In my years around coffee I have found that the many myths, tales and legends which can be found throughout the coffee growing world are superb teaching tools.
“The human species thinks in metaphors and learns through stories” – Mary Cathrine Bateson
We as the “storytelling ape” innately find it easier to remember things which we encounter as stories, and this has been a foundation for my coffee education work for a long time. These articles will attempt to replicate some of this, by sharing some tales of coffee and discussing the reality, relative truth and impact of these tales on our understanding of the wonderful world of coffee.
Telling the Tale
Greetings fellow lovers of tales and coffee alike, settle down with a hot cup of coffee and come with me to the land of Abyssinia over 1,000 years ago…
Here in the cradle of life, we meet an unassuming young man by the name of Kaldi, who lives his life in the warm and temperate uplands of the beating heart of Africa. Kaldi works the farm of his father and his days are given over to the care of a herd of goats, a valuable thing indeed in these times!
Now Kaldi is a clever young man, he is a talented musician, singer and a budding philosopher who refuses to let his work distract from his passion. Our clever hero has trained his herd to respond to a note from his pipes, whenever they hear the call, they happily gamble back to their human friend.
Freed from concern through his own ingenuity, Kaldi allows his father’s goats to wander and spends his days in the shade, singing and playing his pipes, thinking deep thoughts, or taking a well earned nap. Each evening as the sun starts to lower in the sky our cunning, if rather lazy, goatherd sounds out his call on the pipes, gathers the herd and heads home to a proud father. Life is good.
One day as the warmth of the day begins to wane we can see our clever goatherd stretching out from a languid rest and sounding his customary note. How strange then when his herd does not answer. Once more he sounds the call, and once again, still no sign of the herd, father will not be pleased!
A confused and concerned Kaldi sets out to find his missing goats, after a tiring and exhaustive search he finds them all in the upper reaches of the local mountains on a verdant and sun dappled plateau dancing upon their hind legs in a strange fashion. Any average young man of the time would flee in terror of this witchcraft, report the loss of the herd to his father and hope for leniency. But not our Kaldi.
Ever curious, Kaldi settles in and watches the herd. After some hours he observes that amidst the cavorting chaos of the energetic dance, they are all eating the leaves and cherries of a high growing plant, which our clever hero recognises as the bunn tree. Uncertain of the outcome and unwilling to risk the hooves and horns of his dancing charges (a decision that your narrator can confirm from hard experience is a wise one), Kaldi continues to watch over the goats and pray that they do not die. Some hours later the herd settles, seemingly unharmed by the experience and Kaldi brings them home, with no need to face the wrath of his father.
The next day Kaldi heads out with his herd as ever, once they are freed the goats head straight back to the upland clearing and begin to eat and dance once more.
Here the future of our story diverges, in one world the eminently sensible Kaldi notes the goats obsession, allows them to sate themselves as before and takes them home. The next day he sets out in exactly the opposite direction, traveling as far away as possible from this bizarre madness and lives a happy life. Perhaps he marries and has a goat farm all of his own… In this world I am not in fact writing this article, I am probably having a soothing cup of tea at my desk while likely as not working in listed building management. This is not our world!
In our world Kaldi, being very human and thus lacking in common sense, possessed of an over abundance of curiosity along with an inflated sense of optimism, decides to join the goats.
After his first tentative chews on the leaves of the strange plant, our young musician eats some of the cherries from the tree. Sure enough in short order our hero is dancing with his goats, playing a storm on his pipes and finding his mind stimulated with immensely important thoughts!
Returning home Kaldi reports his discovery to his father and together they spread the word of this amazing stimulant. Soon Africa becomes very aware of the amazing powers of what becomes known as the Coffea Tree. The coffee industry is born from the curiosity of a simple goatherd.
More than a millennia later your narrator makes his living drinking, talking about and studying the history and future of Kaldi’s magical plant. This world is, in his humble opinion, a strictly better one!
Digging Into the Myth
So this tale, or some version of it, has been around the coffee world for a long time, certainly much longer than I have and it’s beautiful and evocative. It’s also almost certainly not entirely (or even much at all) true, which I feel is a shame. Still the tale of Kaldi is of importance in my view, and we can learn a lot from it.
The discovery of the coffee tree in Abyssinia (now known as Ethiopia) is pretty well accepted, much time has been, and will continue to be devoted to the specific varietal which originates coffee, many will tell you that it began with Coffea Arabica. While this is a lovely thought and adds to the wondrous appeal of that particular strain of the coffee tree, its truth is however doubtful. In all likelihood Coffea Arabica and Coffea Canephora share an ancestor which is likely to be the original coffee tree, if indeed one single varietal was established at the time. But I leave that to the plant geneticists, being woefully under qualified to venture more than educated speculation on the subject.
What almost certainly is a truth form our tale is the origins of coffee consumption in chewing leaves and eating berries. It’s also entirely probable that humans quite quickly found ways to improve and enhance the consumption of “bunn” which would later become known as coffee. Good sense suggests that early brewing would be in the form of infusions, perhaps a weak berry tea. But well beyond a simple drink the coffee plant became rather ubiquitous, we have some good (if anecdotal) evidence of the ground beans being combined with animal fat to make a kind of travel food, fermented cherries becoming coffee wine and much more. One interesting method of consumption was the use of the roasted husk of the coffee cherry in making a drink called qishr, this drink concept still exists and is most often known as “kisher”.
So very embedded in Africa is coffee that you can still get your coffee served to you in a traditional manner at homes in Ethiopia. Here you will find that a household has a store of green coffee beans, and when you are asked to partake you will be seated to talk with your host as his wife (apologies for the lack of modern sensitivity here, but in these homes tradition holds sway) tends a coal fire and removes the silverskin (outer coating) from the beans with meticulous care. After this she will toss some frankincense onto the coals, and place a large metal sheet atop the fire. To this she adds the green beans and as you enjoy the hospitality you can hear the familiar first crack of roasting. When she is satisfied with the colour she will remove them and break the roasted bean down in a pestle and mortar until she produces a fine powder. This powder is then added to a clay brewer along with a mix of spices (generally cardamom and cinnamon) and brought to the boil with great care. The resulting drink is always served with a dose of sugar in small clay cups, and the brewing process is repeated twice more before the guest thank their host and everyone moves on.
Impact in the Modern Industry
Much of the weight behind the legend of coffee’s origins is still felt in our modern coffee industry. The “heirloom coffees” of Africa command good prices and a reputation for excellent flavour, these are specifically those grown in the regions of Yirgacheffe, Sidamo and Harar. Now this is not an article in which I intend to dive into the pros and cons of this terminology, while I do have some pretty strong views on the subject the key point here is that the myth has created a lasting impact in the mindset of the coffee drinking world.
Equally Africa, as the home of coffee, is an origin country that sparks a very special level of interest in coffee lovers like your humble author. The sheer variety of flavours which can come from African coffee is hard to match and there is a good reason for this.
Coffee made its way out of Africa in a number of interesting ways (several of those stories I will tell in future parts of Coffee Tales.) despite the desire to keep the magical bean safe, indeed for a long time it was illegal to remove coffee trees or seeds from Africa. Due to these historical restrictions the variety of coffee which made it into the rest of the coffee growing world is surprisingly limited.
Despite the seemingly vast number of “different coffees” on the market, the reality is that the overwhelming majority of arabica coffee we consume is derived from only 2 plants, Typica and Bourbon. These are the two varietals of coffee plant that made it out of Africa and into the world, as a result the flavours and style of these types have become those we most often look for. This is great in the sense that we get a real buzz from coffee we love, but it causes a problem.
The reality of any commercial crop is that to maintain its sustainability you need a diverse gene pool. Unfortunately as you can gather from the above we don’t have this is coffee globally. Some very respected agronomists specialising in coffee will tell you that in the coming decades coffee is facing a serious threat of extinction due to lack of diversity, but that’s another article.
What’s this go to do with Kaldi and Africa? Well the solution to this potentially troubling set of problems is most likely to be found back in coffees birthplace, among the many wild species still growing there. But sadly it’s not going to be easy to access.
Again this issue is part of another article, for now suffice to say that a lack of financial investment in the heartland of coffee means that many challenges will be faced in taking advantage of the wild varietal stocks of Africas. Still the very cradle of its birth is likely to be the greatest protector of coffee’s future, and with some wise minds and hard work perhaps we can return to the imagined heyday of Kaldi and his coffee discovery, finding some new flavours and ideas along the way!
No matter what else may come, Africa will forever remain the heart of coffee, the birthplace of the phenomenon which has come to cover the world. The tale of Kaldi in its many forms will likely be told for many generations to come. My own love of coffee has led me to a love of Africa and her history, of the legends of the bean that allows me to make my living. Tales to be respected, retold and reconsidered.
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