Knocking back your favorite gourmet coffee may seem like second nature to you, and it does for millions of caffeine drinkers around the world, but this wasn’t always the case. In fact, you could say that the discovery of coffee wasn’t a human endeavor at all. That accolade goes to Capra Aegagrus Hircus, also known as the domesticated goat.

Okay, maybe we pushed it a little far there, because while a goat could probably grind beans down with its hooves, they haven’t quite mastered the rest of the coffee making process just yet. No, as legend has it, a young Abyssinian goatherd named Kaldi (or Khalid) noticed some of his goats were feasting on the berries of a particular tree type, on his native Ethiopian plateau. Kaldi was the first to observe the stimulating properties of coffee in 850 AD, when his coffee cherry munching goats maintained a level of energy that prevented them from sleeping.

Kaldi was standing on a world changing discovery in the ancient coffee forests of east Africa. This was a familiar place to him, but little did he know that these trees did not grow anywhere else on the planet. Smart enough to see the invigorating effects on his animals, he tried them himself and could feel a similar effect rising within him. Kaldi approached the abbot of the local monastery in Kaffa, who despite initially laughing off his claims and throwing the cherries into a fire, was soon overcome by the glorious scent of roasting coffee. The abbot and his fellow monks scrambled to rescue the charred cherries from the glowing embers, and took a moment to bask in the divine aroma that captivates us to this very day.

Back in those days, monks were master beverage manufacturers, with monasteries producing beer as far back as the 5th century. It didn’t take much to realise that Kaldi was on to something, and before long, they were infusing the coffee cherries into water. The resulting brew kept the pious preachers up well past evening prayer, and along with it, the exciting news of this discovery began to spread towards the Arabian Peninsula.

Variations of this tale are widely quoted as the beginning of the human obsession with coffee, but the earliest written form of Kaldi’s legend didn’t arrive until the 17th Century! So while it makes for a nice story, the chances are that it may just be a bit of fun that was passed down the generations. That said, elements of the story certainly draw from solid evidence.

We know for sure that the ancient forests of Ethiopia were the only place to get access to coffee trees. Tribes in other areas of the country, such as the Galla, were mixing the berries with other products soon after Kaldi’s Kaffa revelation. They weren’t making coffee though, instead they produced the 9th Century equivalent of a ‘power bar’. By mixing the cherries with a clarified butter substance called Ghee, the Galla tribe would seek a boost by chewing on the set mixture. In the present day, this snacking tradition continues with the descendants of the tribe taking advantage of coffees ‘medicinal’ properties.

Other legends exist regarding the origin of coffee, but rarely hold as much weight as the Kaldi story. This is mainly because they contain historical fallacies, such as the discovery of coffee trees in Yemen, which have been debunked based on the age of cultivated coffee in the country. The most interesting version, involves a Sufi exile named Sheikh Omar, who was sent to live in a cave after upsetting everyone during a period of ‘moral transgression’. This time, instead of goats, the coffee was energizing birds and Omar decided to try the coffee cherries out for himself. He found them bitter to taste, so intentionally roasted them. He still couldn’t chew them properly after this, so he tried boiling them to soften them up, and there it was, the first cup of coffee.

Shortly after the ensuing eureka moment, Omar was ordered back to the people who kicked him out of his home city, Mocha. Not only did they love the coffee, but they lifted his exile as a reward. They didn’t stop there either, Omar was soon accredited with supplying a miracle and was declared a saint! It’s a bit of a rags-to-riches story, and working out that a flock of birds is more energetic than normal is beyond my expertise, but a good story nonetheless.

Yemeni legends generally agree that the coffee tree itself originated in Ethiopia. While the Kaldi story claims the first discovery took place in 9th Century, some claim Yemen was cultivating coffee in the 6th Century. It is hard to substantiate any of those claims fully, as the first concrete evidence of a coffee trade doesn’t appear until mid-15th Century Yemen.

Two things are for sure though. Ethiopia was home to the original coffee trees and Yemen was the birthplace of the $100 billion dollar coffee industry we have today. Sadly, in modern times these two ancient giants have fallen by the wayside, as the coffee revolution eventually went global.

While Ethiopian coffee regularly champions gourmet varietals at world tasting festivals, lack of investment had dwindled competition against the advanced industrialization of other countries. That is not necessarily a bad thing for the coffee drinker though, as the Ethiopian farmers use more traditional methods and maintain their artisanal flair. Times are changing though, with a 54% increase in exports since 2013, making them the 11th most prolific coffee exporter in the world. As the biggest producer on the continent, the Amharic nation currently turns out $938 million (2017) of coffee every year.

Over in Yemen, the troubled Middle Eastern state is the poorest in the region. While the oil trade is just about keeping them afloat, the coffee industry brings in just $18.1 million (2017) per year. That’s $5 million less than the Republic of Ireland! The history of Yemen is steeped in coffee folklore, but it hasn’t been maintained in order to keep up with the new Latin American superpowers. In comparison, Brazil and Colombia hold a combined share of $7.1 billion dollars, controlling a staggering 22% of the entire world coffee trade.

Next, we will take a look at the spread of the coffee trade and how it revolutionized the world economy.

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