COMMON NAMES: Arabian Coffee, Bergkaffee, Bun (Yemen), Buna (‘wine’), Chia-fei (Chinese), Coffee, Coffee Bush, Kahawa (Swahili), Qahwa (Arabic, ‘wine’)
Coffea arabica is a perennial that can grow up to 13 feet tall. It has lots of shiny leaves and white, star shaped flowers that exude a lovely scent similar to that of Jasmine flowers. The fruits are oval shaped – light green when young, and bright red when ripe (Ratsch 1998, 174).
The coffee bush seems to have originated in southern Ethiopia and parts of Sudan, and is still found in those regions. The coffee bush requires a tropical climate to survive and will not tolerate frost. It enjoys partial or complete shade. The seeds are planted in peaty, sandy soil and kept continually moist. Germination takes place within two to four weeks. The seedlings may then be transplanted to a suitable pot or garden plot. The plant produces fruit after about three years, and these fruits contain coffee beans (Ratsch 1998, 173).
Coffee is an essential source of income for farmers in many developing countries. The most important coffee growing regions are Mexico, Colombia, Africa, Brazil, and Guatemala (Baumann & Renate cited in Ratsch 1998, 172-173).
TRADITIONAL USES: Coffee berries were chewed in Africa for their stimulating qualities long before coffee as a beverage was created. One tale tells us that a goatherd in Ethiopia watched his goats get very excited after eating some coffee berries. The farmer gave some of the berries to a village priest, who tried them out and appreciated their stimulating properties. He then began to chew the beans in order to pray for extended periods of time without becoming tired (Mercatante 1980).
Coffee is often used by African Sufis to provide the energy for night after night of intensive mystical ritual, known as Zhikr. For the Sufis, the longer one is able to continue performing mystical prayer and ritual, the easier it is to attain ecstatic states of trance and to commune with god. Thanks to their love of coffee beans, the Sufis were central in the spread of the plant throughout northern Africa and the Middle East. Muslim texts tell us that the archangel Gabriel gave the first coffee bean to Muhammad in order to provide him with healing. Thus, coffee is held sacred in Islam and is used in ceremony (Ratsch 1998, 175).
The beverage became known as qahwa, a word meaning ‘intoxicant’, once used to describe wine. The Sufis were perhaps some of the first people to boil the ground beans, although it wasn’t until later that the Persians learned to roast the beans before grinding them to improve flavor and mellow the experience. The mystic Shaikh ibn Isma’il Ba Alawi once said that coffee, used as part of spiritual practice, created a state known as ‘the enjoyment which the people of God feel in beholding the hidden mysteries and attaining the wonderful discosures and the great revelations’ (superliminal.com n.d.)
In East Africa, it is said that spirits live in coffee beans, and through ritual consumption one may gain their assistance. The Swahili people consume massive quantities of coffee during every religious rite, at Koran readings, and at midnight worship at mosques in order to give energy to worshipers (Ratsch 1998, 175).
In Ethiopia, coffee is prepared and taken in a sacred coffee ceremony. The beans are roasted, then poured hot into a flat basket to cool. At this time, the basket is passed around so that all may appreciate the aroma of the beans. The cooled beans are then pounded by hand with a wooden mortar and pestle, and boiled in a special clay pot called a jebena. The finished coffee is then passed around and taken black, that the beautiful aromas and flavors may be better appreciated.
Today, coffee is the most commonly used stimulant in the world, and the coffee bush is one of the most well known psychoactive plants on the planet. In the West, is not often recognized as an entheogen or psychoactive plant because its use is so habitual to many people, but it is essential to keep in mind that coffee does alter consciousness and is considered a sacred means of communing with the divine by many peoples.
TRADITIONAL PREPARATION: Ripe, red coffee berries are harvested and placed in the sun to dry. They are raked occasionally to prevent rot from setting in. After three or four weeks, the fruits are totally dry, and the coating is removed by rubbing, or in modern hulling machines. The seeds are then roasted for different lengths of time depending on the type of coffee being prepared. It is this roasting process which creates the nutty, roasted, almost burnt flavor of the coffee beverage (Ratsch 1998, 174). The length of time that the coffee beans are roasted determines whether the beans are considered light, medium, or dark roast. The lighter the roast, the more caffeine the beans contain.
There are multiple ways of preparing coffee drinks. The simplest way is to grind the beans and soak them for ten minutes in boiling water, or to boil the ground beans directly for a few minutes. The most common American method of coffee preparation is to place the beans in a filter and pour pre-boiled water over them. This creates a very watery, somewhat mild drink (Ratsch 1998, 174). Many methods of preparation, such as espresso machines, which grind the beans and force very hot water through the compacted grounds, have also been developed.
A normal cup of coffee is made with about 5 grams of ground bean, and contains 70-80 mg of the caffeine alkaloid (Roth et al. 1994). A double espresso, on the other hand, contains 250 mg or so of caffeine. Some people, including the French author Voltaire, have been known to drink up to fifty cups of coffee a day! This may explain a great deal about his work (Huchzermeyer 1994 cited in Ratsch 1998, 174).
MEDICINAL USES: In Africa, roasted coffee beans are chewed to heal headaches, malaria, and low energy. In Arabia, coffee grounds are eaten to treat dysentery, and are applied externally to inflamed areas of the body to ease pain. In Haiti, strong coffee preparation are taken for hepatitis, liver problems, anemia, and low energy. Homeopathic preparations of unroasted and roasted seeds may be taken for nervous anxiety and insomnia (Baumann and Seitz 1992 cited in Ratsch 1998, 175).
In some parts of Africa, cardamom and ginger root are added to coffee to create a medicinal beverage. To prepare medicine, only ten to twelve roasted beans are brewed in hot water. Seven to fourteen beans may also be chewed as medicine. In Ethiopia and other parts of Africa, the dried or roasted leaves of the coffee bush are chopped and boiled in water, then mixed with milk and salt or a sweetener. This creates a stimulating tonic called hoja (Wellman 1961).
In modern Western cultures, there is an ongoing debate as to whether coffee is beneficial for health, or a dangerous poison (similar to the debate over Red Wine). On the plus side, coffee has been linked to a decrease risk of cancers, alzheimers, diabetes, and various other ailments (Fields 2009). On the other hand, extensive coffee drinking has been linking with high blood pressure, heart disease, osteoporosis, hypertension, and rheumatoid arthritis, among other things (Cofe 2011). Coffee consumption may be linked with other unhealthy behaviors, such as smoking cigarettes and the consumption of lots of sugar and cream (in coffee drinks like lattes and blended coffee beverages), so it is difficult to say whether these health risks are directly linked to the coffee bean or not.
In America, it has been stated by many unofficial sources that coffee enemas taken every two hours will cure cancer. However, at least two deaths have resulted from this practice, possibly because the coffee being used was too hot (Eisele & Reay 1980).
TRADITIONAL EFFECTS: Green coffee beans contain caffeine and purine alkaloids, as well as traces of theobromine and chlorogenic acids. Roasting the seeds barely changes the caffeine content, but the chlorogenic acids are reduced to about 10% of their original quantity (Roth et al. 1994).
Coffee is strongly stimulating and brings alertness, pulse rate acceleration, and perspiration. Many people also claim that it improves mental capacity. Moderate coffee consumption does improve heart activity and acts as a diuretic. Higher doses, however, bring trembling, anxiety, and sleep disturbance (Roth et al. 1994).
The discussion about whether or not coffee is beneficial to health is still ongoing. The chlorogenic acids contained in coffee can cause the stomach to become acidic and, in high quantities, can result in heartburn, stabbing pain and stomach ulcers. Nevertheless, the effects of daily coffee consumptions are fairly mild and coffee may be considered a fairly harmless drug in reasonable amounts (Roth et al. 1994).
Heavy coffee drinkers (more than five cups a day) experience less insomnia when drinking coffee at night, but also often experience withdrawal symptoms that include irritability, nervousness, headache, lethargy and inability to concentrate if they fail to drink coffee daily (Voogelbreinder 2009, 133-134).
Cofe. “Coffee Harm – 11 Potential Health Risks of Coffee Drinking.” Baristaguide.com, 2011. http://www.baristaguide.com/guides/78-coffee-harm-11-potential-health-risks-of-coffee-drinking.
Eisele, J.W., and D.T. Reay. “Deaths Related to Coffee Enemas.” Journal of the American Medical Association 244, no. 14 (1980): 1608–1609.
Fields, D. “10 Hidden Health Secrets of Coffee.” Beliefnet.com, May 2009. http://www.beliefnet.com/Health/2009/05/Hidden-Health-Secrets-of-Coffee.aspx.
Mercatante, A. Der Magische Garten. Zurich: Schweizer Verlagshaus, 1980.
Meyer, F.G. “Notes on Wild Coffea Arabica from Southwestern Ethiopia, with Some Historical Considerations.” Economic Botany 19 (1965): 136–151.
Ratsch, Christian., The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and its Applications. Rochester: Park Street Press, 1998.
Roth, L., M. Daunderer, and K. Kormann. Giftpflanzen – Pflanzengifte. Munich: Ecomed, 1994.
Wellman, F. Coffee. London: Leonard Hill, 1961.
Voogelbreinder, Snu, Garden of Eden: The Shamanic Use of Psychoactive Flora and Fauna, and the Study of Consciousness. Snu Voogelbreinder, 2009.