An Accidental Discovery

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There is nothing better than hearing the beginning of a success story, especially when the success started by accident. Researcher Alexander Fleming discovered a mold that developed and contaminated one of his experiments on the influenza virus, but had also prevented the growth of the virus. The mold became what we know as penicillin, which is the most widely used antibiotic in the world today. The chocolate chip cookie was discovered by accident when Ruth Wakefield added broken pieces of semi-sweet chocolate after realizing she was out of baker's chocolate. She hoped to get chocolate cookies but instead pulled out what was to become the most popular cookie in America. Whether tales of accidental discovery are woven to create for better story or are genuine circumstances, it's probably a mix of both. This is part of what makes storytelling great. The discovery of coffee is one of those mythical accidents.

What came in western literature first was the 1671 story by Antoine Faustus Nairon who wrote of Kaldi the goat herder of Ethiopia who discovered his prancing goats after chewing on red cherries. One day Kaldi noticed his goats prancing in a field. The uncharacteristic energy seemed tied to the goats chewing on red berries from a bush. He tried the berries himself and realized the energizing effect. Kaldi took the berries to a holy man who didn't approve of its use and threw them into a fire. The roasting berries released a wonderful aroma and the berries were rakes up and dissolved in water. This was the first cup of coffee.

Have you ever tried coffee as a berry? It's a terrible taste. I'd be surprised if you could chew more than a few seconds before spitting it out.

Going further into both myth and current practice today is that coffee did likely originate in Ethiopia and can be traced to the Galla tribe. Story goes that the tribe gathers the berries and grounds the seeds and pulp up with animal fat. Once rolled up into ball, the tribesmen would have a solution to hunger and exhaustion at war. It would feed the warriors for a full day. Armies from World Wars I and II both carried caffeine tablets for the same purpose.

I've never been to war, but when I have coffee in the morning I do feel an unparalleled level of preparedness to take on my day.

For more coffee history, be sure to check out Bennett Alan Weinberg and Bonnie K. Bealer's "The World of Caffeine: The Science and Culture of the World's Most Popular Drug".

Photo (cc) by Scott Bauer and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.