The Origins of Coffee
Khalid the Goat HerderCoffee was first popularized in the Arabic world. There are several apocryphal tales regarding its origin, spread out over several centuries. One such tale takes place in 850 AD, when an Ethiopian goat farmer, Kaldi, noticed that his goats became energetic when they ate a particular berry. He tried the berries and noticed the same energizing effects himself. Excitedly, he ran to a monastery to tell the monks of his discovery. The monastery’s abbot didn’t understand Kaldi’s excitement, as he was unfamiliar with the plant or its effects. He threw the berries into the fire to emphasize his disapproval of the new discovery. Shortly after tossing the berries, however, a delicious aroma spread from the fire and other monks quickly gathered around and salvaged the roasted beans from the coals. They ground them up and mixed them with hot water, creating the first cup of coffee. The delicious beverage was enough to convert the abbot, who began recommending it for evening prayer!Humans had actually been using coffee cherries for millennia by 850 AD. Coprolites (petrified human poop) provide evidence for humans consuming coffee beans by at least 8000 BCE, long before our written historical records.
Coffee and SufismYet another apocryphal tale of the origin of coffee comes from a famous Moroccan Sufi mystic from the 13th century: Sheikh al-Shadhili. As the story goes, al-Shadhili was passing through Ethiopia and noticed that the birds consuming the berries of a particular tree were filled with vitality. He tried them himself and experienced the same vitality, but the flavor displeased him. To try to improve the flavor he roasted them, which made them too hard. He then tried to soften them in boiling water… A brew worth making over and over again. Other legends ascribe the discovery to Sheikh al-Shadhili’s servant, Omar.In a third set of tales, the Angel Gabriel bestowed coffee to Mohammad before he went to battle. Legend even says that coffee cured Mohammad of his narcolepsy. In yet another, Gabriel gave coffee to King Soloman, and it cured entire villages that were sick with plague.
Politically-Driven Fear of CoffeeIn many of the early myths, coffee is accepted in religious settings. Yet this wasn’t always the case. Coffee has caught the ire of both Islam and Christianity.Islamic culture is richly associated with coffee, but there was a time when it was believed to be a social ill. In 1511, an Islamic court in Mecca banned coffee. They classified it as an intoxicant. Like alcohol, it was decreed haram (forbidden by Islamic law). For 11 years, coffee persisted in the underground. Finally, in 1522, a special order declared that coffee was once again halal.When coffee swept through Europe in the mid-17th century, it rapidly gained popularity. Coffeehouses started popping up everywhere. With them came the birth of the public space, where merchants could discuss the news of the world, facilitated in part by the recently invented printing press. Previously, only the ruling class gathered to engage in such discussions.
Controversial Cantatas and Coffee SniffersJohann Sebastian Bach penned a comedic secular cantata in the 1730s about a young girl whose father tried to forbid her from visiting a coffee shop. Her father declared coffee to be a satanic beverage and insisted he would prohibit her from marrying if she refused to abscond from her foul habit. She refused, insisting that her love for the satanic coffee transcended any love a mere mortal could offer her.In Germany, the burgeoning public spaces encroached upon the rule of the feudal economy. The increasing importation of coffee resulted in the loss of substantial financial capital. Mercantilist Frederick the Great outlawed coffee drinking in the late 18th century and hired “coffee sniffers” to uncover illegal coffee roasting.Like the alcohol prohibition of the 1920s in the United States, cultures can wildly oscillate in their position regarding a particular food or drink. All the while, the substance in question remains the same.
The Modern View of CoffeeAs we all know, coffee is beloved today – not just beloved, but often publicly obsessed over.Caffeine, the stimulant found in coffee beans, has found its way into hundreds of beverages other than coffee, from soda to energy drinks. There are no, or very few, religious condemnations of coffee globally. Society seems to get along just fine with it. We are not faced with hordes of coffee addicts in withdrawal, mugging innocent people on the street or panhandling to get their next fix.The historic fears related to coffee weren’t based in scientific concerns. They were more so related to the social and economic issues that coffee was tied up in.Today, we can learn a lot about prohibition by looking at the history of coffee. Have governments regulated substances based on physiological research, or based on concerns about maintaining GDP? Have populations of people overlooked the potential of certain plants due to fear of unfamiliarity?It’s probably pretty obvious that coffee wasn’t alone it its prohibitionist treatment, and that other substances lag behind in their societal acceptance.There are countless plants and substances to point to, from cannabis to opium to psilocybin. The one we’re focusing on here, however, is kratom.Kratom is a plant that millions of people consume daily to improve their lives. Like coffee, kratom has faced serious condemnation in the press and has been ascribed many characteristics that aren’t rooted in reality.
What is Kratom?Kratom, or Mitragyna speciosa, is a tree in the Rubiaceae family, which coffee also belongs to. It’s native to Southeast Asia. There, people have incorporated kratom into their daily lives for hundreds of years, just as they’ve consumed kratom’s caffeinated cousin.Kratom trees can be found from the base of the Himalayas to the Pacific Islands of Southeast Asia. They usually grow in the wettest parts of the rainforest, near swamps, and on the edges of rivers. These evergreen trees can grow upwards of 80 feet tall. Even though they’re a tropical tree, some enterprising people have successfully grown kratom in other areas of the world.
Tradition of KratomTraditionally, people have consumed kratom in two ways.First, people chew the leaves and spit them out. This is a common practice amongst laborers during days of hard work. Second, people brew the leaves into a tea. They add handfuls of leaves to a cauldron over a fire and keep them simmering for hours. They drink this strong tea more ceremoniously than they chew the leaves, typically in social settings at the end of a long day.The consumption of kratom entered written history in the mid-17th century. Much like coffee, the true tradition of kratom consumption begins well before that time. The use of kratom has likely spanned millennia. For the majority of humanity’s engagement with kratom, there has been little fear or prohibition. Up until the 20th century, no one blamed any social ills on kratom. On the contrary, people created puppet shows, art, and cultural memes to praise it.This all changed in 1943. Much like coffee’s prohibition in Germany, the instigator was financial strain.
Fear of Kratom: History of Kratom ProhibitionIn 1941, Thailand was sucked into WWII. At that time, estimates suggest that about 17% of Thailand’s annual revenue came from taxes on legal opium purchased by their citizens. During the war, the country’s officials soon noticed that their tax revenue was dropping. The citizens, strapped for cash, had suddenly and almost ubiquitously stopped buying opium.This change stunned government officials. They had assumed that their citizens, like it or not, would be unable to stop using opium. Thai officials quickly looked into the cause. A member of the House of Representatives from Lampang said in a special meeting in January of 1943 that, “Taxes for opium are high while kratom is currently not being taxed. With the increase of those taxes, people are starting to use kratom instead and this has had a visible impact on our government’s income.”Without further consideration, the Thai government made kratom illegal. A few decades later, Thailand escalated its war on kratom. They mandated the razing of all kratom trees with brutal efficiency. Today, only one small section of a Thai national forest contains any old-growth kratom trees.Yet, just like coffee, the consumption of kratom didn’t end with its political prohibition. In 2021, Thai government passed a new version of its Narcotics Act, which removed kratom from its list of prohibited substances, along with cannabis.
How is Kratom Consumed?People have traditionally viewed kratom tea as a normal beverage, something to be drunk with food, part of a standard daily diet – much like regular tea and coffee are viewed today.In Thailand, kratom is at times portrayed in the way that Americans portray spinach. It’ll give you the strength of Popeye, enough to endure 12 hour days under the sun harvesting crops and working in the fields.Kratom only ran into trouble whenever people realized that they could alter this run-of-the-mill energizing tea into new formulations.
Americanized KratomThough people rarely ever swallow kratom leaves in the traditional context, the majority of kratom consumers in the world eat kratom in the form of powder. This is the result of kratom’s exploding popularity in the United States. More and more Americans try it every day.To get to America, kratom has to endure a long journey around the globe. To make this process economical, most companies dehydrate the leaves and pulverize them into a fine powder. The powder then arrives in the United States, packed tightly into bags with no hints of the traditional use.To no one’s surprise, the consumers of imported kratom started swallowing the powder. As the powder tastes incredibly bitter – akin to wheatgrass or another botanical powder – several methods became popular for ingesting it. Toss and wash is one method; it involves swallowing a dollop of powder with a chaser of water. Some people mix their powder into orange juice or another sweet beverage. Kratom capsules have become popular as well. And then, there are the concentrated kratom extracts. Extracts are often packaged in small plastic bottles that resemble 5-hour ENERGY shots – and they’re as similar to kratom tea as 5-hour ENERGY shot is to coffee. Extracts pack in a volume of alkaloids that was unseen throughout all the history of traditional kratom consumption.
Why Kratom Tea Bags are PreferableUnsurprisingly, swallowing kratom powder of any sort may make you nauseous or even make you throw up. If you keep it down, the powder will not only dehydrate you, but like coffee, also make you pee more.The extracts get into unknown territory in regards to the amount of kratom alkaloids that enter your system all at once. Many kratom extracts also contain residue solvents left over from their extraction.As kratom has come into the consciousness of America in a “drug-like” form, it has been treated as a drug in the media and by the DEA and FDA. The DEA tried to have kratom treated as a drug and made federally illegal in 2016. Thousands of Americans wrote in to correct them, and dozens of members of Congress signed on to support them. The attempt to turn kratom into a federally scheduled substance failed – an unprecedented event for any substance in American history. In 2021, the FDA lobbied the WHO to treat kratom as a drug on the international level. A hearing was held with hundreds of scientists interested in defending kratom. Afterwards, the WHO stated that their concern was at the lowest level possible for kratom. Yet, the damage to the public image hasn’t recovered easily.A concerted effort is needed for people to once again view kratom as others have for hundreds of years outside of the United States. Yet, renormalizing kratom is possible.
Normalizing KratomIt’s unfortunately quite challenging to consumer fresh kratom leaves outside of regions where the trees grow naturally. In America, crushed-leaf kratom tea bags and loose leaf teas most closely resemble the traditional tea brewed outside of the U.S.Unlike kratom powder, you don’t have to swallow the plant material when you drink the tea. Crushed-leaf kratom also includes the leaf stems. The stems have been shown to have a slightly different chemical profile than the blade of the leaf. As of yet, researchers haven’t thoroughly investigated the significance of this difference.Americans have mostly treated kratom as a powder to mask in other drinks or swallow as quickly as possible. In this context, it’s funny to even have to mention that kratom tea bags actually have an appealing flavor. Millions of people miss out on this simple pleasure.
Kratom’s Common Uses in the U.S.Kratom powder first gained market success in America through bodybuilding forums. Americans often use kratom tea as a pre-workout. Usually, the energizing effect of kratom lasts around four hours. This is about the rate at which Thai farmers pick and chew the leaves while working.One or two kratom tea bags may be energizing. However, as the serving size increases, the effects may shift.Typically, people drink three or more tea bags in a night to unwind and relax, or to socialize. These generalizations aren’t absolutes, however. Most consumers’ experiences are unique, just as each person’s response to coffee or tea may differ slightly.
Alkaloids and Kratom ScienceCaffeine is the psychoactive alkaloid in coffee which is responsible for Kaldi’s excited goats, Omar’s hyper birds, and the sweaty palms of an average college student pulling yet another all-nighter. Kratom contains alkaloids as well. So far, researchers have identified and characterized over 40 kratom alkaloids. Each is assumed to be a little different from the rest, although their precise actions in the body have not been studied.The shape of the alkaloid can elucidate the function in some cases. The dominant kratom alkaloid is mitragynine. It’s chemical structure is characterized by an indole ring. The same structure is found in serotonin, melatonin, and even psilocybin. In three dimensional space, the alkaloid twists into a shape similar to endorphins and as well as some alkaloids found in poppy seeds.At the moment, there are a group of scientists at the University of Florida who have received millions of dollars in grants to study these alkaloids. They produce the most cutting-edge science and their research is always exciting.
How Americans Brew Kratom TeaJust as the past informs the present, so too can the present inform the past. There are new brewing methods that combine recent findings about the chemistry of kratom alkaloids with the ancient tradition of brewing kratom tea. The traditional three-hour brewing process is no longer necessary to make a delicious mug of kratom tea in the 21st century. All that’s needed is one piece of modern technology. No, not the K-Cup. The thermos.
Kratom tea takes so long to brew because the kratom alkaloids don’t like to leave the leaf and dissolve into water. The ideal gas law tells us that solubility increases with temperature and pressure. So simply putting your kratom tea bags into a thermos with boiling water will reduce the time you need to steep. Adding lemon juice or another food-safe acid will also increase the solubility of the alkaloids. The resulting tea holds tight to both its heritage and modern science, and also resembles the variety of other hot drinks that Americans see in every café and grocery store.
Such brews can be made at home with kratom tea bags, or even out at kratom bars. As kratom and other alcohol- and caffeine-free beverages have grown in popularity, bars and cafes dedicated just to these plants have popped up around the country.
No matter what you choose to drink in the morning, we hope that this history of coffee and kratom has allowed you to view what’s in your cup a little differently. What sociocultural, political, and financial motivations made your morning brew possible? Are there other drinks out there that might make you feel just as good (if not better), but aren’t available due to unseen forces?
Who knows, maybe one day soon we’ll fill our plates and mugs with foods and drinks that we could never imagine consuming today.