Waking up the world: coffee’s rise to popularity

People drink more than 2 billion cups of coffee every day, a scale no one could imagine a mere hundred years ago. How did it become the world’s most popular drink?

Waking up the world: coffee’s rise to popularity

Africa: legendary beginnings

Hello, Nerdish friend! We hope your day has been lovely so far. Have you already had your morning coffee?

Chances are, your coffee-consuming habit goes as far back as you remember your adult life. Everyone and their uncle seems to be obsessed with it. 64% of grown-up Americans drink coffee, consuming 2.7 cups a day on average. That makes almost 5 kilograms of coffee beans a year per person. 

This figure pales compared to European Nordic countries: with Swedes consuming up to 11 kg per capita in a year, and the Finnish—about 12.5. The world’s top 10 coffee-consuming nations are all in Europe. 

As you look at these numbers, it’s easy to imagine that coffee has always been around. However, its surge in popularity happened only in the 20th century. The earliest reliable written sources point to 15th-century Yemen, from which the drink spread to the Middle East and the rest of the world.

Historical accounts and evidence suggest that we drank wine, beer, and even chocolate as far back as in the neolithic period. On the other hand, the coffee culture is much younger, and its history—what we know of it so far—is much more elusive.

A drawing by a 20th-century French artist depicting Kaldi and his goats, as appeared in William H. Ukers’ All about Coffee (1922)

Sources about coffee’s origins (at least those known and described in the Western literature) are largely myths or legends. The most famous one tells about a goatherder named Kaldi in what is modern-day Ethiopia.

According to the myth, Kaldi tended to his herd in highlands near an Abyssinian monastery when he noticed one of his goats jump around wildly. The creature was almost dancing and bleating loudly. Kaldi suspected that a small shrub with bright-red berries was responsible for the goat’s excitement. Trying the berries himself, Kaldi also felt the coffee cherries’ energizing effect.

Amazed by this discovery, the goatherder decided to bring it to the monks of the nearby monastery. The discovery, however, was not met with enthusiasm, and one of the monks even threw the beans into the fire, calling them “the Devil’s work.” By doing so, he unwittingly roasted them, producing an enticing aroma that attracted other monks.

As the monks tried to preserve the burned beans in a pitcher with hot water, they brewed the coffee. Then, enjoying the energizing effects, they vowed to drink it daily to aid in their religious devotion. Coffee was supposed to keep them awake during prayers. Most accounts date Kaldi to 850 CE, but this legend did not appear in writing until 1671. Obviously, it’s hard to say how much of it is true. In any case, many coffee shops and coffee roasting brands nowadays use the words “Goat” and “Kaldi” in their labels. Ethiopia’s biggest coffee chain is called “Kaldi’s Coffee.”

Another myth is related to an Islamic Sufi mystic from Yemen but also places the plant’s origin in Ethiopia. Ghothul Akbar Nooruddin Abu al-Hasan al-Shadhili traveled through Ethiopia on a spiritual journey. One day he encountered a flock of very energetic birds pecking at the red cherries of a coffee plant. The road-weary pilgrim tried these fruits and was amazed at their stimulating effect.

Ultimately, both legends deal with the coffee’s discovery in the Middle East; historical evidence suggests that coffee plants had been used before in various cultures throughout the African continent. According to the tales and traditional practices of Oromo people in Ethiopia, their distant ancestors used to gather ripe cherries from wild coffee plants. Grinding them in a stone pestle with a mortar, Oromo warriors mixed the mashed seeds and pulp with animal fat into small balls to consume for sustenance and stimulation.

However, no historical record so far can help us pinpoint coffee’s actual place of origin. But as the rest of the world witnessed the construction of the Pyramids, the Trojan War, and the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, the coffee plant grew wild and domesticated in various places—albeit unknown in Europe and the Middle East.

Arabian Peninsula: the origins of coffee culture

Somewhen before the 15th century, coffee made it to Yemen, and the port of Mocha became one of the most important places in the drink’s history. Until the 17th century, it remained the heart of the coffee trade, selling homegrown and imported coffee beans up North: to the Middle East and eventually Europe. Roasted coffee beans lose their fertility. Yemeni merchants sold their coffee roasted, and the authorities prohibited exporting a live plant under the death penalty. That way, they managed to keep the market effectively monopolized for about 200 years.

A view of Mocha, Yemen. Published in a series of Dutch prints circa 1690. 

Install the Nerdish app with essential knowledge about everything in the world.

Learn something new every week