Coffee has been at the centre of our social lives in one form or another since the mid 14th century. Although no one is certain about its exact origins, there are many legends about its discovery, and all of them emphasise how quickly the beverage became an integral part of the cultures it spread into.
The word ‘coffee’ comes from the Arabic word qahwah, which originally referred to a type of wine.
There are a number of theories among linguists about the word’s current association with coffee. Many believe that like wine, caffeine has an intoxicating effect, but qahwah can also be traced to the Arabic word quwwa, which means power/energy, or qaha which translates to ‘lacking hunger’ and could reference coffee as an appetite suppressant. Another theory is that it originates from Kaffa, a kingdom in medieval Ethiopia from where the coffee plant was first exported to Arabia.
There are a number of different accounts about who first discovered coffee. Some records trace the origin to a goat herder named Kaldi in Kaffa, Ethiopia in the 9th century. Kaldi noticed how active his flock became after munching red beans from a coffee plant, and then tried some himself and felt a lot more active.
Another similar account states that a Moroccan Sufi mystic, Ghothul Akbar Nooruddin Abu al-Hasan al-Shadhili, was once traveling through Ethiopia and observed unusually active birds. When he noticed they were all eating a specific bean, he tried a few himself and and quickly regained vitality.
The general consensus is that the plant was first discovered in Ethiopia in mid AD 800, when people simply chewed the berries. It wasn’t until the 15th century that traders from across the sea – precisely, Yemen – decided to boil the beans and make a drink out of it.
During the 15th century, Sufi monks would drink the beverage to improve concentration, prayers and stay alert through the night in worship.
This is probably where the word qahwa – which then meant wine in Arabic – began to be associated with coffee for inducing what was considered a level of intoxication.
For over 100 years, Yemeni farmers grew distinct and flavourful coffee beans and, by the 16th century, the local coffee gained regional momentum and spread through the rest of Arabia, Turkey and Persia. It was usually consumed in religious contexts.
Public coffee houses, usually associated with Sufism, first gained popularity in the 16th century. The first coffee houses opened in Cairo, Egypt, around an important religious university and slowly spread throughout the region.
People would visit these venues to drink coffee, listen to music, play chess and talk about current affairs and religion.
Soon, coffee houses became so essential as sources to share and receive information that they were referred to as ‘Schools of the Wise’.
The drink became so popular in the Arab world in its early days for its ‘intoxicating’ effect that it became known as the ‘wine of Arabia’ and was, in fact, banned by religious scholars in Mecca in 1511. The ban was later overturned by the Ottoman ruler of his time in 1524.
Coffee was banned by the church because it was considered a ‘Muslim drink’. Ethiopian attitudes started softening towards coffee drinking in the early 19th century and, over time, the beverage was no longer associated with Islam.
Coffee reached Europe via the island of Malta through Turkish Muslim slaves. It quickly gained popularity among members of Maltese high society and many coffee shops were opened.
Venetian merchants on the trade route between the Republic of Venice and the Arab world introduced coffee to mainland Europe. The merchants introduced coffee to the wealthier societies and charged them highly for the drink. The first mainland European coffee house was opened in Venice in 1645.