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Book Review on Coffee – by Fekadu Fullas, Ph.D.

Mesfin Tadesse. Ethiopia. Home of Arabica Coffee. Early Use, Folklore and Biology. North Charleston, South Carolina: CeateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2017. 15 x 33 cm, i-xvi, 95 pp (available at amazon.com).

This book by Dr. Mesfin Tadesse highlights the various aspects of coffee. There have been numerous articles written on coffee, but the book under review here attempts to distill relevant and available information in the literature in one volume. The author, himself a plant systematist, plant biologist, and as an academic who has done his own share of research on coffee, is well qualified to write this book.

The main part of the book is divided into eight chapters. Chapter 1 traces back the earliest practice of coffee roasting and brewing to the eastern Ethiopian town of Harar. Early on, coffee was consumed in Keffa in liquid form after boiling the leaves of Arabica coffee (so-called Chemo). The leaves are also reported to have been used for medicinal purposes. The chapter also details how Buna Qella is prepared for consumption at wedding ceremonies and other festivities. To prepare it, roasted green coffee beans are dipped in spiced, salted and molten butter. The coffee balls prepared in this manner are also chewed or placed between the cheek and the jaws during long journeys. It is used as a ceremonial food in Wellega, Sidamo (Borena area) and Illubabur. The chapter also mentions a folklore associated with how coffee was discovered. Legend has it that a young goat herd in Keffa by the name Khalid noticed goats strutting around after feeding on the fruits on the coffee plant. The goat herd got curious and himself ate the fruit with a similar effect. A different version of the story was told by an author in 1671 that goats and camels were excited after eating coffee bean as noticed by a shepherd boy named Kaldi in Arabia. Today the latter name has been adopted by some coffee shops in Addis and the USA (Silver Spring, MD).

Chapter 2 provides details of preparing coffee drink and the elaborate coffee drinking ceremony in Ethiopia with the three stages of Abol (andegna), Tona (huletegna) and Bereka (sostegna or literally meaning blessing). These names are related to three Egyptian Muslims who first introduced “ceremonial” coffee drinking. The potency also decreases in that order.

Chapter 3 discusses the knowledge base of coffee farmers regarding coffee cultivation in different parts of Ethiopia, such as Hararghe, Illubabur, Keffa, Sidamo and Wellega. In addition to the original modes of coffee use (Chemo and Buna Qella) referred to in Chapter 1, this chapter also describes other ways of use. These are Qishir or Hoja and Qutti. The former is prepared by boiling the fruit husk in boiling water containing ginger and/or cinnamon. Qutti is prepared from the leaves by infusing them in boiling water. Both forms are popular in Hararghe. In Illubabur, the leaves are mixed with salt and given to cattle for treating cough.

Chapter 4 which is the longest in the book (pages 29-55) goes into great details discussing about the geographical origin Arabica coffee. It is interesting to note that there are about 124 species in the genus Coffea, but only three species Coffea arabica, Coffea canephora (Robusta coffee) and Coffea liberica (Liberian coffee) are cultivated, traded and used as coffee. Coffea arabica is now cultivated in about 80 countries and contributes to 80% of the world supply of coffee, and the other species to a lesser extent. The botanical name Coffea arabica L. assigned to the coffee plant by the Swedish naturalist Linnaeus was based on a specimen collected in Arabia, which gave the impression that the plant originated in Arabia. However, the chapter provides strong argument that Coffea arabica was introduced to Yemen from Ethiopia. This is supported by accounts of several botanists, travelers and others. Trade routes that were prominent during the Axumite civilization, Zagwe dynasty and later periods may have been involved in spreading coffee from Ethiopia. For example, coffee may have been introduced to Yemen from Ethiopia in 525 AD during such trade journeys.

Chapter 5 discusses the origin of coffee cultivation. The exact time when coffee cultivation began in Ethiopia is not known, but the speculation is perhaps many centuries ago. Whether coffee cultivation started in Ethiopia or Yemen or about the same time in both areas is not clear. According to the author, it may have been first cultivated around the 15th century in the Ethiopian highlands of Harar, from where the seeds were taken and planted in Yemen.

In Chapter 6, the author describes the taxonomic, chromosomal and DNA characteristics of Coffea arabica. These descriptions point to the hybrid nature of Coffea arabica from two related African species, C. eugenioides and C. canefora. Chapter 7 discusses how coffee drinking spread to all parts of the world. It perhaps began in Yemen or Ethiopia– coffee was consumed in some form in the southern parts of Ethiopia. The chapter then goes on to explain how it spread from Yemen to Egypt; from Egypt to Turkey; and from Turkey to Western Europe and Tropical Africa. Coffee drinking also found its way into Asia and the whole Western Hemisphere. The last and shortest section of the book, Chapter 8, alludes to the need why Ethiopian coffee farmers should be compensated in a fair trade environment. Although Ethiopia is the birthplace of Arabica coffee, its share of export in 2014 accounted for only 4.13% of the total market. Yet, Ethiopia gave Arabica coffee to the most trade-beneficiary countries, such as Brazil, Colombia, India and Indonesia.

One of the minor drawbacks of the book is the absence of an index to facilitate easy general or specific search. The botanical name of the specific coffee plant is Coffea arabica, while the common name is Arabica coffee. The latter name (upper/lower case beginnings) is not expressed consistently, for example as in arabica Coffee in the first two inside pages, Arabica Coffee on the cover page, preface and page 22, and Arabica coffee on other pages (pages 24 & 27). Despite these minor deficiencies, the book is free from typographical errors.

I highly recommend that all Ethiopians and non-Ethiopians alike read this very important book written on coffee by a professional expert who knows the subject very well.

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