Coffee often exists as a routine, a caffeine delivery mechanism, well before any of us begin taking pleasure in its flavor. Like many things in life, enjoyment is usually cultivated over time, enhanced by experience and knowledge.
For many who took to drinking coffee in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the first eye-opening sips of something that transcended hot, caffeinated sludge were from two very particular origins: dry processed coffees from Harar, Ethiopia, and wet-hulled coffees from Sumatra, Indonesia.
Perhaps coincidentally, or perhaps by predestination, the history of how coffee rose from its humble origins as a wild shrub to a household necessity and globally traded commodity is tied up quite intimately with these two iconic regions.
Much has been written about the story of coffee; its myths and legends often intermingle with facts to create a lovingly painted, but not wholeheartedly truthful picture. I think that coffee’s story is worth telling, both with deep affection for the arc of the narrative, and enduring respect for the truth of its impact on each of the lives it touches.
I’d like to explore a little about why the roasted seed of a fruit, cultivated in such diverse conditions, holds such a beloved place in our memories and daily routines.
Sparks of “Discovery”
The forests of Kaffa in western Ethiopia and the Boma Plateau South Sudan are almost certainly the home to the first Arabica coffee trees. The region still boasts the greatest naturally occurring genetic diversity of the species. However, Arabica has many cousins, mostly found elsewhere on the African continent; notably Canephora (Robusta) native to eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, and Liberica, named for its home country Liberia.
Coffee’s first consumers would have enjoyed the bean much differently than you and I. The raw berries were rolled in lard and carried as rations, or boiled and chewed, or their fermented pulp could be turned into a form of weak, sour wine. The Haya people of what is now northwestern Tanzania exchanged coffee beans as a kind of greeting. However, formal cultivation of the trees in Ethiopia by the Oromo people was seen as an insult to the creator-deity Waqa, from whom coffee had been received as a gift.
And so coffee remained largely wild, harvested sparingly though much of prehistory, and obscured to the rest of the world for aeons.
Could Ethiopia’s Coptic Aksumite Empire have introduced the crop to Arabia Felix, modern day Yemen, during its occupation in the 6th century? It’s possible. Less believable, but no less fantastic stories of coffee’s “discovery” include tales of King Solomon using it to cure a plague, Kaldi noticing his badly behaving goats under the influence of caffeine, the archangel Gabriel delivering it to a beleaguered prophet Muhammad, and Sheik Omar surviving on nothing but coffee berries for days while wandering in exile from the city of Mocha.
In truth, it would be Sufi imams – reliable surviving texts note one Jamal al-Din Abu ‘Abd Allah Muhammad ibn Sa’id, (known as Dhabhani) – who would bring coffee into popular use during late night vigils in Yemen’s port of Aden in the mid 15th century. This would be coffee’s home away from home, and its vehicle of introduction to the rest of the world.
As with so many “discoveries” through the course of history, a confluence of serendipitous conditions precipitated its popularity. The world was globalizing, the Islamic world was unifying and emerging from a centuries-long cultural renaissance, and 15th century Yemen had recently undertaken major agricultural developments under the Rasulid dynasty, including the introduction of irrigation technology. Coffee could be cultivated with ease by independent local smallholders. The peninsula lent the species its name, Arabica, and established its own unique consumption trends including q’shir, a brew made from the dried cherry skins and husks with spices. Roasting, grinding, and the ibrik (or cezve) coffee pot were soon to follow.
Nations united loosely under the expansive umbrella of the Ottoman Empire would develop a special appetite for the brew, opening the world’s first coffee shops and invigorating its consumption and commercialization. It’s true that for a time certain stodgy litigious and religious types wrung their hands – Sultan Murad IV famously enacted a ban at its height of export value, purportedly policing the streets of Constantinople in disguise and beheading violators himself. But after fits and starts, Yemen, via its largest port of Mocha, would corner the market on coffee trade until the turn of the 18th century. Its coffee, also known as “Mocha” (or Mokka, or Mocca) is still prized today for its chocolatey, spicey, and berry and wine like flavors that echo its African origins.
Harar – Coffee’s Gateway to the East
Yet nowhere in the world were those echoes more resonant than in the flavors of coffee from Harar, very likely the city where the first non-Africans, including Dhabhani, would have first sipped the beverage. Harar is a walled city in eastern Ethiopia, an ancient trade hub, and an important Islamic spiritual center that was at its cultural peak in the 15th and 16th centuries, connecting eastern Africa with the Arabian peninsula.
Harar is too far east to be coffee’s original home. That distinction belongs to the Kingdom of Kaffa far to the west. Yet Harar, with its important location and significance as a cultural and economic epicenter, may well have introduced the earliest Yemeni traders and imams to the product. Its prominence in the very earliest means of coffee transit and trade infused its coffee with historic significance.
Harar is also unquestionably the most memorable coffee of a recently bygone era. Harar dry processed coffees (that is, those cherries dried in the sun with minimal processing after harvest) grown in the greater region reached their apex in the 1980s and 1990s. For a time, there were no other coffees like them. Their flavor, distinctively blueberry-like, was unparalleled and instantly recognizable. Harar was the jewel of the adventurous coffee drinker, an uncommon gem with a mystique that could not be described, only experienced.
Sadly, Harari coffee became dilute and lost much of its appeal in the early 21st century. More attention and care was given to coffees from Yirgacheffe and Sidama, and the introduction of the ECX in 2008 further obscured the ability of traders to isolate the best of the region’s beans. It became a fable, a callback, a reference point immortalized and enshrined in gilded memories that could perhaps never be lived-up-to again.
A glimmer of hope remains, however. The ECX has evolved over the past decade to better suit markets and consumer demands. Whispers of an old friend, retracing the steps of a previous generation but with the tools of the modern world and the flexibility of the newest direct trade allowances, may yet bring coffee from Harar back to the tongues of those who still remember its former glory.
Indonesia – Seeds that Spread to the West
There is perhaps no coffee more dissimilar to Harar, yet equally memorable, as giling basah (wet hulled coffee) from Indonesia. History, too, has taken a different turn to bring coffee to islands in the Pacific ocean, yet the root is deep and singular, and returns us to the port of Mocha in Yemen.
Coffee loves intersections: art and science, craft and commodity, stimulant and specialty.
Coffee’s first intersection of Ethiopia (culture) and Yemen (cultivation) would meet its match in the form of European merchants (colonization).
Part and parcel to Yemen’s early dominance in coffee trade was its ban on the export of viable seeds. Ultimately, their monopoly was outfoxed by the Dutch, purportedly when merchant Pieter van den Broecke visited the port of Mocha in 1616, uprooted a whole tree, and smuggled it to the botanical garden in Amsterdam. Thereafter the Dutch planted coffee on the western coast of India and Sri Lanka in the waning hours of the 17th century.
In 1699, coffee found its way from India’s Malabar coast to Batavia (now Jakarta), on the island of Java in the Dutch East Indies, what is now Indonesia. Despite its stopover in India (and Ceylon, now Sri Lanka), Java would be the world’s next region to lend its name to the bean. The world would never be the same.
Javanese coffee trees, transshipped through India from Yemen, became the sole source of the dispersion of coffee across the world for the next century and a half. Eventually known as the Typica variety of Arabica, trees from Java made their way back to botanical gardens in Europe, notably in Amsterdam and Paris, and thereafter populated all of the Americas. Even Arabica’s other major heirloom cultivar, Bourbon, was first plucked from the Javanese Typica plant in the Dutch botanical garden as a gift to the French royal court.
But coffee in Indonesia would undergo its own special trajectory. The Dutch colonizers, having found sufficient land to occupy, went about planting coffee throughout the Indonesian islands, and as early as 1725 began enforcing their ideas of agriculture (which generally meant replacing subsistence staples like rice with cash crops such as coffee, sugar, and silk). Formally, the cultuurstelsel Cultivation system didn’t actually begin until about 1830, but with Dutch coffee demand leading the charge in Europe, it’s no secret that the islands of Java, Sumatra, and Celebes (Sulawesi) were wrested from the independent control of their inhabitants and converted into government-run plantations. Even privately held small plots were required to produce cash crops to turn over to the Dutch.
The legacy of colonial control reaches far beyond the crops that continue to grow in Indonesia, but marks on the coffee industry remain indelible. While Javanese coffee production continues to largely center on former government estates, on neighboring Sumatra it is the smallholder who produces the bulk of the island’s coffee. Old and unshakable systems of middlemen and an inherent need to quickly harvest and reap profit has resulted in the adaptation of wet hulling. Giling basah, as it is called locally, is as pragmatic an exchange as exists in the coffee growing world, one that minimizes labor and time at the front end of the supply chain – a holdover from colonial occupation and an important consideration when labor and time aren’t being compensated. After harvesting and pulping, wet coffee in parchment may be sold to the processor (or middleman) for milling. Once stripped of its protective parchment shell, the coffee then finishes drying for export. This method leaves its mark on the distinctive jade-like color of Sumatran coffees, as well as their funky, earthy flavors, unmatched elsewhere on the globe.
There is yet another part to the story of Indonesian coffee, however. After more than a century of dominance on the global stage, a major coffee leaf rust outbreak began in Ceylon in 1869 and spread like wildfire throughout Asia and the Indian and Pacific ocean islands. For the first time in history, coffee production shifted nearly in its entirety to the Western Hemisphere. The introduction of Robusta would reinvigorate the Indonesian coffee market, and eventually introduce the region to the Robusta-Arabica Timor hybrid. Heirloom Typica, except in the most remote, high elevation reaches of Sumatra, would cease to exist in its entirety, replaced wholesale by resistant hybrids.
While volcanic island coffee produced throughout the world may share certain characteristics like lower acidity and earthy sweetness, Indonesian coffee has its own peculiarities. In particular Sumatra, unlike most of the other Pacific islands, has retained the tradition of wet hulling. The distinctive flavor of this process, combined with regional idiosyncrasies and the distinctive mix of fungus-resistant hybrid varieties has created some of the most strongly recognizable coffee flavors in the world. Earthy, herbal, and musty, Sumatran coffees are undeniably not for the faint of heart, and unsurprisingly retain a special place in the annals of specialty coffee history.
The world of specialty coffee has expanded with an uncommon rapidity in the early years of the 21st century.
Yet the diversity and depth of the current industry is built on the backbone of origins like Harar and Sumatra, their distinctive flavors that ignited curiosity and their unique histories without which the world would likely be bereft of the beverage we love.