From Dancing Goats to the Daily Buzz: A History of Coffee

by Karla Roland

for Advanced Composition, East TN State U, December 2011

 “[Coffee is] black as the devil, hot as hell, pure as an angel, sweet as love.

 French statesman Talleyrand (1754-1838).

           Tall, vanilla latte, with an extra shot of espresso, and no whipped cream is how I like my coffee. My father would say, “Black with two Splendas.” Every person knows how they like it, and a twenty-minute wait in line at Starbucks shows that coffee is in high demand. As a college student, I have experienced the enlightening effects of coffee first-hand during all-night study sessions. On campus, I would be hard-pressed to throw a rock in any direction without hitting a student holding a cup of this wonder-brew. According to the 2011 Coffee Business Statistics Report, fifty percent of Americans over the age of eighteen, 150 million people, drink at least one cup of coffee each day (“Coffee”). However, with the abundance of coffee in America today, it is easy to overlook the humble origins of coffee. From the dancing goats that changed the world, to coffee houses, coffee rose from the unknown to a multi-billion dollar franchise and becomes a hot commodity (“Major”).

I.                   Coffee’s Discovery by Dancing Goats

goat.gifIf it had not been for the shepherd Kaldi in Ethiopia, circa 800 A.D., the world might be an entirely different, and less efficient, place (“Legends”). Kaldi was tending his flock of goats when he noticed how energetic his goats became after eating the cherries that contain the coffee beans from the coffee plants (“Story”). According to National Geographic author Ethel Starbird, Kaldi’s goats became so energetic that they began to jump, dance about, and could not fall asleep that night (Starbird). Out of curiosity, Kaldi samples some of the cherries that he saw the goats eating. Upon eating them, Kaldi feels so invigorated that he begins to dance along with the goats (“Legends”). Kaldi is the first of many to follow to experience the joyous energy of the caffeine in coffee.

According to the National Coffee Association, a monk in a local monastery receives the cherries from Kaldi. This monk finds the beans in the cherries unpleasant to chew, and they dry out when he tries roasting them. Finally, the monk boils the roasted coffee beans and is rewarded with the discovery of liquid coffee (“History”). The monk greatly enjoys the extra energy he receives from his new beverage, so he shares it with his fellow monks. The monks find that night that they have a new spiritual fervor and ability to remain alert during the long hours of evening prayer (“Legends”). The monks spread news of the amazing properties of this liquid throughout Ethiopia. Eventually news of coffee reaches the Arabian Peninsula.

II.                Coffee’s Spread to the Arabian Peninsula

Coffee is enjoyed throughout Ethiopia, but it is in Yemen in the Arabian Peninsula that coffee is first cultivated and harvested as a crop in the 15th century (“History”). The spread of coffee increases at a remarkable rate. By the 16th century, coffee is known and enjoyed in Persia, Egypt, Syria, and Turkey. In these countries prototype coffee houses begin to spring up, known as qahveh khanek (“History”). These coffee houses soon become immensely popular, and function as social centers within a community. The qahveh khanek features social activities, music, performances, and chess matches. In addition, they function as an area to exchange news or information and discuss current issues. Due to the discussion and wise patrons attracted to the coffee houses, they are known as “schools of wise” (“History”). These early cafes embody the power of coffee in motivating people and empowering the mind for critical thought. They also resemble the cafes and coffeehouses that will appear later in Europe.

The Arabian Peninsula remains the sole exporter and commercial grower of coffee during this time due to special efforts on their part. Sellers roast all beans before exporting them to ensure that no one will replant the beans in different territories (“Legends”). For almost two hundred years, the Arabian Peninsula ensures a monopoly on coffee growth and distribution. It is not until the early seventeenth century that a traveler successfully smuggles a sprout from the plant out of the country and opens the door for coffee competition (“Legends”).

III.             Religion and Coffee

With the initial spread of coffee largely attributed to monks, it is not difficult to draw a connection between coffee and religion. According to the National Coffee Association, historians believe that the large success of coffee within the Arabian Peninsula can be attributed to the fact that the predominant religion is Muslim (“History”). Muslim theology forbids the consumption of alcohol, so it is only natural that coffee should become a substitute for people looking to find a pick-me-up beverage. In addition, coffee spreads from the Muslim territories typically because it is smuggled back to other countries by pilgrims visiting Mecca (“Legend”).

When coffee first arrives in Europe from pilgrims, religious figures reject it, claiming that it is the “bitter invention of Satan” (“History”). Controversy breaks out between religious figures opposing the drink and those who enjoy it. Eventually, the religious figures ask Pope Clement VIII to intervene in the matter. Before the Pope will condemn or approve coffee, he decides to sample the beverage. Upon sampling the beverage, the Pope finds it so satisfying that he gives it his full Papal approval (“History”). With the approval of the church, coffee skyrockets in its consumption and global reach.

IV.              European Invasion

Coffee’s arrival to Europe begins in Venice in the year 1615 (“Story”). Coffee begins to spread and grow in popularity in many countries throughout Europe. For a brief period, coffee even rivals tea as the most popular beverage in England. This is remarkable considering that the cost of a bag of coffee in this period is forty-eight pounds 1600s currency (Starbird). By the end of the 1600s, Britain is consuming more coffee than any other city in the world, only declining in popularity when England faces economic hardship and switches back to tea, which can be grown locally (Starbird).

mapM.gifIn general, coffee is hugely popular in Europe, leading many European nations to look for a way to cash in on the profits, or more precisely obtain a foothold in the means of production. According to the International Coffee Association, the Dutch are the first to successfully establish coffee plantations in their colonies in India and Indonesia. After seeing the success of the Dutch, almost every European nation began plantations in their territories throughout South America, Africa, and the Middle East (“Story”). Some of these plantations are successful; some are not successful, based on the agricultural demands of coffee that the plant must stay at seventy degrees year round (“Major”).

Text Box: The “Bean Belt” of colonized coffee producers. The yellow countries are the top ten largest producers. (Map can be found at the National Geographic Coffee Database Online)

The huge success of coffee is followed by the popularity of coffee houses. Almost overnight coffee houses appear across England. From coffee’s arrival in Venice in 1615 to the middle of the 17th century, more than 300 coffee houses have been established throughout Europe (“History”). The coffee houses in Europe are remarkably similar to the qahveh khanek from the Arabian Peninsula. Coffee houses become centers of intellectual thought and a gathering place for news and discussion. Coffee houses are also frequented by artists, musicians, and poets (“History”). According to Ethel Starbird’s article “The Bonanza Bean: Coffee,” it is rumored that Voltaire drank fifty cups of coffee a day in coffee houses. Johann Sebastian Bach also wrote a complete musical cantata praising the value of coffee and condemning those who oppose it (Starbird). Throughout Europe, intellectuals are drawn to the social appeal of coffee houses.

V.                 Legends about the Spread of Coffee

xiv.gifMany interesting rumors exist about how coffee travels from location to location in such a short amount of time. According to one legend from the International Coffee Association, the Mayor of Amsterdam gives Louis XIV a young coffee seedling in 1714 that he plants in the French Botanical Gardens (“Story”). A naval officer, Gabriel de Clieu, comes to Louis XIV and asks for a clipping from the plant. The king denies the request, but Gabriel de Clieu sneaks into the gardens and cuts off a small branch from the plant during the night (“Legends”). Gabriel endures a harsh journey with the plant, including terrible weather at sea, attack by pirates, famine on the ship, and a disgruntled shipmate who tries to steal the plant from him (“Story”). Despite these conditions, Gabriel makes it to Martinique with the plant, and the seedlings from this plant grow into 18 million coffee trees over the next fifty years (“Legends”).

blossoms.gifIn a similar rumor from the National Geographic online coffee database, Francisco de Mello Palheta is sent to a French governor with the purpose of obtaining coffee seedlings to grow in Brazil (“Legends”). The governor refuses Palheta’s request, but the governor’s wife becomes quite taken by Palheta. As a going away present, she gives Palheta a bouquet of flowers, and hidden inside are coffee seeds. Palheta takes these seeds to Brazil, where coffee becomes a multi-billion dollar industry (Starbird). According to National Geographic’s online statistics, Brazil is still the leading supplier of coffee, producing one third of coffee consumed (“Major”).

VI.              Coffee in America

Despite the growth of coffee in Europe and the arrival of coffee in America, for many years tea is still the preferred beverage of colonists. If it had not been for the tea tax imposed by the British, tea would probably still be the primary beverage in America. To show their outrage at the tea tax, colonists in Boston, Massachusetts engage in what is now known as the Boston Tea Party in 1773. Colonists dump the tea from England into the water, and many follow this action by refusing to drink tea at all. Coffee becomes the beverage that replaces tea for America, and since that time, coffee still maintains its position as the more popular beverage (“Story”).

Following the Boston Tea Party, coffee only grows in popularity through the next couple of centuries. Coffee maintains its popularity throughout the 20th century despite wars, depression, and steep prices on imported goods (“Story”). Cafes become popular throughout America like they did before in other countries. Coffee is everywhere, the craze that began with goats around 800 A.D. has not declined in popularity over time. The overwhelming success of coffee is what has led it to be 2nd only to oil in foreign exchange between countries (“Story”). After all, what would life in America be without coffee to fuel us?


Annotated Bibliography

"Coffee Business Statistics Report 2011." Espresso Business Solutions. E-Imports, 2011. Web. 3 Dec. 2011. <>.


This website gives many statistics on coffee consumptions rates for the country and individual states. Some of the statistics include consumption rate of coffee, consumption rate of specialty coffees, and monetary averages for specialty coffee shops. In addition, this site references a business report from the National Coffee Association, and gives sales figures from the report.


"Legends." Coffee. National Geographic Society, 1999. Web. 25 Oct. 2011.

This is a page from the coffee database on National Geographic’s website. The database is a subdirectory of the main site and features Ethel Starbird’s article, in addition to many pages that include history, maps, and legends surrounding coffee growth and distribution. This page lists the many legends that surround the origin of coffee. In addition, this page tells the legends that surround the spread of coffee from country to county that led to coffee’s overwhelming success.

"Major Coffee Producers." Coffee. National Geographic Society, 1999. Web. 23 Oct. 2011.

This is a page from the coffee database on National Geographic’s website. The database is a subdirectory of the main site and features Ethel Starbird’s article, in addition to many pages that include history, maps, and legends surrounding coffee growth and distribution. This page examines the geographical locations of the ten largest producers of coffee. The page also lists the typical weather conditions of the environment, the output in millions of bags, and the quality of coffee that is grown in each area.


Starbird, Ethel A. “The Bonanaza Bean: Coffee.” National Geographic. Pages 388- 404, March 1981. National Geographic Society, 1999. Web. 18 October 2011.

This article briefly explains the history of the coffee plant and how it spread to other countries after its discovery in Ethiopia. The article examines the process of harvesting the coffee beans and the environmental standards necessary to grow the plant. The article also shows the importance of coffee to many different countries and cultures both in consumption and agriculturally.


"The History Of Coffee." National Coffee Association USA, Est. 1911. National Coffee Association of USA, Inc. Web. 23 Oct. 2011.

This history of coffee details the spread of coffee from Ethiopia to Europe. Religious appreciation or condemnation of coffee is significant in this article. The article also describes how coffee rose to fame in America. Early plantations and introduction of coffee planting into African and Middle Eastern lands owned by Europe is also discussed.


"The Story of Coffee." International Coffee Organization. International Coffee Organization, 2007. Web. 23 Oct. 2011.

This website also gives a history of coffee, but primarily focuses on the history of coffee in recent America. The site examines how coffee came to America and where the coffee centers of America are now. In addition, the website article discusses where the first cafes emerged in America and their significance.