The most famous of the stories about the origin of coffee involves an Abyssinian goatherd named Kaldi who one day noticed that his normally docile goats had suddenly become exceptionally lively. On closer investigation Kaldi discovered his goats were nibbling the bright red berries from a shiny, dark-leafed shrub nearby.
Bravely the goatherd tasted these berries himself and soon found, to his amazement that he felt extraordinarily stimulated and invigorated. Convinced that he had discovered a miracle, Kaldi picked some more of the berries and rushed off with them to show his local Imam, a learned holy man. The Imam, on hearing the story, pronounced the beans to be evil and flung them onto the fire, whereupon a delicious and exotic aroma soon filled the air. Hastily the Imam, changing his mind, raked the beans from the fire and threw them into a bowl of water to cool, and then tasted the water. So was the first recorded coffee "brewed" and enjoyed.
Because of stories like this, coffee was first thought to have originated in Yemen on the Arabian peninsula when it was seen growing there by Europeans at a much later date. But the botanical evidence indicates that the coffee plant "Coffea Arabica" originated on the plateaus of central Ethiopia where it still grows wild.
Somehow the Arab traders got the beans from Ethiopia across the Red Sea to Yemen around the 6th century AD. Black African cultures were using the bean before this, but as a solid food: the ripe berries were squashed, combined with animal fats and shaped into round balls, which could be carried and eaten on long journeys.
In Arabia coffee is first mentioned as a medicine, then as a beverage taken during meditation and religious exercises. But by the 13th century throughout Arabia Qahveh (Coffee) houses serving the drink had become very popular, lively places where music was played and politicians, philosophers, artists and tradesmen all gathered. As coffee drinking grew in Arabia and Turkey, voyagers and traders from Europe tasted the new drink and took news of it back to Europe, but the Arabs jealously guarded their plants and would allow no seeds to leave the country unless they were roasted to prevent germination. However an Indian Moslem named Baba Budan on a pilgrimage to Arabia managed to smuggle coffee seeds out, and on his return home planted them in southern India.
It wasn't until 1615 that the first shipment of coffee arrived in Europe at Venice (then European trading headquarters) from Turkey, and coffee houses quickly spread through Italy and to Vienna, then on to most of Europe. The first recorded reference to coffee in England was in 1637 when a Turk named Jacob opened a coffee house in Oxford. In the meantime the Dutch had obtained coffee seeds from Malabar in India and planted them in their colony at Java. At that time coffee was available from Mocha the main port of Yemen or from Java, giving rise to the famous blend of "Mocha-Java."
In 1715 Louis XIV of France was given a single coffee tree brought from Java to Holland, and then to Paris for him by the Dutch. The first greenhouse in Europe was then constructed to house the single tree, where it flowered and bore fruit. (The coffee bush is self-pollinating.) The first sprouts from this single tree reached Martinique, a French dominion in the Caribbean around 1720, and the plant spread from there throughout Central and South America, notably to Brazil which today supplies over one third of the world's coffee.
In 1893 coffee was introduced to the British colonial countries Kenya and Tanganyika in Africa, only a few hundred kilometres south of where it had originated, in Ethiopia.
Coffee is now grown in most parts of the tropical zone, mostly at an elevation of 800 to 1000 metres, where the plant thrives best. The Robusta plant though, being hardier, can be grown at lower elevations.
In Australia coffee began to be planted in the early eighties around Mareeba on the tablelands of northern Queensland, where tea had been grown for many years. The industry struggled at first, but today some of the Australian plantations are successfully exporting Arabica beans, especially to the US and Japan.