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