The Café au Lait
In this article, we’ll walk you through a timeless classic in the coffee world, café au lait. Transport yourself to a Parisian cafe without ever leaving the house.
Who doesn’t love a freshly brewed, steamy, and aromatic cup of coffee in the morning?
Brewing and drinking a cup of coffee upon waking up is as habitual and traditional as brushing your teeth. Yet, not many people take the time to reflect on where coffee comes from and how it came to be the drink of the dawn.
To learn more about the origins of coffee and how it came to be the popular breakfast drink that it is, keep reading.
The genesis of coffee, like most origin stories, is entangled in centuries-old folklore. There are actually two specific versions of how coffee became a part of cultural traditions: The Ethiopian version and the Yemeni version.
The Ethiopian version tells the legend of Kaldi, a goat herder from Kaffa. This legend appeared in writing in 1671, dating the story of how Kaldi stumbled upon coffee back to 850, which aligned with the belief that coffee cultivation in Ethiopia began in the ninth century.
Legend has it that Kaldi was herding his goats near an Abyssian monastery when they began jumping around, dancing and bleating in a frenzy.
After observing this odd behavior, Kaldi noticed that his goats were also nibbling on bright red berries from a collection of shrubs. Out of curiosity for his goats’ newfound excitement, he decided to try some berries himself, which had the same energizing effect.
Kaldi immediately brought the berries to the monastery and presented them to the Abbot, who upon trying them, declared them to be the devil’s work. However, after boiling the beans in water, turning the berries into a drink, the energizing effects quickly became a religious experience as it kept the monks alert and invigorated during their long hours of evening prayer.
While the monks may have ended up spreading the word about this new, religious drink, many historians maintain that prior to Kaldi’s discovery, coffee had a different use. There is evidence throughout Ethiopian culture that the berries were ground and mixed with animal fat or ghee, and then rolled into a ball for chewing.
These “energy balls” were typically used to sustain long journeys and hours of arduous labor.
Historians also believe that these energy balls made their way from Kaffa to Harrar and later Arabia by the enslaved Sudanese. However, the Sudanese picked up the coffee chewing from the Galla tribe in Ethiopia.
Lastly, it’s also speculated that the custom of brewing and drinking coffee—rather than eating it—became a thing during the 10th century. Once it became a part of the Arabian world, coffee became an even stronger drink renowned as a medical potion and prayer aid.
Interestingly enough, today you’ll find that Ethiopian, Turkish, and Greek coffee all follow the same traditional process of being boiled and brewed until it’s thick and strong.
The Yemeni version of coffee’s beginnings depends on who you ask as there are two origin stories that come from Yemeni culture.
The first origin Yemeni story attributes its origins to Ethiopia, where a Yemenite Sufi mystic by the name of Ghothul Akbar Nooruddin Abu al-Hassan al-Shadhili was traveling through Ethiopia for spiritual purposes.
During his journey, al-Shadhili came across some suspiciously energetic birds that were pecking at bright red fruits from a bunch of shrubs. The mystic decided to try some of this mysterious fruit and found himself energized and elated.
The second origin story of Yemeni claims that coffee had originated in Yemen rather than Ethiopia. The story revolved around Sheikh Omar, a doctor, priest, and follower of Sheikh Abou’l Hassan Schadheli from Mocha, Yemen who had been exiled to a desert cave by the mountain of Ousab.
Of course, there are a few different ways to tell the second story, but they both involve the Sheikh having been exiled for “moral transgressions.” However, after being exiled for a while, the Sheikh was beginning to starve to death when he came across the bright red berries of what we now know to be the coffee shrub. (Some believe that it was a bird that brought him a branch from the shrub after he had cried out to the heavens for guidance).
Either way, the Sheikh started eating the bright red berries but found them to be much too bitter. So, he decided to throw them on the fire to see if cooking them a bit would help make them more edible.
Unfortunately, this ended up hardening the berries, making them unchewable. Of course, this is the basic coffee roasting technique used far and wide to prepare the beans today.
To soften the hardened berries or beans, he tried boiling them in water. As the hard, roasted bean-berries boiled, they produced a pleasant aroma from the liquid which was also becoming increasingly brown. The Sheikh decided to drink his new decoction rather than chew on the boiled remnants and found it to be delicious as well as revitalizing.
Of course, depending on who you ask, there’s another version of the story that claims the Sheikh initially thought that the berries were tasty, not bitter, and decided to make them into soup—and this was where the coffee we drink now came from.
Regardless of which story you’re told, the Sheikh still went on, back to his hometown of Mocha, to spread the word of this new life-saving drink. The drink was so well-received that the Sheikh’s exile was lifted and he was tasked with gathering more of the coffee fruits.
Shortly after, the new drink was considered a miracle, and Sheikh Omar was named as a saint with a monastery built in his honor.
Generally speaking, it’s believed that coffee beans ran the course from Ethiopia to Yemen and then from Yemen to Europe during the 17th century.
Once coffee entered Europe, it was once again denounced as the drink of Satan, this time by the Venice clergy. However, that didn’t stop coffee houses from springing up, becoming the pinnacle of social activity throughout all European countries. During this time, coffee also began to replace the traditional European breakfast drinks of wine and beer.
During the 1600s and 1700s, coffee quickly made its way over to the Americas. It especially became popular in North America—specifically in 1773—when the colonists revolted against King George III’s incredibly high tea tax during the Boston Tea Party.
The Boston Tea Party, where the colonists of the New World dumped all of their imported tea into the Boston river, is what sparked the switch to drinking coffee. In fact, drinking coffee instead of tea became a patriotic duty.
Coffee became increasingly popular during the Civil War and other subsequent conflicts as soldiers relied on the caffeine to maintain their energy levels.
You could say that the love of coffee in America really took off when President Teddy Roosevelt spoke publicly about his love for the drink. It was even rumored that he would drink a gallon a day—although this is obviously an exaggeration.
Roosevelt is also said to have coined the famous “Good to the last drop” slogan famously used by the Maxwell House coffee company. By the late 1800s, coffee had become a worldwide commodity, with entrepreneurs in every corner looking for ways to turn a profit from it. Slowly, but surely, other big names like Folger’s Hills Brothers sprang up, bringing instant coffee to every household. However, it wasn’t until the 1960s when the taste for specialty coffee began to grow—which is precisely what inspired the first Starbucks to open in Seattle in 1971. This grass-roots coffee movement increased with independently owned cafes, locally roasted beans, fair-trade beans, and special blends and foamy recipes. Coffee became both an artistic and artisan trade, with coffee enthusiasts studying its varied complexity of flavors and terroir—just like wine.
Today, coffee is our morning ritual, our evening conversation placeholder, and the drink most of us can’t live about. Regardless of where it came from, we’re grateful that it’s here—and that we can enjoy it anywhere in the world.