The story of coffee has its beginnings in Ethiopia, the original home of the coffee plant, coffee arabica, which still grows wild in the forest of the highlands. While nobody is sure exactly how coffee
was originally discovered as a beverage,it is believed that its cultivation and use began as early as the 9th century. Some authorities claim that it was cultivated in the Yemen earlier, around AD 575. The only thing that seems certain is that it originated in Ethiopia, from where it traveled to the Yemen about 600 years ago, and from Arabia it began its journey around the world.
Among the many legends that have developed concerning the origin of coffee, one of the most popular account is that of Kaldi, an Abyssinian goatherd, who lived around AD 850. One day he observed his goats behaving in abnormally exuberant manner, skipping, rearing on their hindlegs and bleating loudly. He noticed they were eating the bright red berries that grew on the green bushes nearby.
Kaldi tried a few himself, ad soon felt a novel sense of elation. He filled his pockets with the berries and ran home to announce his discovery to his wife. ‘ They are heaven-sent, ’ she declared. ‘ You must take them to the Monks in the monastery. ’
Kaldi presented the chief Monk with a handful of berries and related his discovery of their miraculous effect. ‘ Devil’s work! ’ exclaimed the monk, and hurled the berries in the fire.
Within minutes the monastery filled with the heavenly 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 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 and fragrant brew, and from that day vowed they would drink it daily to keep them awake during their long, nocturnal devotions.
While the legends attempt to condense the discovery of coffee and its development as a beverage into one story, it is believed that the monks of Ethiopia may have chewed on the berries as a stimulant for centuries before it was brewed as a hot drink.
Another account suggests that coffee was brought to Arabia from Ethiopia, by Sudanese slaves who chewed the berries en route to help them survive the journey. There is some evidence that coffee was ground and mixed with butter, and consumed like chocolate for sustenance, a method reportedly used by the Galla tribe of Ethiopia, which lends some credence to the story of the Sudanese slaves. The practice of mixing ground coffee beans with ghee (clarified butter) persists to this day in some parts of Kaffa and Sidamo, two of the principle coffee producing regions of Ethiopia,. And in Kaffa, from which its name derives, the drink is brewed today with the addition of melted ghee which gives it a distinctive, buttery flavor.
Coffee from Sidamo in the south has an unusual flavor and is very popular, especially the beans known as Yirgacheffes. In many ways Ethiopian coffee is unique, having neither excessive pungency nor the acidity of the Kenyan brands. It is closest in character to the Mocha coffee of the Yemen, with which it supposedly shares a common origin, and it cannot be high roasted or its character is destroyed. The best Ethiopian coffee may be compared with the finest coffee in the world, and premium washed arabica beans fetch high prices on the world market. No visit to Ethiopia is complete without participating in the elaborate coffee ceremony that is Ethiopia's traditional form of hospitality. Invariably conducted by a beautiful young girl in traditional Ethiopian costume, the ceremonial apparatus is arranged upon a bed of long grasses. The green beans are roasted in a pan over a charcoal brazier, the rich aroma of coffee mingling with the heady smell of incense that is always burned during the ceremony. The beans are then pounded with a pestle and mortar, and the ground coffee then brewed in a black pot with a narrow spout.
Traditional accompaniments are popcorn, also roasted on the fire, and the coffee is sugared to be drunk from small handless cups.
Such fascinating ranges of experience made Ethiopia a truly land of discovery.