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Yemen: The Birthplace of Coffee

posted on: Sep 29, 2020

By: Ahmed Abu Sultan/Arab America Contributing Writer

Coffee is one of the most popular beverages in our modern lives. We have been using it for both cultural and productive use for as long as we remember. However, not many of us know how it came to be. The story of coffee is filled with history and diversity.


The history of coffee dates back as far as the 15th century. There were many legends and stories concerning its discovery and use. However, the earliest substantiated evidence of either coffee drinking or knowledge of the coffee tree is from the early 15th century, in the Sufi monasteries of Yemen. By the 16th century, it was spread across the Middle East and the neighboring states. Many religious leaders objected to the use of the plant due to concerns about its effect on the health of its consumer, to the point where the leaders of Mecca disallowed its use, followed later by the Catholic Church. As stated, there were many legendary accounts on the discovery of the plan, where some argue that the Moroccan Sufi mystic, Abu al-Hasan al-Shadhili, when traveling in Ethiopia, observed birds of unusual vitality feeding on berries, and, upon trying the berries, experienced the same vitality. Others claim that to Sheikh Abu al-Hasan ash-Shadhili’s disciple, Omar, who was once exiled from Mecca to a desert cave near Ousab. Starving, Omar found and boiled coffee to sustain himself.

Studies of genetic diversity have been performed on Coffea arabica varieties, which were found to be of low diversity but with retention of some residual heterozygosity from ancestral materials, and closely related diploid species Coffea canephora and C. liberica. However, no direct evidence has ever been found indicating where in Africa it grew or who among the natives might have used it as a stimulant or known about it there earlier than the seventeenth century. The original domesticated coffee plant is said to have been from Harar, and the native population is thought to be derived from Ethiopia with distinct nearby populations in Sudan and Kenya. Nonetheless, it was confirmed that Yemen had the first cultivation of the plant and brewing of the beans, similar to our modern-day use.

“Three hundred years ago, during the Age of Enlightenment, the coffee house became the center of innovation.” Peter Diamonde

Western Discovery of Coffee

Coffee was first introduced to Europe on the island of Malta in the 16th century. It was introduced there through slavery. Turkish Muslim slaves had been imprisoned by the Knights of St John in 1565, and they used to make their traditional beverage. Domenico Magri mentioned in his work Virtu del Kafé, “Turks, most skillful makers of this concoction.” It was a popular beverage in Maltese high society and many coffee shops opened. It was also noted in Aleppo by the German physician botanist Leonhard Rauwolf, the first European to mention it, as chaube, in 1573; Rauwolf was closely followed by descriptions from other European travelers.

The vibrant trade between the Republic of Venice and the people of North Africa, Egypt, and the East brought a large variety of African goods, including coffee, to this leading European port. Venetian merchants introduced coffee-drinking to the wealthy in Venice, charging them heavily for the beverage. In this way, it was introduced to the mainland of Europe. In 1591 Venetian botanist-physician Prospero Alpini became the first to publish a description of the plant in Europe. The first European coffee house apart from those in the Ottoman Empire and Malta was opened in Venice in 1645.

Coffee was brought to the New World by the British in the mid-17th century. Coffee houses were popular, but it wasn’t until the Boston Party in 1773 that America’s coffee culture was changed forever: the revolt against King George III generated a mass switch from tea to coffee amongst the colonists. The demand for it flourished, and after the Dutch had secured seedlings towards the end of the 1600s, cultivation expanded outside of Arabia for the first time. Travelers and traders carried seeds to new lands, and coffee trees were planted across the globe.

Modern Use

By the 18th century, coffee had become one of the world’s most profitable commodities. Consumption and popularity in the US increased, especially during the Civil War. In 1864, Pittsburgh-born brothers John and Charles Arbuckle began selling it pre-roasted and by the pound. James Folger, who sold it to gold miners in California, also saw great success. Several other big-name coffee brands, including Maxwell House and Hills Brothers, quickly followed suit. In the aftermath of World War II, instant coffee was introduced to the market and remained popular until Starbucks opened in Seattle in 1971. Starbucks made it geographically available to people across America, tailoring the beverage to the unique palate of every customer.

Nowadays, after the mass spread of coffee use all across the world, many began refining its growth and use. The evolution caused it to become both a commodity and amenity, depending on the use and brand. For example, here in America, Cuban coffee increased in popularity among the Hispanic communities. In other places such as Dearborn, the Yemeni style coffee became popular among the Arab communities living there.

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