In the last few years, the drink has seen a culture develop around it. We can argue that coffee culture has gained almost cult status in the world today. That might sound like an exaggeration, but it’s nothing that this special bean hasn’t seen before in its history. Throughout its history, coffee has been the centre of wonder, mysticism, the metaphysical, and even ideological tension!
The history of this dark drink is shrouded in mystery and allure, so let’s try to tease out some of the nuances of this brew…
Quick HistoryThere’s a legend that speaks about a shepherd in Ethiopia in the 10th century, named Kaldi, who saw that his goat became more energetic than usual after eating a certain red or purple fruit. The shepherd experimented, himself, eventually brewing the fruit’s seeds in hot water, creating a drink and finding that he benefited from energy just like the goat did. Thus, coffee drinking was born!
But this may be just a legend. In Ethiopia, people have been using coffee for ceremonial purposes for centuries. The drink has been known, since way back when, to suppress the appetite, as well as keep you awake. As the bean became popular in other parts of Africa – it was even used as currency in Tanzania – Arab traders were hot on the scent. Before long, the coffee bean travelled to Yemen, where the Muslim Sufis saw its benefits and initially brewed the green beans without roasting them. After all, Sufis are Muslim mystics who seek closeness with God, so keeping sleep and hunger at bay eliminates those worldly desires.
But coffee was incorporated into mystical Sufi rituals as a sacred brew. For these Sufis in Yemen, coffee played a central part in transcendence. According to a 16th century historian, these mystics sipped on the brew every Monday and Friday eve. The coffee was poured into a large, red, clay vessel. The vessel was passed to the right as each worshipper ladled it out with a small dipper as they recited, “There is no God, but God, the Master, the Clear Reality.” Coffee was the catalyst to clarity and the potion that initiated a state of transcendence - the drink of ritual, the drink of mystics.
Coffee and Its Brush with ReligionCoffee quickly became a wondrous elixir, helping worshippers get closer to God. By the mid-15th century, the coffee bean gained a reputation in the pursuit of the divine. As more Muslims sought it out, it quickly gained popularity in the Ottoman Empire. They took qahwa from the Arabs, calling it kahve in Ottoman Turkish. But in the Islamic realm, debate was sparked over this new drink. It wasn’t wine, so it wasn’t explicitly prohibited in the religion.
Yet, some jurists looked at it as an intoxicant – it all depended on their rationale. In Istanbul, Cairo, and Mecca, for a while, the drink was outlawed and coffee and controversy went hand-in-hand. The drink was at the centre of a theological furore – people loved it or hated it, but they kept talking about it. It didn’t help the cause of coffee lovers when fortune-tellers began to use the grounds of the drink left over in a cup to read the drinker’s future.
This is a practice still observed today in Turkey, the Balkans, and Middle East. For many, it’s a bit of fun but for others it holds more than a little weight. For orthodox Islam, fortune-telling is strictly forbidden, whether it’s by reading coffee grounds, tea leaves, or the stars. The drink’s popularity is one of the main reasons that Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent couldn’t help but to overturn the ban. Fortune favoured the bean.
Coffee, Politics, and the WestAnd then, as the 15th century was coming to an end, Europe heard of the divine brew.
“Caffe,” the Italians named it. It turned into “Coffee” in English. The first coffee house in England opened in Oxford in 1650. But to Europe, coffee was the drink of the Muslims and was deemed by many as “un-Christian”. At a time when the imperial Ottomans were knocking on the doorstep of Christendom, “their” drink was regarded with suspicion – “a bitter invention of Satan”, even! In the Ottoman realm, the government used to send spies into coffeehouses, where political sentiment could be gauged. In Europe, coffeehouses were suspected of being the eyes and ears of the encroaching Turks, who were known to enjoy their coffee “black as hell, strong as death, and as sweet as love”.
The story of coffee is one of resilience. As an elixir to many, it combines all four classical elements before we ingest it, whichever method of brewing you prefer. It comes from the earth, is dried and fermented by air, roasted by fire, then extracted into water. Coffee is alchemy. It fuels our lives. The perfect brew demands reverence and ritual, but is that how we consume the drink today?