November 12, 2013


      Between 900 and 1000 A.D. in East Africa/Abyssinia, in what we now call Ethiopia, goat herders noticed that their animals ate the berries of a wild bush/tree/plant and, afterward, the goats began to rear up and prance and dance on their back legs. One of the herders, named Kaldi (or, Khaldi) gathered some of these berries and sampled them for himself. The resulting animation he experienced caused him to also dance with joy and energy. As time passed he and his fellow goat herders developed the berry into a beverage by drying them out, grinding them up and boiling the grains/powder in water.

Kaldi dancing with his goats.

      According to legend, a local monk named Mullah (I am skeptical here because the term "mullah" is a title, not a name. A "Mullah" is a Muslim learned in Islamic theology and sacred law. But, the title "Mullah" did not appear until the 17th century, 600 years after this story, so perhaps there was someone named "Mullah.") noticed this beverage and its effect upon both goats and humans and asked for a bag of the berries. He returned to his monastery and proceeded to plant and grow the trees/bushes around the religious center. The berries were highly valued by the monks because the drink they produced helped keep him and his fellow monks awake and attentive during their prayers. 

Muslim monk at prayer.

      It is said that an orthodox Muslim priest proclaimed coffee an intoxicant, making it forbidden by the Koran. However, even the threat of severe religious and spiritual penalties could not stop the consumption of this beverage by Arabs thirsty for this drink. 

The Koran forbids intoxicants.
Muslim authorities tried to forbid
the beverage. They failed.


      Arab traders recognized the value of this new item (calling it “bean broth”) and it became their exclusive property, and they guarded its cultivation carefully and kept it’s origins a secret from the rest of the world. According to which story you wish to believe, or perhaps both are true, “Kaffa” was the landlocked area of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia-Somalia) where this berry/bean was discovered, or, it was the port city in Abyssinia from which the berries were transported to the rest of the Arab world. From this place name we get the word for the drink: “coffee.” 

Ethiopians believe that what we call
"coffee" originated in the circled area
of Ethiopia, known as "Kaffa."

      The word coffee first appeared in the English language in 1598. An alternative word origin story is that the word coffee is derived from The Arabian word “qahwah” which means “that which gives strength.” In addition, the word “mocha” (a slang term for coffee, or a reference to coffee flavoring in, for example, ice cream) comes from the name of an Arab port city across the Red Sea from Abyssinia which was famous for exporting coffee. Ethiopians and Somalians call coffee “bunn.” Which leads me to a question. See caption below. 

Is this why it's called
a "Bunn" coffee maker?

       No it isn't!!! The story of Bunn coffee makers began with its founding back in 1957 after George Bunn invented the first fluted coffee filter. The fluted filter gave the filter enough body to stand on its own, and prevents spillage of grounds which can easily ruin an otherwise perfect cup of coffee. As time progressed, so did the inventiveness of George, and a few years later in 1963 the Bunn-o-Matic Corporation developed the very first automatic drip coffee maker for commercial use. The brand name "Bunn" became synonymous with a great cup of coffee. I had always wondered if the Ethiopian/Somalian word "bunn" (meaning coffee) was related to the Bunn coffee makers. Now I have an answer. 

Roasting coffee beans.

      The Ottoman Turks were the first to roast coffee beans, not for reasons of taste and/or flavor, but because they wanted to protect their monopoly on the coffee beans and trees in Yemen. Roasting the beans rendered them sterile and they could not be used to create coffee plants in competing areas. But the spread of coffee was inexorable.  During the years 900-1000 A.D. vendors started to sell coffee on the streets of Cairo, Egypt, and Damascus, Syria, in small ceramic cups. 

      Merchants from Venice saw the popularity of coffee in Constantinople (today’s Istanbul, Turkey) and introduced it to Italy in 1615. Coffee entered European history to stay when in 1690 Dutch traders stole samples of the valuable shrubs from Arabia and grew them in greenhouses in Holland. They spread throughout Europe and then traveled to European colonies in the Far East and the New World. The Dutch turned their East Indian colonies into coffee growers. The Dutch colony of Java in the East Indies became a noted coffee producer and gave us the word “java” as a slang and/or informal reference to coffee. The term "java" as a substitute word for "coffee" has been around since the 19th century when Indonesia, of which the island of Java was/is a part, was one of the major sources of the world's coffee. 

Today, Java is a part of Indonesia.

A small digression: 3 things come together:
      Chocolate, coffee and tea all arrived in England at approximately the same time -the mid-1600s. Chocolate arrived from the New World via Spain and France. Coffee made its appearance from the far away Middle east and Africa. And tea, of course, arrived from China. Tea and coffee were relatively inexpensive, but chocolate (as a drink) remained high in cost, but was still sold in the new coffee houses of London. These coffee houses spread to the American colonies, and it was here that many of the “radical” ideas of our Founders were discussed, spread and developed. Beverages and politics collide! Chocolate, coffee and tea - three great concepts to tie in with the early history of the U.S.

Depiction of a colonial coffee house.
A center for radical political ideas?

When and why did coffee become the favorite drink of Americans? Tea was the most popular drink in the Colonies until 1773 when George III and Parliament levied a tax upon it. After the Boston Tea Party, coffee became the preferred drink of “rebel” elements of the population and much of the discussion concerning colonial strategy and ideas took place in the “rebels’” new favorite hangout (mentioned previously): the coffee house. Thus ,coffee replaced tea as the favorite beverage of colonial America. 

The coffee tree is really an evergreen shrub.

      The scientific name for the coffee tree is “coffee Arabica.” The tree is really an evergreen shrub and can grow to 25 feet tall but growers usually keep it pruned to 12 feet or less. It has glossy evergreen leaves and produces white flowers. Coffee berries grow from the tree’s blossoms. As the berry ripens, it turns from green to yellow to red. The average tree bears enough berries each year to make about a pound and a half of roasted coffee. A coffee tree must be 5 years old in order to bear a full crop of berries, and they must be picked by hand because no other method of harvesting them has ever been developed. And please note, the discovery and spread of coffee began at the same time as the Norse discovery and settlement of the New World. 

      Brazil grows and sells more coffee than any other nation in the world. “You know, there’s an awful lot of coffee in Brazil,” as Frank Sinatra sings in the famous tune “The Coffee Song.” Also, coffee is the 2nd most valuable LEGALLY exported commodity in the world today, oil being number one. Americans are not, per capita, the heaviest coffee consumers in the world. It is estimated that the population of Sweden consumes, on average, almost 30 pounds of coffee per year.

Sinatra, "The Coffee Song."

      Americans drink about 450 million cups of coffee a day. That’s approximately 168 billion cups a year. Coffee has absolutely no nutritional value. Four of every five adults in the U.S. drink coffee. They drink about 2-3 cups each per day, which adds up to about a third of the world’s daily supply of the beverage. Caffeine is tasteless. An average cup of coffee has 100 milligrams of caffeine. A cup of espresso has 200 milligrams. A chocolate bar has as much caffeine in it as a cup of decaffeinated coffee. Researchers believe that heavy coffee drinkers use caffeine to treat themselves for the most prevalent psychiatric condition in the world: depression.


      The Italian word for coffee is "caffe." In French it is "cafe." The word "cafe" eventually came to refer to a French coffee house. It long ago entered English as a place where people can go to both eat food AND drink coffee. There are many different types and styles of coffee. The French seem to prefer "cafe au lait," an equal mixture of strong coffee and warm milk. Many people like "espresso," a strong and heavy infusion of coffee drunk without milk. 

A Capuchin monk.
Note the black hat and dark hood.

      A "Cappuccino" is a combination of coffee and frothy milk with cinnamon and/or nutmeg added.  It is Italian in origin and is named as such because its color resembles the color of the habits of  the Capuchin monks of the Catholic Church (Note: the tropical "capuchin monkey" is so named because the black hair on its head resembles the hood, or cowl, of a Capuchin monk's robe). 

Note the dark hair on top of the head, and
the creamy brown color of the face and arms, 
like coffee mixed with milk.

      "Turkish coffee" is usually a strong and bitter concoction made from an powerful, aromatic bean. "Viennese coffee" is a cup of black coffee served with a large dollop of whipped cream on top. And "Irish coffee" is a mixture of coffee, whiskey and whipped cream. 

      And is Maxwell House coffee really "Good to the last drop"? That slogan is one of the top advertising phrases of the 20th century. It is based upon the claim made by the Maxwell House Restaurant in Nashville, Tennessee, where, in 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt (on a trip to visit Andrew Jackson's home, "The Hermitage") was overheard to make the remark when asked how he liked his after dinner coffee. 

Theodore Roosevelt.

      The Maxwell House was known for the caliber of its coffee, high in quality and freshly ground daily. By 1917, the Maxwell House was marketing its own brand of coffee and began to use the words TR uttered in 1907 as an advertising slogan and Presidential endorsement. After all, if it was good enough for Teddy Roosevelt, why wouldn't you buy it also? The phrase "Good to the last drop" is a registered trademark for Maxwell House Coffee. Over the years. there has been a lively debate as to whether or not TR actually said those words, or if they were made up to promote the product. We may never know the truth of the matter, but it sure makes for a good story.


      Let's end this journey through coffee history with a video by K.D. Lang singing the old standard, "Black Coffee." Here she is. Hope you enjoy it.