[Editor's note: For a summary of coffee history with a bit less imagination—Giorgio is on to something when he imagines the first reactions that led to the cultivation and popularization of a wild plant—and more sources, please see my Joy of Coffee.]
Google "Origins of Coffee" and you get more than 8 million results. More noteworthy than sheer numbers are the differing schools of thought that click-throughs reveal, right on page one. Depending on whom you trust, coffee was discovered around the 13th century. Or the fifth century.
Coffee's history comprises yet another great debate, like preparation method and bean source; one more example of deeply felt passion for coffee on display. Such intellectual debate is entirely fitting for a beverage known to stir provocative thought. The coffeehouse's roots as a place for free idea exchange and political conversation in the 16th century Ottoman Empire are historically well established.
MORE ON COFFEE:
Corby Kummer: "Bad Parisian Coffee"
Jerry Baldwin: "Drip Coffee Secrets"
Giorgio Milos: "Moka Technique"
But I'm jumping ahead. Let me rewind, and give a very abridged version of coffee history. Hopefully, it will make your next coffee experience just a little richer.
Many of those Google results point to the legend of an Ethiopian goat shepherd named Kaldi, who noticed the strange ways his goats behaved after eating the fruit and leaves of a certain bush. The goats were jumping around and dancing, all full of energy, the story goes. Curious, Kaldi tried the fruit for himself, and felt a rush of energy. Some accounts peg the tale (real or fiction, I can't say) to around 850 AD.
We do know for sure that the coffee plant originated from a plateau in Ethiopia, given its proclivity for spontaneous growth there as nowhere else. The region is known as Kaffa. It's not clear if coffee took its name from the region, or vice versa. So it's a short leap to assume that coffee was first consumed on a large scale in Ethiopia, and to figure out roughly when. Well, not so easy, and not so fast. We can't know either for sure.
There is no documentation, so I came up my own theory. I imagine one of our starved ancestors (thousands or millions of years ago) walking around what is now Ethiopia looking for something to eat. Desperate, ravenous, he discovers a bush full of red fruit. He's a little worried. He doesn't know if it's poisonous, but left with little choice, he picks a cherry and puts it in his month. He finds a relatively un-pulpy inside, along with two big beans.
The taste is sweet, signaling nourishment. Maybe this is okay, he thinks. He continues eating until he feels satiated, and realizes he feels more than just full. He feels rested, awake; his reflexes are alive. When night comes he can't sleep. He likes this sensation—all these sensations—and decides to bring this new fruits to his people. And quite possibly from that moment, coffee (if not yet its beverage form) becomes part of his tribe's diet.
Very real echoes of this story are found today in a tradition of an Ethiopian tribe, the Galla, who regularly consume "energy balls" made by blending animal fat and macerated coffee cherries. The bottom line for coffee's history: those who consumed it early on were after the stimulant substance it contained, that alkaloid well known today as caffeine. All of coffee's legends tell of its energizing effect, from Kaldi's goats to Mahomet, who, after consuming a hot, black liquid given to him by the angel Gabriel, promptly removed 40 knights from their horses, and satisfied 40 virgins in just one day. (Take that, Viagra!)
To preserve their monopoly, Arabian coffee traders intentionally made export beans infertile by parching or boiling them before export to Europe.
The first person known to write about coffee was a Persian physician and philosopher named Rhazes or Razi (850 to 922 AD), who characterized it as a medicine. He described a beverage called bunchum, prepared with an infusion of a fruit called bunn—the Ethiopian name for a coffee cherry. Other early writings establish Yemen, on the southern part of Arabian Peninsula, just across the Red Sea from Ethiopia, as home to the first coffee plantations starting in the early 15th century. Coffee plants were brought over from Ethiopia, Yemen lacking its own indigenous coffee. There, Sufi monks prepared an infusion of coffee cherry leaves to stay awake and pray through the night. The first real roasting and grinding activities likely happened here.