Compared with wine or tea, coffee is a relative newcomer to the beverage world. Its cultivation and widespread consumption dates from the 1400s when the Yemeni grew and traded beans with their Arab and Persian neighbors.
But for centuries before that, the beans were chewed by travelers on long journeys in Northern Africa.
Native to Ethiopian highlands, coffee bushes thrive in forest shade and bear fruit year-round. Each red cherry which grow in clusters along the plant's stems bears two small pale green beans (a small percentage bear single beans called peaberries). When dried, roasted and steeped in hot water, those beans produce the coffee we know.
How did man discover brewed coffee? Two legends surround its first taste. According to the National Coffee Association, an Ethiopian goatherd named Kaldi noticed that his flock got extra frisky after nibbling on the bright red cherries. The goats wouldn't sleep at night.
Kaldi took the cherries to a monastery to identify this mysterious fruit. An abbot brewed a drink from the cherries and found that his brew kept him alert for hours of evening prayer. The monk's energy drink spread to other monasteries as an aid to concentration.
Yemen also has its coffee origin myth. Mocha's Sheikh Omar had been banished to the wilderness and was starving. In desperation and exhausted, he tried eating some red berries from a bunn bush (Coffea). They were so bitter, he spit out the beans. He tried roasting the beans to make them palatable, but they became too hard to chew. To soften the roasted beans, Omar soaked them in hot water. The aroma was so enticing, he drank the liquid and immediately became revitalized. Omar returned to Mocha to share his "magic beans" and was made a saint.
Arab traders slowly spread word of this wonder brew and fell in love with its energizing powers. Eventually, traders introduced coffee to Italy, where it became a European sensation.
The Dutch East India Co. spread the cultivation of coffee to Java and Ceylon. By 1727, coffee reached Brazil as a plantation crop. Brazil, which produces about one-third of all coffee, has ranked as the world's leading coffee producer for more than 150 years.