffee. In the region of Mocha lived a Sheik named Omar. He was known for his healing powers and was able to cure the sick through prayer alone. He was exiled to a secluded cave where he began to starve to death. Desperate, he found some berries and chewed them ravenously. He experimented with the bitter red berry fruit, trying to find a more pleasant way to consume them. At first he roasted them however they hardened and were to difficult to chew even though their aroma was appealing. He then boiled them and found they reduced to a brown liquid which he drank. The liquid is said to have sustained him for days on end. Word quickly reached the town about the miracle substance that Omar had discovered. He was brought out of his seclusion and apparently made a saint upon his return, having discovered the ‘miracle drug’ that we now call coffee!

Whether you prefer Omar’s version or Kaldi’s or a mixture of the two, your imagination will have to be called in to fill in some of the gaps along the way. And while we will never really know, we do know that coffee is now one of the world’s strongest commodities. So how did the trade begin?

Well if there was a mysterious miracle drug that everyone was talking about – wouldn’t you want some? Everyone from the abbot to the healers are raving about its ability to keep them alert. Imagine that- something that actually keeps you awake and makes you feel as though you’ve just consumed a meal when all you have rally done is had a few sips of a brown liquid…how far would you travel to get a taste of this stuff? What lengths would you go to? Call in your imagination once again and ask the question: what would you do for a cup of coffee first thin in the morning, before the stress of the day begins? So imagine what the people of Ethiopia and Yemen would have done once word got out that these incredible berries when prepared properly were magically transformed into a wonderful power drink? You would gather your forces, combine your thoughts and concoct ways to get your hands on some coffee seeds! Especially since alcohol was a banned substance in he Muslim world- still is- the new coffee beverage was an exciting, non-alcoholic alternative.

Once word escaped the air of the Ethiopian highlands…or the villages of Yemen, news travelled instantly about the mysterious bean and everyone wanted to try it. The coffee trade was born, having originated in the region of Arabia. Because it was highly sought after yet still a little suspicious to some, it had to be smuggled out of some places and into others. The first record of coffee bean smuggling was from Yemen to India in 1670 by Sufi Baba Budan. And that was the beginning of the beginning of how coffee spread throughout the world, from Italy to the rest of Europe and then Indonesia.

Today coffee no longer has to be smuggled yet it is more desirable and in higher demand than it has ever been before. In its green state, coffee beans are amongst the highest commodity in the trading world. As roasting methods become more and more advance and bespoke, coffee beans keep getting better and better.

It is still difficult to imagine a world half asleep, a substance-free world that ran on air and clean food, without petrol fumes or processed meats. And that all sounds well and good, but a world without coffee… would you really want to imagine that?

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