Where was coffee first discovered and grown? How did it get to Australia? We answer all these questions and more in this brief look at the uncertain and tumultuous historical path of coffee over the past 1000 years.
The ‘who’, ‘where’ and ‘how’ questions that surround the origin, discovery and spread of coffee are, to say the least, highly contentious. There are numerous legends and contradicting timelines, with very little verified information and even less written on coffee in the West before the 1800s – a few centuries after coffee’s initial introduction into Europe.
The most popular legend of coffee’s discovery tells of a goat herder whose goats ate the berries off an evergreen shrub and became hyperactive. In most tellings of the legend, the goat herder is an Ethiopian named Kaldi (also referred to as an Abyssinian, Abyssinia being the previous name of the region now known as Ethiopia), and in others he is a Yemeni or Arabian goat herder with no name. In some versions, a popular myth throughout 1800-1870 (read J. F. Gerard 'An Historical and Entertaining Treatise on Coffee' (1833) or Edmund C. P. Hull 'Coffee: Its Physiology, History, and Cultivation' (1865) for more details), featured the goat herder taking the berries to the local monastery or monks (these stories have included the monks of Lake Tana in Ethiopia, Syrian monks and Arabian monks) or the Mufti.
So what is the true story? Considering it has been over 1000 years since coffee’s proposed discovery, it can be impossible to say, but there are some sources that are more reliable than others. Professor Nkiru Nzegwu of the Department of Africana Studies at Binghampton University, and previous recipient of the Cornell University and Smithsonian Institute Fellowships, writes that Ethiopian ancient history indicates Kaldi the goat herder lived around the year 850 AD:
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. (Nzegwu, n.p.)
This early discovery can be shocking for many, especially considering coffee’s late introduction to Europe in the 1600s, however, Arabian scientific documents dated around 900 AD are one of the first written references to 'buna', which is Ethiopian brewed coffee, though it is believed that coffee was consumed in other forms in Kaffa (the widely accepted birthplace of the coffee plant and region in Ethiopia) and by other ethnic groups, such as the Oromo people. They would mix the ground roasted coffee with clarified butter or flesh or the cherries with animal fat, they created small portions of food that were easy to travel with, lasted for some time and provided considerable sustenance. Clearly Arabian nations were not only aware that coffee existed, but enjoyed the beverage during their trade journeys, however, coffee was not reported to be planted outside Ethiopia until the late 15th century and no one knows the reasons for this 600 year delay in the spread of coffee.
Spread it did though, when in 1454 the Mufti of Aden (a sea port town in Yemen) visited Ethiopia and witnessed his citizens drinking coffee. Trying it himself, he was cured of a mysterious ailment (possibly the source of Arabian reiterations of the Kaldi discovery legend) and his approval made the drink even more popular in Yemen. It was used in religious ceremonies and made its way to Mecca in the very early 1500s where it became a trendy social drink – thus the first coffee houses and the style of café society that would develop in Europe more than a century later were born. The popularity of coffee spurred public debate, with many devote Muslims protesting coffee as being an intoxicating drink like alcohol, and thus forbidden by the Q’ran. Nzegwu writes that the debate over coffee came to a head in 1511 and was banned by the governer of Mecca, Khair Beg. The issue was eventually resolved by the Sultan of Cairo and reprimanded him for banning the drink, which was legal and widely enjoyed in Cairo, without consulting a superior. Following allegations of embezzlement against Khair Beg, the Sultan was put to death for his crimes in 1522 and the primary opponent of coffee in Mecca was defeated.
Throughout the 1600s, coffee began to enter Europe from a number of sources. According to Nzegwu, Venetian traders introduced coffee into Italy around 1615. The Dutch are reported to have procured coffee at Mocha and smuggled it into Amsterdam via Batavia, and according to Edmund C. P. Hull, a published expert on coffee in the 1860s, coffee was brought to England by a Turkish merchant by the name of Daniell Edwards. The questions of where and who established the first coffee house in England is also debated amongst historians. By whatever method, coffee spread to Europe and by the end of the 1600s coffee houses were readily established and enjoyed ongoing and widespread popularity. The 1700s was a period of coffee fashionability, spreading to France and further North and East. Coffee became the subject of intense scholarly interest, and it is between mid-1700s and mid-1800s that coffee related literature starts to be widely published. It is at this time, that many of Europe’s assumptions about where coffee came from were challenged by a Scottish adventurer and writer, James Bruce. At this time, because all of Europe’s coffee had been introduced from Arabic countries (hence the name Arabica coffee), all experts were of the agreement that coffee originated in Arabia.
James Bruce discovered coffee actually originated in Ethiopia when he set out on a perilous journey to map the Blue Nile in 1769, a journey he almost didn’t survive. His travelogue, published in 1790, claimed Kaffa as the origin of coffee plants, but was widely mocked by ‘experts’ of his time. According to Jeff Koehler, the 2016 IACP award-winning author of 'Darjeeling' (2015), the myth of Arabia being the origin of coffee persisted up until the 1960s when scientists officially confirmed that Arabica varietals originated and grew wild in the southwestern highlands of Ethiopia:
The long-held, and often still-believed, narrative that Arabica coffee… came from Arabia is wrong. It came from the southwestern cloud forests a few hundred miles from Addis Ababa. (...) Part of the reasons for attributing this to the Arabs is that there was no early written evidence of coffee being drunk in Kafa. The local language had no script until the 1990s (…) With the area difficult to reach and the long-unwelcoming attitude of rulers in Ethiopia and also in Kafa itself, Western travellers didn’t make it to the area until the mid-nineteenth century. The coffee forests remained unvisited by Westerners until the 1930s. (iv-v)
COFFEE IN AUSTRALIA
According to the National Geographic, coffee came to Australia on the first fleet in 1788, but as traditional tea drinkers, it would be almost a century before coffee became part of Australian culture.
Moving into the 1870s, coffee became popular due to the fashionable rise of Parisian coffee shops and the lobbying of the Temperance Movement, a movement of Christian women in Melbourne who protested anti-social drunken behaviour. This female-led movement managed to force pubs to close at 6pm, paving the way for quick and easy success of the city’s coffee palaces. The coffee palaces were ornate and became the social grounds of Australian society, the trend quickly spreading to other cities like Sydney. In fact, Crema Coffee Garage owner and Managing Director, Tim Peters’ great-grandfather, Austin Samuel Callachor, was a coffee and tea merchant in Circular Quay in Sydney who owned the First Call coffee venue.
Espresso first came to Australia in the 1930s with Italian immigrants, although espresso and the European café culture - which had existed for more than two centuries abroad - didn’t become popular in Australia until around the 1950s, following an influx of WWII European immigrants. Australian coffee culture grew steadily throughout the 70s and 80s, and increased exponentially in the 90s. Following several decades of continued growth in the café sector, there was a nationwide explosion and maturation of coffee culture in Australia, and today Australia is frequently ranked as producing some of the best coffee in the world. In fact, we’ve come to love coffee so much we invented our own coffee beverage – Australian barista, Alan Preston, coined the term flat white in 1985 which has now become a global phenomenon over the past decade (a New Zealand barista has also laid claim to coining the phrase to refer to a ‘failed cappuccino’, but this was in 1989 - 4 years after Preston).
Contemporary café culture in Australia is typically third wave with increasing concerns over ethical coffee, an ongoing love affair with single origins and an ever discerning taste which requires roasters to pay closer attention to the desired roast and taste profiles their customers enjoy. Not to mention, pour overs and cold brew coffee are becoming an expectation, rather than an exception, in the Australian market. With no sign of slowing down any time soon, our coffee culture and education in all things coffee is only just beginning in Australia.
 Ethiopia: The Origin of Coffee, Adapted from Selamta, The In-Flight Magazine of Ethiopian Airlines. 1996. Edited by Professor Nkiru Nzegwu.
 Coffee: Its Physiology, History, and Cultivation: Adapted as a Work of Reference for Ceylon, Wynaad, Coorg and The Neilgherries. 1985, Edmund C. P. Hull. Published by the Gantz Brothers.
 Where the Wild Coffee Grows: The Untold Story of Coffee from the Cloud Forests of Ethiopia to Your Cup. 2017, Jeff Koehler. Published by Bloomsbury Publishing, USA.
-Coffee: A Comprehensive Guide to the Bean, the Beverage, and the Industry. 2013. Edited by Robert W. Thurston, Jonathan Morris and Shawn Steiman. Published by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
-Ethiopia: History, Culture and Challenges. 2017. Edited by Sigbert Uhlig, David Appleyard, Alessandro Bausi, Steven Kaplan, and Wolfgang Hahn. Published by LIT Verlag Münster.
-The History of Coffee, Including a Chapter on Chicory. 1850. William Law of Edinburgh, Coffee Merchant to the Queen. Published/Reprinted by William and George Law.
-An Historical and Entertaining Treatise on Coffee, Its First Discovery, Its Virtues, and the Mode of Roasting and Preparing it for Use. 1833. J. F. Gérard. Published by C. Baynes.