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Coffee History: Goat Stories

The favorite bedtime story about the origin of coffee goes like this: Once upon a time in the land of Arabia Felix (or in Ethiopia, if an Ethiopian is telling the story), there lived a goatherd named Kaldi. Kaldi was a sober, responsible goatherd whose goats were also sober, if not responsible. One night, Kaldi's goats failed to come home, and in the morning he found them dancing with abandoned glee near a shiny, dark-leafed shrub with red berries. Kaldi soon determined that it was the red berries on the shiny, dark-leafed shrub that caused the goats' eccentric behavior, and soon he was dancing too.

Finally, a learned imam from a local monastery came by, sleepily, no doubt, on his way to prayer. He saw the goats dancing, Kaldi dancing, and the shiny, dark-leafed shrub with the red berries. Being of a more systematic turn of mind than the goats or Kaldi, the learned imam subjected the red berries to various experimental examinations, one of which involved parching and boiling. Soon, neither the imam nor his fellows fell asleep at prayers, and the use of coffee spread from monastery to monastery, throughout Arabia Felix (or Ethiopia), and from there to the rest of the world.

Coffee History: Goats Put to the Test

Some centuries later, in 1998, I was visiting coffee farms in the mountains of Yemen, the home of Kaldi in the Arabia Felix version of the story. Central Yemen is an austerely beautiful landscape of steep, terraced mountains and stone villages. Yemen coffee is still produced in the simple, direct way it was hundreds of years ago, and it remains one of the finest of the world's coffees. I was curious about the Kaldi story, however, and persuaded a goatherd to bring his goats into a coffee orchard. After having set up a video camera to document this dramatic reenactment of coffee myth, I asked the goatherd to offer the goats fresh coffee branches festooned with ripe coffee fruit.

The goats sniffed the coffee branches suspiciously, then began to munch some miserable dried grass growing around the foot of the trees.

I tried the same experiment later with what were advertised as much hungrier goats. This time I offered them three choices: fresh coffee branches, dry grass, and qat tree leaves, which Yemenis chew in the afternoon for their stimulant properties. Goat preference sequence: qat leaves number one, dry grass number two, coffee three.

Perhaps the goats I tried were just being perverse, as goats will. Perhaps myths are not supposed to be tested, only told. And I need to add that on a recent trip to Ethiopia I did see some goats happily munching on fresh coffee leaves a woman was feeding them. Perhaps Ethiopian goats are more prone to coffee eating than Yemeni goats, which could be taken as a goat vote for the Ethiopian claim that Kaldi was their goatherd, not the Yemeni's.

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