Someone thought of coffee


Do you ever read, watch, hear something about food and begin to wonder about origin stories and discoveries?

Consider coffee.

Roasting. Grinding. Brewing. Who thinks of this stuff?

Seems like an awful lot of work for someone to invest unless they knew the results ahead of time. After all, when was the last time you looked at something in your yard, say a plant off in the corner, and thought that if you cut it down, dried it in the sun, and then boiled it in some water, you might end up with a pretty good drink?

Cassava is, by classification, a shrub. If improperly prepared, it can be poisonous. Some varieties of the plants are favored because they act as a repellant for bugs and wildlife. (Sounds delicious, right?)

Cassava is also one of the most common sources of food products, in some countries ranking right behind only rice and corn. For many of us, our exposure to cassava comes in the form of tapioca.

Poison. Tapioca.

Tapioca. Poison.

What am I missing?

How is this stuff discovered?

And the answer likely is… observation and tradition.

The story of coffee is somewhat vague and likely heavy on legend. It’s credited to goats. A herder noticed that his goats would become more active when they ate berries from certain trees. He tried the berries, and noticed a rise in his own energy.

I use words like vague and legend because if you read about it yourself, you’ll find the goat herder is actually named, that being Kaldi, in pretty much every place you find the story. Seems a bit suspicious to me that caffeine-fueled goats well over a thousand years ago allow us to know one specific man involved in observing this phenomenon. Too specific. Too detailed for a time in history and a setting where accurate records wouldn’t be expected. And yet…

Witnessing the increased energy and activity of livestock does make sense… being able to attribute the discovery to portions of Ethiopia… that all works.

It’s far too easy to think that all discoveries are simple. We’re not going to advance very far (or very quickly) it all we do is have someone in a kitchen attempting to discover what tastes better covered in caramel sauce. (Which, as we can all agree, is a bit of a time waste since everyone already knows that everything tastes better covered in caramel sauce.) We need people trying new things and new techniques, to all sorts of ingredients and combinations.

But quite honestly, the simple discoveries… the first discoveries… are frequently the one that last. People grow accustomed to certain uses, presentations and methods.

Let’s get back to discovering coffee though. To making coffee. And you’ll find that the answer often is… don’t overthink it.

If you’re caring for animals, notice they’re eating a certain plant and not dying when they do, that might just be an indication that the plant could be safe for human consumption.

And the creation of methods for preparing and serving items? Often nothing more than making things easier to carry, easier to store, and easier to preserve. Brew a beverage. Make bread. Cook over fire.

Am I expressing these things too easily? Of course. Absolutely I am, and historians and other experts might cringe at some of these suggestions (especially without additional research or explanation). But the generalized concept I offer, I believe, remains true… most of the time, what those discovering things were thinking is not too different than what you were thinking when you discovered something.

The first people to cook seafood didn’t look at each other and say something like: “This is good, but a bit of lemon would really finish it off perfectly.”

The first people serving wine didn’t scream: “No! No, no, it’s white wine with chicken.”

Far too often we look at things with a sense of immediacy. We try to apply our lifestyles and situations to events hundreds of years in the past. Think of it this way… in the complete history of the world, refrigeration is fairly new. There were times when seasonings weren’t just to enhance a meal, they were a necessity for making bad food palatable.

The world is better for people like George Washington Carver, doing great work and advancing our knowledge. But not all of the discoveries come from the efforts of these individuals (and groups).

The next time you are enjoying a refreshing beverage (or result of a seemingly incredible discovery), instead of wondering how it happened you might want to simply thank a herd of goats.

If you have any comments or questions, please e-mail me at