Coffee is the second most widely traded legal commodity on earth – second only to oil. It is estimated that between six and eight hundred million people make their living from the coffee industry, from the farmer carefully pruning their trees through to the barista extracting the perfect shot. There are many stories describing the discovery of coffee. They are all probably part truth, part myth, but this is our favourite.
Before espresso macchiato and caramel lattes, this story of coffee begins in Ethiopia with, of all things, a goatherd.
Kaldi had a pretty cruisy job – every morning he would take his goats out into the mountains to the edge of the forest, then bring them in at night.
To call his goats he had a flute and he would play a simple tune every morning and night to gather them all together.
Life goes on this way right up until one afternoon when Kaldi plays his flute and no goats appear. He plays the song again, louder, still no goats.
Frustrated and a little worried, Kaldi plays his song as he walks into the forest searching for his flock.
Deep in the forest he finds a clearing and all his goats are there and they are going crazy – jumping around, bleating and braying and carrying on.
He also notices that they are eating the bright red cherries of a tree he’s never seen before. Being an adventurous (some would say foolhardy) kind of goatherd he decides to try a handful of cherries.
This is the first time any human being has experienced caffeine and Kaldi promptly loses his mind.
He’s inspired, energised – part of the story is that he starts composing poetry – and he can’t wait to share it with everyone back in the village.
Following some cherry picking and strenuous goat wrangling, Kaldi arrives back in town and takes his discovery straight to the local holy man.
He is convinced that this experience is spiritual and needs it explained. The monk is sceptical, but intrigued enough by Kaldi’s vivid description to try some of the crop.
This is the second time any human being has experienced caffeine, but the monk is a little older and more temperate than Kaldi and starts off slowly and feels the effects as a wonderful new alertness.
The monk continues to slowly try the cherries through the night and finds he is able to pray without rest for hours at a time.
And so the cherries are adopted by the spiritual community of Ethiopia. Word spreads from village to village and soon everyone is harvesting the glossy red cherries. They are mashed up with lard as a kind of energy bar to sustain people undertaking long journeys, eaten whole or steeped in hot water for a kind of tea.
No-one knows who roasted the beans first – it may have been entirely accidental that they were dropped into the fire – but the aroma would have been incredible. Unroasted coffee beans are almost odourless – aside from a sort of faint grainy smell – hard, slightly chewy and not at all delicious. I don’t recommend trying them.
Add heat and they transform, the sugars roasting to reveal flavours like fruit, chocolate, caramel and hazelnut. You can learn more about this over at John’s blog on the Maillard Reaction. So the tradition evolves – the coffee seeds are now roasted over a fire, ground up to a fine powder with a mortar and pestle, then brewed in hot water.
Coffee as we know it is born.