Coffee History : Out of Arabia

In Arabia, coffee was first mentioned as a medicine, then as a beverage taken in connection with meditation and religious exercises by Sufis. From there it moved into the streets and virtually created a new institution, the coffeehouse. Once visitors from the rest of the world tasted it in the coffeehouses of Cairo and Mecca, the spread of Coffea arabica, by sixteenth-century standards, was electrifyingly rapid.

The amazing odyssey of the arabica plant was possible only because of its stubborn botanical self-reliance. It pollinates itself, which means mutations are much less likely to occur than in plants that have a light pollen and require cross-fertilization. Most differences in flavor between arabica beans probably are caused not so much by differences in the plants themselves, but by the subtle variations created by soil, moisture, and climate. The plant itself has remained extraordinarily true to itself through five centuries of plantings around the world.

Legend proposes that the Arabs, protective of their discovery, refused to allow fertile seed to leave their country, insisting that all beans first be parched or boiled. This jealous care was doomed to failure, however, and it was inevitable that someone, in this case a Moslem pilgrim from India named Baba Budan, should sneak some seeds out of Arabia. Tradition says that sometime around a.d. 1650 he bound seven seeds to his belly, and as soon as he reached his home hermitage, a cave in the hills near Chickmaglur in south India, he planted them and they flourished. In 1928, William Ukers reported in his encyclopedic work All About Coffee that the descendants of these first seeds "still grow beneath gigantic jungle trees near Chickmaglur." Unfortunately, do not grow there any longer, although the site has become something of a destination for 20th century coffee pilgrims.