A cup of history for coffee lovers

The Browser's ecstasy

A cup of history for coffee lovers

Because this is the story of coffee — rather, stories of coffee.

It’s not my story though (well, it is my story and yours if you are a java-junkie like me); this is the story of an intrepid firangi journalist who followed the ancient coffee route in Indiana Jones fashion, from the forbidden city of Harrar to war-torn Yemen to Kolkata’s cavernous Coffee House. And finally to Mysore and filter coffee. 

I had always been content to believe that story about goats eating coffee seeds in Ethiopia as the beginning of the discovery of coffee in the world.

It is such a good story, and I’ll tell it here again, before I tell you what the more likely origins of the bean are in the gospel according to The Devil’s Cup: A History of the World According to Coffee.

An Ethiopian goatherd named Kaldi noticed that some of his goats after having eaten the bright red berries of a plant were prancing and dancing as though drunk. He eats the fruit himself and becomes highly caffeinated. This, says author Stewart Lee Allen, is a nice myth.

The use of coffee probably began around 1,500 to 3,000 years ago by the Ethiopian tribe of Oromos, nomads from the kingdom of Kefa, who munched on the bean rather than brewing it. Kefa could also have been the root of the word coffee, and not, as long believed, the Arabic qahwa (which became the Turkish khave). “The Kefans also gave us the world’s first baristas”, notes Allen, “a caste called the Tofaco, who not only brewed the king’s coffee but also poured it down his throat”  

In Harrar, the author goes in search of a luscious cup of Ethiopian buna made from one of the three best Arabica bean crops in the world. (Interestingly, this place where coffee was first widely consumed is the only country that does not use “a word similar to coffee for the brew, here, it is called buna, meaning bean.”).

It is usually drunk with a little ritual in the villages when guests arrive, with the beans roasted before the guests, with everyone breathing in the aroma. Several cups of fragrant coffee are drunk for friendship with the saying, “Abole, Berke, Sostga — one, two, three cups and we are friends forever.”

However, Allen experiences something far more ancient in the hut of an old woman which doubles as a café: he has a cup of Kati, the great-grandmother of all coffee drinks, the way coffee was first drunk in Harrar. At first, Ethiopians did not grind the bean but roasted the leaves.

Kati is, writes the author, “dried leaves roasted on a flat pan until they acquire a dark, tarry texture, then crumbled and brewed over low heat with water, sugar and a pinch of salt. Cooking time is 10 minutes. The resultant amber coloured liquor has a delicately caramelised, smoky flavour, both sweet and salty, with a sensuously gelatinous texture.”

This, along with Amertessa, “brewing tender green leaves without roasting them,” were how the first cups of coffee were made. Another long ago ritual was to drink this with “Qat, a narcotic leaf, often called the evil sister of coffee. Qat leaves are chewed, and you hold the pulp in your cheek, until the juices are extracted.” The author says it is comparable to low key ecstasy, but “giving off a more cerebral euphoria.”

So where and when was coffee first brewed and drunk the way it is now   — grinding the bean itself and not the leaf? In Southern Yemen, especially in the port of Al-Makkha, better known today in coffee shops everywhere as Mocha! So, synonymous was Al-Makkha with coffee for more than a 1,000 years that it “became the universal nickname for the brew.”

And it was all thanks to a sect of sufi dervishes in Aden and Mocha, circa 1200, for whom roasting the bean and drinking this “magic brew” became associated with daily ritual. One of their masters, Al-Shadhili of Al-Makkha, becomes “the patron saint of coffee drinkers.” Allen travels to Konya, Turkey, to witness the once a year sacred coffee ritual that dervishes perform to remember Rumi, using a deep red cup to contain the brew.

India, we learn from Allen, became the first non-Muslim nation where the coffee bean took root in its soil. Once again, it is thanks to a sufi mystic: Baba Budan, who came back with coffee seeds after a visit to Mecca. It is the root of these coffee beans which stunningly enough produced the seedling for the great coffee plantations of Indonesia when a Dutch captain took it there in 1696.

Lee demonstrates that it is not, as coffee historians so often state, the Dutch who brought the bean to India around 1680. He cites the British Journal of Mythic Society VII “which claims that as far back as in AD 1385, Emperor Harihara II of Vijayanagar ordered that all imports for Peta Math enter tax free in ‘return for coffee seeds’.”

And so Lee Allen travels to Mysore, hearing of our fabled South Indian coffee. He is quickly disillusioned after drinking our filter coffee, which he aptly describes as basically “sickeningly sweet, piping hot milkshake.” The way it is served (more than prepared) in most stalls and hotels in the South, you have to agree with him.

It is also here in Mysore, that a Bengali man he meets tells him of Monkey coffee, some of the most expensive gourmet coffee in the world.  “It does not come from either a monkey or India,” writes Allen, “but a small Indonesia creature called the palm toddy cat, a nocturnal tree lover that lives on the naturally alcoholic tree sap used to make palm toddy, and fresh coffee berries. Whether it’s because the animal’s intestinal juices impart some special flavour (because of its alcoholic diet) or merely because it eats only perfectly ripe berries, the toddy cat’s droppings, cleaned, produce what many say is the world’s finest coffee.”

Japan buys most of the stuff nowadays, but the US firm of M P Mountanos sells it under the name Kopi Luwak at about 300 dollars a pound, making it the most expensive cup of coffee in the world. The tag line: “Good to the Last Dropping.”


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