What Was The Original Purpose Of Coffee?

When you wake up in the morning, the first thing you likely do is get the coffee maker started. But, did you know that with every filter you fill full of coffee grounds comes a long history spanning hundreds of years? That’s right – The main purpose of coffee is one of humankind’s most enduring beverages, and before it was a staple in homes throughout the world, it was once an unknown bean that carried mystical powers (or so the legend goes). 

Whether you enjoy a casual cup every now and then or are a coffee connoisseur, you may be interested in the origin story of the coffee plant and how it came to be the most popular drinks ever created – let’s take a look at the original purpose of coffee and other fun facts you probably don’t know about the world’s favorite beverage.

How Was Coffee Discovered?

Like many things that have been around for hundreds of years, the origins of coffee are somewhat mysterious. The most likely explanation of people discovering coffee was observing the effects it had on animals after they consumed berries off of a coffee tree. For example, a ninth-century Ethiopian goat herder known as Kaldi observed his herd eating these berries and getting excitable. He decided to try them himself by drying and boiling the berries into a beverage. After failing, he discarded his berries into the fire where they roasted, much like modern beans. They were combed from the ashes, ground up and dissolved in hot water, officially making the first cup of coffee.


Of course, this is just a legend, like many common coffee origin stories. Another similar tale comes from Yemen, and deals with the account of a mystic named Ghothul Akbar Noor Ud Din Abu al-Hasan al-Shadhili. One day, sometime in the 13th century, the mystic observed a flock of birds picking at coffee tree berries, and afterwords seemed to fly with much more energy. He too decided to try some, finding himself gaining unprecedented alertness. And yet, there’s another story about the first person to discover coffee, an exiled Yemenite sheik known only by the name of Omar. While living in a desert cave outside of Ousab, he stumbled across a coffee tree full of berries. He picked them and, finding them bitter, decided to boil them instead. The resulting beverage gave him an exceptional level of energy, which allowed him to stay awake for several days. His discovery is said to have restored his reputation and allowed him to return home while elevating him to sainthood – talk about luck!

First recorded evidence of coffee as a commodity

Whoever discovered coffee first may be lost to time, but there is evidence that the first coffee traded hands in Yemen in the early 1400s. An Ethiopian man by the name of Sufi Imam Muhammad Ibn Said Al Dhabhani imported coffee beans to Yemen by way of Somali merchant ships.


This didn’t take long to snowball into bigger and bolder exportation moves, with coffee eventually making its way into Persia, Egypt, Syria and Turkey. It even became the top beverage in Mecca, coined with the nickname “Wine of Araby”, where alcohol was banned. Pilgrims would take coffee home and begin to grow it themselves throughout the Middle East. 


The irony, however, is that Islamic authorities eventually made coffee illegal due to its intoxicating effects. Despite this, Muslims still helped increase coffee’s popularity as a substitute for alcohol. Not deterred by threats by authorities, coffee quickly spread throughout the Arab states, and even gave rise to the important social and cultural entity that we still use today: the coffeehouse.


Through the 16th and 17th centuries, coffee made its way into European countries one by one. In just a few centuries, coffee had crossed cultural, social, racial and religious boundaries to become one of the most popular drinks in the world. By the 1700s, cafés had become as popular as taverns among the populace throughout Britain and even in the colonies that would soon become the United States of America.

Coffee’s Original Purpose

Its original purpose was mainly medicinal and religious. The Sufis in Yemen, for example, drank coffee to help with concentration and spirituality. Ethiopian monks heralded the beverage as it gave them the ability to work on religious scripture, mediation and attend mass for seemingly endless amounts of time. With an invigorating effect thanks to its caffeine content, ancient people enjoyed coffee because it would keep them focused on the various tasks important to their life.

There’s a bit of history in every cup of coffee

Now that you know the original purpose of coffee, you’re likely to better appreciate the historic process it took to go from a goat farm in the Middle East hundreds of years ago to your kitchen’s cupboard today. Regardless if you consider yourself a coffee connoisseur or a casual sipper, the original purpose of coffee is a topic laced with fascinating details, one that’s hard to demystify. However, as with many important discoveries centuries ago, it was mainly used as a spiritual intoxicant for religious purposes. Of course, it was also used in the same way people use it to this day – as a simple stimulant that can fight fatigue and give you a boost of energy. 


As the old saying goes: as much as things change, they stay the same. Coffee is one of our greatest and most lasting culinary inventions that has remained just as popular today as it was in ancient times. With your next brew, take a moment to appreciate the connection you now have with coffee’s rich history.