history of coffee, part 1

The History of Coffee, Part I: Ethiopia, Yemen, and the Ottoman Empire Strikes Back

Where did it all begin?

illustration of a coffee plantSo, who do we thank (or blame, depending on your caffeine reliance) for the aromatic, palate-pleasing, jump-starting beverage of coffee? We know that coffee was a major part of Ethiopian and Yemenite culture from the 7th century on. The history of coffee is generally believed to have started in Ethiopia, then brought by trade missions to Yemen as early as 1000 BCE.

Absent historical documentation, coffee legends emerged. As proud cultures do, Ethiopians and Yemenites alike take credit for the popular beverage. And interestingly, both cultures preserve somewhat similar legends. 

Ethiopia's Coffee History

Ethiopia's coffee narrative describes a goat herder named “Kaldi” observing his goats dancing around and bleating wildly after eating some of the bright red berries from coffee shrubs. Kaldi decided to take some of these berries home to show his wife. At his wife's suggestion, he shared his discovery with the local monks.

After studying the plant, the monks considered these berries (raw coffee beans)  to be the work of the devil, and threw them into a fire. The irresistible aroma of the beans roasting enticed the monks to remove them from the embers and preserve them in water. To read more in depth on this era, click here.

Kaldi dancing with his goats


The legend is that by drinking this new concoction, their spirits were uplifted and the monks were able to stay awake for their long days of prayer. Clearly, these Ethiopian monks had changed their mind about these mysterious berries!

Yemeni Coffee History

Yemeni culture also includes a coffee legend involving a herder. Although this lore is apocryphal, it typically involves the herder observing birds’ behavior around the berries, then curiously chewing on them himself. The energizing properties were noted. Like many herbals, the beans were eventually brewed in water.

a goat with sheep and birds

Ottoman Empire

During the Ottoman Empire, coffee was brought from Yemen to Turkey, where the first known coffee house was established in 1517. The trend of drinking this unique beverage spread rapidly throughout the vast empire. Coffee houses became the main places for socialization, a tradition that continues to this day.

a coffee house scene by Preziosi

Move on to 1663, when the Ottoman army had Vienna under siege. By 1664, the Imperial Army (we're not talking Star Wars here) managed to push the Ottomans out. Among the many treasures left behind by the Ottomans were bags of coffee beans.

 painting of a Turkish bazaar from 1854

And so our coffee story moves to Vienna, Austria. Stay tuned for next week’s blog, which will pick up in Southern Europe, with the History of Coffee Part II.

Article written by Barbara Mueller, Lead Image by Scott Mason. Coffee illustration by The Graphics Fairy. All other images displayed in this post fall under public domain usage. Lead image shows a special oven for cooking coffee at the Topkapı Sarayı palace in Turkey.

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