Did you have coffee today? Most people probably had at least a cup or two – although I know some who never drink it, never have, and never will. I love coffee, and drink quite a lot of it – strong, dark roast coffee, with no adulteration: no flavoring, no milk, no sugar, nothing to diminish the coffee experience.
Coffee has been the subject of some interesting controversies over the years. Sometimes it’s considered very unhealthy. Then again it may be seen as very healthy, especially if taken in moderation.
How much do you know about coffee, and its history – and why it’s called coffee? Do you know where it originated, and how its use spread?
My parents always drank coffee, and quite a lot of it. My dad, a Swedish-American, remembered his mother making “eggshell coffee.” This was a traditional method of brewing coffee in which eggshells are added to the ground coffee in the bottom of the pot, to remove the bitterness from boiling the coffee and also to settle the grounds and clarify the brew. Anyone who knows about cowboys is also familiar with this technique.
My parents didn’t use that old method, however, but brewed their coffee the way most people had since the turn of the 20th Century – in a percolator. I knew perked coffee from my earliest memories. I used to love watching the water burble up into the little glass top of the pot, slowly turning from clear to a warm brown, while making a comforting bubbling sound – but I didn’t drink it. I never drank coffee until my last year in college, when a young woman I became very fond of introduced me to it, and I immediately loved it. I can’t say how much my initial reaction was influenced by my infatuation with my new friend, but in any case, I became a confirmed coffee drinker immediately and never looked back.
In the early 1970s, coffee making was revolutionized by automatic drip coffee makers (remember Mr. Coffee?) which have completely replaced percolators. Other methods, such as the French press, also have taken their place in the home as well as in the burgeoning coffeehouse industry.
My own path after college took me into the Army. This was the mid-60s, and Vietnam was affecting many lives. I decided to get the most benefit from an unavoidable situation, and steered myself to the Defense Language Institute, and after a year learning Arabic, I was sent to Kagnew Station, a communications base in Asmara Eritrea (then part of Ethiopia).
Asmara is a jewel of a city. Built during the Italian colonialization of Eritrea in the late 19th Century, Mussolini made it his showplace, sending the best designers to turn this transplanted northern Italian capital into the finest example of Art Deco architecture, a small sample of which can be seen below.
Long after the defeat of the Italian occupation of Ethiopia in 1941, their influence was still strong in Asmara when I arrived in 1968. Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie had invited them to remain in Eritrea to help rebuild after the war, and many did so. Despite the rise of English, Italian still was the language of commerce in the marketplace, and Italian restaurants, coffee shops, and gelaterias were everywhere. I quickly discovered a taste for espresso and cappuccino, and discovered that I was in fact in the homeland of coffee.
About that… There are several legends and stories about the discovery of coffee, and how it became such an important part of the lives of people around the world. While all are most likely apocryphal, the one with the most ring of truth recounts the tale of a young Oromo goat-herd named Kaldi in what now is southern Ethiopia who realized that when his goats ate the bright red berries of a certain bush, they became energized. When he tried them and experienced the same result, he brought some berries to the local Muslim monastery, where the holy men threw them into the fire, then noticed the exhilarating aroma that rose as they roasted in the coals. The berries were retrieved, ground, and put in hot water. Voila! Coffee!
True or not, it appears that the Oromo people (the name means “The Powerful”), who speak a Cushitic language and are the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, may have been the first to prepare and drink coffee, but before long its use spread widely, throughout the Ethiopian populace and across the Red Sea to southern Arabia, where it was quickly cultivated and widely exported throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and beyond.
Connected with this history is the name of the beverage. The earliest literary mention of coffee was by a 10th Century Persian physician, who referred to it as bunchum. The name of the plant and the beverage in the languages of its homeland, including Tigrinya, Amharic, and Arabic, is bunn or bunna. Arabic also uses the name qahwa, and nearly everywhere in the world it is called something like café or coffee, names which appear related to the Kingdom of Kaffa in southern Ethiopia, where coffee cultivation and trade originated before its spread to southern Arabia. Speaking of names, the south Arabian port from which coffee was exported, and which held a near monopoly on the trade until the Dutch established plantations in the East Indies, is Mokha (المخا), seen below in a 1692 Dutch engraving, which of course gave its name to a variety of coffee drink known as café mocha.
Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and Greek coffee is generally brewed in a brass pot. In the most common method, the pot is half filled with water which is brought to a boil, then finely-ground dark roasted beans are put in the pot, often along with sugar or cardamom. The pot is heated to a boil three times, each time producing a rich foam or froth. Then the coffee, including some of the fine grounds, is poured into small cups, spooning froth into each cup.
In its original homeland, the manner of coffee preparation is a complex pattern of procedures that rival the Japanese Tea Ceremony. In Ethiopia and Eritrea, coffee is prepared in a round clay pot (called jebena) with a tall, narrow spout and a handle at the base of the spout. The Ethiopian version also has a small pouring spout opposite the handle, which is not present in the Eritrean jebena.
Whether prepared in the home, at a coffee house, or in a restaurant, most of the same steps are included, although the first step, roasting the green beans, will not be part of the process because of the thick oily smoke, which smells wonderful but would be overwhelming if done indoors.
In a traditional household, the green coffee beans would be put in an open pan and roasted over a charcoal brazier outside the house, shaking the pan, turning the beans, and occasionally blowing away the hulls that separate from the beans as they expand during roasting.
Once roasted, the coffee beans are put in a mortar, usually made of wood, and ground with a pestle, often a piece of iron. The grounds are then put into the clay pot, water is added, and then the pot is placed on the brazier and allowed to boil, while the coals are roused with a stiff woven basketry fan.
Meanwhile, some coals will have been put into an incense burner, generally made of clay in a style unchanged for thousands of years, lumps of francincense resin would be placed on the hot coals, and the burner set in the doorway, so the thick aromatic smoke can waft into the house along with the smells of the roasting and brewing coffee.
Frankincense is obtained from Boswellia sacra, a tree native to Ethiopia and southern Arabia. The bark is scored, and the resinous sap weeps out and is collected after it hardens. Commerce in this product goes back several thousand years, and several kingdoms in both Abyssinia and South Arabia grew wealthy and powerful trading frankincense and the related resin myrrh. The Empire of Aksum, which ruled much of the land that now comprises Eritrea and Ethiopia, became as great an international power for several hundred years as the current oil states are today.
The coffee is allowed to boil three times, much the same as the common Arabic/Turkish method. Then the jebena is removed from the fire and placed in a stand, allowing the coffee to settle. Sugar is spooned into the little cups on a tray next to the stand, then a filter, either a wad of horsehair or grass, is put in the mouth of the jebena, and then the coffee is poured.
The proper way to pour coffee is generously. The server pours evenly until each cup is filled to the brim, then continues pouring while moving from cup to cup until all are filled. It would be impolite not to fill the cups generously, to overflowing. Then the server presents the tray to the guests, beginning with the eldest or most honored person, and each takes the cup and drinks, sipping noisily and praising the coffee. More water is then added to the pot and a second brew, called dagmawi (second), will be prepared, and often that is followed by a third brew, each served in the same way as the first.
Another element of the coffee ceremony involves popped grain. While popped corn is often used in cities, the more traditional grain is sorghum (a grain related to millet). The grain is popped in a pan, and some is scattered on the floor of the house while the remainder is served to the guests. I was never able to get a clear explanation for this part of the procedure, but it clearly seems to go along with the generosity and hospitality that is seen throughout the procedure.
As I’m sure you can understand, when I think of coffee, it means a lot more to me than just a “cuppa joe” or a quick pick-me-up. I hope some of you have the opportunity to enjoy coffee in the same way, as it was meant to be enjoyed.