History hasn’t been very decisive in providing accurate information regarding the advent of coffee. Jesus turned water into wine, but not coffee. So when did people start drinking coffee, I pondered to myself while savoring the taste of my beloved bean from the latest sip I had taken. Although tea finds mention in some ancient Chinese texts and Mahabharata in India and sparingly in the Bible too, coffee doesn’t find any acknowledgment in any religious document or text. Compelled to find out, I started dwelling further and deeper down the pages of history.
The story of the goatherd Kaldi and his dancing goats is the first recorded evidence of human interaction with the coffee bean and its origin can be traced back to a mythological lore from the shores of modern day Ethiopia, then known as Abyssinia.
The story of the goatherd Kaldi and his dancing goats begins when one day a young Abyssinian goatherd named Kaldi noticed unusual frolicking activity amongst his goats. Kaldi knew his goats well enough to know their actions were irreproachable and so embarked on a mission to unveil the root of such untowardly behavior in his goats. Upon close investigation, he realized that the goats were eating leaves and shiny berries of a certain plant which was inducing the frenzied condition in them. So he decided to try some and went immediately into a trance, dancing along with his goats in the mountains. A monk who was passing by noticed Kaldi dancing with his goats and upon enquiring found out about the magic berry. When Kaldi told the monk about the magic properties of the berry he became overwhelmed from within and hoped this would be the answer to his prayers, because he was always falling asleep between his prayers. And to his amazement, it actually turned out to be the answer to his prayers because it allowed him to stay awake and concentrate on his prayers. When he related his discovery to the rest of his fellow monks, it was highly appreciated and it was his idea to pick out the berries and dry them and then boil them and drink it as a delicious brew. And that is how it is believed the modern day drink of coffee came into being. As word spread of the brew from the magic berry and its magic properties, coffee finally reached the Arabian Peninsula and finally began a journey which would transport the beans eventually to every part of the world. It was only in the Arabian Peninsula that coffee began to be cultivated for trade by the early 15th century. Thus even today the nomenclature of the original variety of coffee beans takes from its place of origin, Coffee Arabica. Coffee Robusta, the other variety takes its name from the taste of the brew that this particular bean produces.
By the early 16th century, Arabian Peninsula, Turkey, Egypt and Persia coffee began to be served not only in domestic households but public coffee houses for visitors to drop in for a cup while enjoying some form of entertainment like listening to music or enjoying a theatrical performance. Soon these coffee houses or quavah khaneh as they were locally called became brimming points of social activity and were somewhat reminiscent in those days as a cross between the modern day café and a pub. Coffee houses soon attained such reverence as a seat of knowledge and information exchange that were often referred to as “Schools of Wise’. Word soon travelled to Europe of dark unusual beverage called coffee. Although it initially met with a lot of repulsion, by the late 17th century coffee had become the most popular breakfast drink of Europe & America. Missionaries and travelling explorers carried the seeds and planted them to newer places that they travelled to and thus coffee was spread to all parts of the world.
Introduction of Coffee in India
However it is interesting to note coffee came to India much before the conquests of the British in introducing the beverage to the rest of the world and much before the arrival of the East India Company. Since Mecca in Arabia was a revered pilgrimage spot for Muslims, a lot of those travelling to Mecca for their Haj found it to be a platform for their first interaction with coffee.
Baba Budan a famous Sufi saint, hailing from Budangiri in the Coorg hills in Karnataka is said to have started the first coffee plantations by planting 7 raw coffee seeds that he had brought from the port of Mocha, Yemen while returning from Haj
In those days coffee was sold only in processed form in order to retain its singularity and exclusivity to those parts. Baba Budan smuggled 7 raw seeds as the number 7 is revered in Islam and brought it back with him to his hometown and grew it in the Chandragiri hills, so overwhelmed he was by the wonders of coffee. The hill range was later named as Baba Budan hills in his honour, where his tomb still remains. Till date the chunk of the country’s coffee produce comes from South India. What started in Chikmagulur by Baba Budan as a novice has today taken over Tamil Nadu, Eastern Ghats of Andhra Pradesh and Kerela. Although most of the country’s coffee produce is exported, India coffee is the world’s best coffee grown under shade than opposed to direct sunlight. Till recently also the coffee grown from the plantations started by Baba Budan was marketed in the world under the name of Kent & S 795.