Monday, September 17, 2012

“If this is coffee, please bring me some tea, but if this is tea, please bring me some coffee.” --Abraham Lincoln

The aroma from my coffee mug fills my office, and my tongue is still warm from the first sip. I prefer mine black, the same as my tea, and until the second pour I don’t really care if I can’t tell the difference.
No one knows who brewed the first cup of coffee. A charming tale of Kaldi the 9th century Ethiopian goat herder, who watched his goats dance after eating coffee berries, has been repeated since Antoine Faustus Nairon told it in a 1671 treatise on coffee, but in all likelihood coffee is far older than that. Paleo peoples roasted and brewed pretty much anything edible (and much that proved not to be), and it’s hard to imagine they would have ignored coffee plants which grew wild in parts of Africa. It is true, however, that Ethiopia is where Yemeni merchants encountered coffee drinkers in the mid-1400s. They recognized an export opportunity when they saw one. The traders’ marketing efforts were aided by the ban on alcoholic beverages in Islamic lands; coffee shops soon cropped up all over the Middle East and North Africa. By the mid-1500s, the shops were an elemental part of urban life throughout the Ottoman Empire.
It was another century before coffee invaded western Europe in a significant way, but when it did the impact was profound. We often forget just how boozy a place the West was prior to coffee. Contaminated water meant vast amounts of beer and wine were consumed instead. At the Children’s Hospital in Norwich England in 1632, for example, each child was rationed 2 gallons of beer per week. The first coffee house in London was opened in 1652 by Pasqua Rosee, an Armenian in the employ of an English merchant. Other entrepreneurs followed. In a single decade coffee houses were all the rage across Europe, taking especial hold in the Netherlands. Unlike mind-addling alcohol, coffee, according to one anonymous poem from 1674, was

That Grave and Wholesome Liquor
That heals the Stomach, makes the Genius quicker
Relieves the Memory, revives the Sad
And Cheers the Spirit, without making Mad.

Coffee houses became conference centers for European intellectuals. The abundance of sober meeting places advanced science, promoted the arts, and launched modern merchant capitalism. Joint stock companies and brokerages were formed in coffee houses and operated out of them. The Age of Coffee was the Age of Reason, of empirical science, and of the Enlightenment. It was no mere coincidence.
            Not everyone in the 17th century welcomed coffee. (When does everyone approve of anything?) London tavern owners tried to get coffee houses banned. Charles II worried about political intrigues in coffee houses and imposed burdensome taxes on coffee. There was a women’s group that presented The Women’s Petition Against Coffee, representing to public consideration the grand inconveniences accruing to their sex from the excessive use of the drying and enfeebling Liquor. Apparently their men spent so much time in the coffee houses that they were “as unfruitful as the deserts from where that unhappy berry is said to be brought.” It was all to no avail. Coffee houses prospered.
            Coffee was a matter of Empire, too. European powers, worried about their dependence on Middle Eastern sources for this precious resource, strove for coffee independence. The Dutch smuggled some cuttings out of Africa and planted them in Batavia (Indonesia). The French did the same in the West Indies and the Portuguese were the most successful of all in Brazil.
            The lure of coffee diminished in later years. In the British Empire in particular it soon found a stiff competitor in tea. Nonetheless, coffee houses retained cultural significance in much of the world at least through the much-parodied Beat Era. By the 1970s, few establishments of this type were left. I’m surprised they haven’t made more of a comeback in recent years in the US, given the rise in the legal drinking age to 21. (Starbucks makes a decent cup of coffee, but it really doesn’t count as a classic hang-out.) In the 17th century, though, coffee houses provided the right stimulant at the right time. They changed the world.
            For now, my ambitions are more modest. I’ll just pour myself a second mug and let coffee change my morning.

Coffee House Poetry from High School Confidential (1958)                    


  1. Well when Starbucks made it's big appearance in the mid 90s, it certainly was a major hangout. But not by the young and hip, more like the folks trying to recaptures their memories of the whole Beat scene. A Starbucks opened next the video store I worked at. It wasn't too bad, because it made the store smell like coffee (instead of Thai food, which we had previous to that). But there was a group of middle aged men always hanging out in front of the store, drinking coffee, watching all the ladies walk by. I guess I was a bit jealous. I'm working most of the day and these clowns were sitting around for just as long doing nothing. But I never understood why they loved that particular store so much and how they could spend hours sitting in front of it. It had to have been watching all the hot young moms picking up their dry cleaning. :)

    And to answer your burning question, "What is Coffee?" here is a short film with commentary all about it.

    1. "When in doubt about motive, assume something creepy" is probably a sound dictum by and large.

      Fun film. Even 40 years ago where (sans commentary) would you have aired something like this?