When you’re waiting for your cup to brew or you’re picking up a bag of beans from Presto, have you ever wondered: where does coffee come from?
We’re not merely talking about the growing country: our House Espresso harks from the verdant, sprawling plantations of the Brazilian highlands, for instance.
But going back further, where does coffee come from originally? What plant does it grow on? And how was it first domesticated?
It’s a story as dark and mysterious as the beans themselves.
Where Does Coffee Originally Come From?
Legend says that coffee was first brewed in the dusty lands surrounding the Red Sea – between the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Ask either an Ethiopian or Yemeni where coffee was discovered, and they’ll give you the same answer: it was us.
The Ethiopian Tale
The truth has been lost to time. However, an ancient Ethiopian legend tells of a goat herder from Kaffa called Kaldi. He was working around an old Abyssinian monastery when the goats began to bleat and jitter one day. Confused, Kaldi investigated, finding a bush with red berries. After tentatively trying them himself, he felt a rush of energy.
With pockets packed with red berries, he told his wife the story, who advised him to share the berries with the local monks. However, his remarkable find was met with dismay by one monk, who branded the berries ‘the Devil’s work’, casting them onto the fire. There, on the smouldering embers, the beans roasted, exuding a delicious aroma that attracted the other monks.
The fire was put out and the beans saved in a cup of hot water. Again, the aroma wafted up. Even more confused, the monks sipped the brew: the first-ever cup of coffee.
A Story from Yemen
In Yemen, a different story is told. A Sufi mystic named Ghothul Akbar Nooruddin Abu al-Hassan al-Shadhili (a catchy name) was travelling through Ethiopia. Instead of jittery goats, he came across a flock of energetic birds hovering near a bush. Curious, he tried the berries for himself, discovering their potent effects.
Whether it was the Yemenis or the Ethiopians is unknown. The stories first appear in the 15th century, around six centuries after coffee was probably discovered. Most likely, coffee evolved gradually. First, chewed; then, ground into a thick paste and eaten; before finally, by the 13th century, being brewed as a herbal concoction. From there, it sparked the coffee traditions – Ethiopian, Turkish and Greek – which continue to this day.
It wasn’t until the 17th century that Europeans learned of the delectable beverage. And then, it spread around the world. Today, coffee is grown in over fifty countries worldwide, with Brazil, Vietnam, and Colombia dominating the market.
What Do Coffee Beans Grow On?
Like almost all foodstuffs, coffee grows on plants – imaginatively called coffee plants. Having first been cultivated in the highlands of Ethiopia, coffee plants thrive in warm and humid climates. That’s why most coffee production hugs equatorial countries in Central and South America, as well as Africa.
In appearance, the coffee plant looks like a bush or tree. It has long leafy branches, averaging four to ten metres in height. Most striking are the deep red berries bunched around the trunk. These are the coffee beans, also known as cherries. Interestingly, not all berries ripen at the same time, meaning multiple harvests are needed.
What Plant Does Coffee Come From?
So, coffee beans come from a tree. However, there are many different species of coffee tree – over 80 types currently exist. The lion share of coffee comes from just two species, however. Coffea arabica and Coffea canephora.
The former derives its name from Arabia but is also known as mountain coffee. Today, it accounts for sixty per cent of global production. However, originally, it grew in Yemen, being domesticated sometime before the 12th century. Before the beans grow, the beautiful and delicate white flowers pollinate. Inside each cherry are two seeds that form the coffee beans.
The latter – Coffea canephora – is more commonly referred to as robusta coffee. Originally native in the upland forests of Ethiopia across to Angola and down to Tanzania. Strangely, it took another hundred years for the species to be identified as distinct from Arabica coffee.
Do Coffee Beans Come from Poop?
It’s an odd question, we know!
Of course, coffee doesn’t come from faeces. We just learned it grows on a plant. Well… surprisingly, the world’s most expensive coffee is poop. Or rather, the beans are eaten and partially digested by a civet. These catlike creatures are kept caged-up with large plates of coffee cherries. They devour their plates, and then the beans are picked from the faeces and sold.
And they’re not cheap!
Known as kopi luwak: it sells for up to $80 for a cup or $170 for a pound of beans. However, conditions for these majestic animals are awful, with cages being cramped and unhygienic. Nor is a diet of coffee cherries healthy for animals evolved to eat insects and small reptiles.
They’re chosen for their unique digestive enzymes, which remove the acidity in coffee, giving a smoother cup. Alternately, you can sip black ivory coffee, whose production is similar to kopi luwak. The difference: elephants are substituted for civets. The elephants are generally treated better, and the beans are cheaper, too - $70 per pound.
Some people really will do anything for the perfect cup of coffee. What do you think? Do you fancy a partially digested brew?
The Bottom Line
Since the dusty days of fire-roasted coffee, the world’s favourite beverage has come a long way. With ever more people sipping a hot cup of java, it’s only likely to become more popular. Now you know the story of where coffee comes from and the mysterious journey of how it took the world by storm.