There are many myths surrounding the historical origins of coffee. Here’s what we know for almost-certain:
The earliest evidence of coffee plants comes from Ethiopia, where legend has it that a goat herder named Kaldi discovered his goats eating the fruit from a certain tree, after which they gained tremendous energy and resisted sleep. Kaldi brought the fruit to his local monastery, where the monks used it to make a drink that kept them energized through long nights of prayer. The drink gained popularity and spread throughout the region and across the Red Sea into the Arabian Peninsula. When the Ottoman Empire conquered the Arabian Peninsula in the 16th century, coffee began to travel all over the world.
Throughout Turkey and the rest of the Ottoman Empire, coffee became quite popular due to the Muslim religion’s prohibition of alcohol. It was given the name kahve: “wine of Arabia.” The world’s first documented coffee house opened in Istanbul (then Constantinople) in 1554, though there were likely others before then across neighboring regions.
Venetian merchants brought coffee into Christian Europe in the early 17th century, where it quickly permeated the culture. France and Holland attempted to grow their own but soon realized their climates were less than ideal (we now know that coffee grows best in the tropics). But the Dutch were determined, obtaining coffee plants and establishing a coffee plantation on their colony of Java (Indonesia) in the 18th century. The result was Mocha Java, cultivated from a handful of plants they obtained from merchants in the Yemenite port of Mocha and first shipped to Europe in 1719.
The Dutch continued their coffee production on the islands of Sumatra and Ceylon, and they gifted a plant bred in a special garden in Amsterdam to the French king as part of a military agreement. France soon transported a seedling from that plant--now referred to as “the Noble Tree”--to the island of Martinique, where the tropical conditions proved ideal for coffee growing, and cultivation spread throughout Central and South America. Eventually, coffee spread all over the world, including back to its historical origin in Ethiopia and other parts of Africa.
While Ethiopia boasts hundreds of native coffee varietals (both wild and cultivated), the coffee grown elsewhere in the world represents only a few dozen varietals that share one parent: the Noble Tree. [Learn more about coffee varietals.]