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.