Once upon a time1, in ancient Abyssinia2 there lived a goatherd named Kaldi3 . According to all sources, Kaldi was a rather somber fellow with a herd of rather somber goats. At the end of each day, Kaldi would blow a special note on his pipe and the goats would follow him home.
One evening, Kaldi blew his pipe. No goats appeared. He blew it again. No luck. He began to panic, imagining his father’s rage if Kaldi returned home without the goats. Kaldi began searching the mountain frantically. Where were the goats?
Finally, Kaldi found them. His normally somber goats were munching happily on a strange shrub with bright red berries. They were so energetic that they seemed to be dancing in the grove.
“My goats have been poisoned!” Kaldi thought. “What will my father say?”
Kaldi quickly gathered his goats and herded them back home.
The next day, Kaldi followed his goats as they returned to the same grove. Once again, they began eating from the strange shrub and once again, they seemed to be dancing in joy.
The young goatherd watched them carefully. The shrub didn’t seem to be hurting the goats – if anything, they seemed enlivened by it. Kaldi decided it might be safe to join them.
First, he picked some of the shiny, emerald-green leaves and began to masticate them. They were bitter and not-too-tasty, but he soon noticed a tingling sensation. It started as a tickle on his tongue, moving quickly to his gut before spreading to his entire body.
Undeterred, Kaldi tried some of the gleaning red berries. The fruit had a mild sweetness to it and the seeds were covered with a thick, tasty mucilage. Kaldi was pleased and kept eating from the shrub.
Soon, Kaldi was dancing alongside his goats. He had never felt so free and full of life. Surely the shrub was magical! He had to tell the world about this wonderful fruit!
From here, the accounts vary. Some say he told his father4 or his wife5 before passing the information along to his local monastery. Most people agree that one day the imam6 of a local monastery wandered by and discovered Kaldi dancing with his goats.
While this imam was perfectly pious in other ways, he struggled to stay awake during the long hours of evening prayer. This shrub could be just what he was looking for! The imam boiled some of the berries and found that he had all the energy he needed to stay awake during his prayers. The imam shared his drink with his monastery and soon word spread.
There is slightly-different alternative ending to this story. Rather than the imam stumbling upon Kaldi, the goatherd allegedly brought the beans to the monastery near Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile River7. Upon hearing Kaldi’s story of dancing with his goats, the head monk was sure the fruit was the Devil’s work. The monk threw the berries into the fire. Soon, the monastery was filled with the intoxicating aroma of coffee roasting and the monks put out the flames. While crushing the embers to kill the flames, the seeds were crushed and the head monk ordered that the granules be preserved in hot water. The monks drank this primitive brew and had no difficulty staying up for their evening prayers. They were quickly drinking the berry tea daily and word of its intoxicating effects soon spread.
Either way, coffee eventually spread from Abyssinia to the Arabian peninsula and the rest is history!
- c. 850 CE (Milos)
- Modern day Ethiopia, generally agreed to be the Kaffa region, although some sources say Arabia Felix (“Coffee History: Goat Stories”)
- Also spelled “Kaldhi” (Anderson)
- While many sources do say “abbot,” ancient Abyssinia was an Islamic land and it’s more correct to say imam rather than abbot. Eventually, I plan to write more about the history of coffee and the Muslim world.
- Anderson, Jerry. “A Brief History of Coffee: Kaldi and His Dancing Goats and Other Stories.” History Spaces. Published 12 December 2015. Web. Accessed 14 February 2018
- “Coffee History: Goat Stories.” Coffee Review. Accessed February 2017.
- “Ethiopian Coffee.” Selamta: The In-Flight Magazine of Ethiopian Airlines. Vol. 13, Number 2. Published April 1996. Web. Updated 9 August 2012. Accessed February 2018.
- Milos, Giorgio. “Coffee’s Mysterious Origins.” The Atlantic. Published 6 August 2010. Web. Accessed February 2018.
- Nzegwu, Nkiru. “Ethiopia: The Origin of Coffee.” Africa Resource. Web. Accessed February 2018.
- Pendergrast, Mark. Uncommon Grounds. Basic Books, 2010.
- “The History of Coffee.” NCAUSA. National Coffee Association of U.S.A., Inc.. Accessed February 2018.
- Ukers, William. All About Coffee. 2nd ed., Martino Publishing, 2011.