A charcoal-powered coffee roaster sat perched on a tabletop crammed into the corner of Aksum, an Ethiopian café in the heart of Brussels. Bags of coffee beans leaned precariously against the legs of the table, perfuming the steamy air with their pungent, fruity aroma. A bearded man sat smashed between the roaster and the large spotless windows that overlooked the Belgian stone side street. Ethiopian Orthodox religious faces, plastered to the ceiling, watched over us patrons as we huddled over our warm coffees. We were elbow-to-elbow, a fiesty mass of French, Korean and English amongst the Amharic newspapers covering our tables.
As I sat in this cozy, warmly-lit Belgian franchise sipping the crèma on my cappuccino, I pondered the cyclicality of this miniscule yet global experience.
The earliest exportation of coffee came from Ethiopia, the cradle of caffeinated history, in the 15th century. The beans were brought to Yemen for cultivation where the dark black liquid was then drunk during religious devotions. During the next century, coffee drinking spread to Egypt, Syria, Persia and Turkey and then throughout the Near East. Coffee houses sprang up as the lay person began to indulge in the mysteriously invigorating drink. The coffee houses themselves were epicenters of social engagment. Anything from chess games to music to stimulating conversations could be found in amongst the steaming cups o’ joe and the hands that clutched them tightly.
By the early 1600s, the first coffee houses opened in Venice, Italy, having basically received the papal “seal of approval” from Pope Celement VIII as a non-satanic beverage. Coffee and all of the brilliant and wonderfully mundane conversations that came with it had arrived in Europe. And it was only a few decades – and a boatride – away from being introduced into the West (shout out to Gabriel de Clieu and Francisco de Mello Palheta for kickstarting the billion dollar coffee industry in America).
So to be a coffee-loving American drinking an Italian-style cappuccino made from Ethiopian coffee beans in a European coffee house made me feel like I was a part of a centuries’ old journey. I sat there in my straight-backed wooden chair appreciating each tiny single origin bean that made up my 10 ounce drink. I reveled in the thought that every coffee I had ever indulged in had come, in an extremely round about way, from the same single origin: Ethiopia. This cup, though, the pure “coffee-ness” of it, was perfection in a steaming glass adorned with a creamy white heart and accompanied by a side of speculoos cheesecake. What I was drinking was exactly the tagline Aksum had scrawled on a chalkboard behind the counter:
Ethiopia in your cup!
In case you, too, want to get absorbed in learning for the next three hours: More coffee info (and where I learned specific details about it), can be found here. And about Aksum, Ethiopia here. Also, the coffee house “Aksum” here.