by Brian Yarvin
“Collectively, Europe’s coffeehouses functioned as the Internet of the Age of Reason.”–Tom Standage
I once asked a friend how much coffee he drank and he boasted “500 billion cups a year.” I knew instantly that this was wrong because the entire world drinks only about 400 billion. No matter where we are — in the car-crazed west, the subway riding city of New York, a town square cafe in Kansas, or a science lab in Antarctica — coffee is our fuel.
Coffee is so powerful that it has its own creation myth. We are told that it was discovered by a guy named “Kaldi.” He was an Ethiopian goat herder who noticed that when his animals ate certain red berries, they got so excited, they began to dance. So he chewed on a few berries and felt that now universal coffee buzz. Afterward, he picked some more, and then told an Islamic holy man about his discovery. The holy man declared them evil and threw them on the fire. When they smelled the roasting beans, they gathered them up, threw water on them, and enjoyed the world’s first cup of coffee.
As much as I love this story, it doesn’t ring true. Six hundred years ago, we humans were so dependent on the plants growing around us that we all knew their obvious properties. A red berry stimulant couldn’t possibly go unnoticed for all those centuries. So with all due respect to those people who’ve named their cafes “Kaldi’s,” I say, forget it.
I know it’s tough to imagine, but humans and civilization went for thousands of years without the stuff. The ancients didn’t know coffee at all. There was none in Egypt, Greece or Rome. The Chinese had tea and it spread throughout much of Asia, but caffeine wasn’t consumed regularly in the West before about 1650.
People on the Arabian peninsula almost certainly knew about the stimulative effects of the fruit of the coffee tree and there is some record of them chewing it, yet they didn’t start making a delicious drink from the ground, roasted seeds until about 1450, with the first clear written records from Yemen in about 1470. There, it was said that Sufi practitioners would drink it to stay awake for long ritual and study sessions.
Even in its birthplace, coffee was controversial. There’s no mention of coffee in the Koran, not that this has stopped a few scholars from trying to rule on it. Was it intoxicating and therefore a violation of Koranic law? Did it cause men to gather together and gamble? Plot treason? Argue? Were these rooms filled with males encouraging the business of prostitution? All these questions and more were addressed by judges and scholars as coffeehouses spread from Ethiopia and Yemen to Cairo and Istanbul. Attempts to ban coffee led to riots in Cairo and an official proclamation approving of it in Mecca during the year 1511.
If you’ve had more than a few cups of coffee, you’ll know that buzz; sometimes it comes with the first sniff of brew, although on rough days, you might not feel it until the third or fourth cup. That tingling, restless energy hits you in every nerve of your body. Is this intoxication? Can’t most of us drive better after a cup or two? Read better? And even think better?
What exactly were people back then drinking? Records show that they were boiling water and adding some part of the coffee bean to it along with (perhaps) some cardamom. Things moved quickly. By 1510 it was being commonly sold in Cairo by both street vendors and at freestanding specialty coffeehouses — by this time considered respectable because they didn’t have the drunkenness of wine or beer.
Given the use of words like “cauldron” or “vat” to describe the early coffee-making process, you might imagine that it was brewed in large quantities and kept for long periods. Not always so. Early recipes use exactly the same technique as modern Turkish coffee: a quick boil-up of water and powdered grounds followed by an even quicker pour into a tiny bowl-shaped cup. No sugar. No milk. Ethiopians were adding a bit of salt, but Europe was still taking its coffee straight.
Many reporters at that time described a coffee drink made from the boiled husks of the fruit. This would give you a sort of spicy, tea-like drink with the same properties as coffee. Today, those husks are rarely consumed as a drink, and experts talk of using them as a raw material for biofuel.
While there is some dispute about the exact location — some people say Oxford in 1650 and others London in 1652 — coffeehouses were thriving in England by the seventeen hundreds. Men would go in for a cup (called a “dish” back then) of coffee or perhaps much more, for games, conversation, networking and even serious business transactions. What they drank though, was a couple of spoonfuls of ground coffee boiled in water for ten minutes or more. It must have had a brutal taste.
Before milk and sugar were settled upon as the standard seasonings for coffee, all sorts of other things were tried including wine, beer, cardamom, spearmint, and cinnamon. These things might not sound good to us, but we have the benefit of hundreds of years of culinary experimentation. The first person who put milk in coffee had no reason to believe that it would be any better than the other items on the list.
You have to imagine yourself in the London of 1700. The city had two sorts of places to sit down and get something to drink: the pub and the coffeehouse. Walk into a pub and you’d be met by customers in varying states of drunkenness and no way to predict the mood of the place. Nobody was drunk at the coffeehouses. Instead, there’d be intelligent discussion. Science at some, or maybe literature or arts at the shop down the street. Around the corner, business might be the order of the day. This discourse was so important that newspapers had reporters at the coffeehouses to summarize it.
Coffee reached Italy in the 1650s where it was sold by street vendors alongside liquor, chocolate (in drink form), and lemonade. In 1683, Venice was the first city on the Italian peninsula to get its own coffeehouse. However, it wasn’t until the invention of espresso a couple of centuries later that classic Italian coffee culture came of age.
The first successful coffee shop in Germany opened in Hamburg in 1679. Called “The English Coffeehouse,” it catered to sailors and other travelers. By 1725, however, it was popular among all classes of people. Even then, an ad for a coffee seller reminded buyers that it was owned by an “Italian.” It seems that the cachet of an Italian sold coffee before the nation of Italy even existed.
The French were learning about coffee at roughly the same time as the Italians were. However, they were far more experimental. Not only were they drinking the boiled grounds, they also gave enemas with the very same liquid. Thankfully, this practice has died out. Imagine what Parisian sidewalk cafes would be like today if it had caught on!
Even though the enema thing didn’t quite work, the French continued to try new ways of preparing coffee. It was their idea to infuse the ground, roasted beans in boiling water and then strain the liquid through cloth. Parisians took to drinking it with gusto. By the mid-seventeen hundreds, they were consuming it in several different forms; a cup of the infusion with milk or a tiny dose of a grounds-and-water mixture so thick that it could almost be described as a paste.
The other European country famous for its coffee culture is Austria. Closer to coffee-loving Turkey, Vienna saw its first cafe, the Blue Bottle, before 1700. Started by one Franz Georg Kolschitzky, he got his original supply of coffee after Viennese won a military battle against the Turks. While his fellow soldiers grabbed almost everything the defeated army left behind, they missed the sacks of coffee beans. Legend has it that Franz recognized them as coffee after his fellow troops tried to set them on fire. The distinctive smell of the roasting beans tipped him off and he brewed up a batch on the spot. The Viennese were hooked.
Coffee lovers emigrated to America from all these countries, and although we Americans preferred beer or cider with our meals, it quickly caught on. Soon it was being brewed at home and on the campfires of pioneers. They introduced it to Native Americans who liked it so much that it was believed they were attacking wagon trains specifically to obtain it. Our forefathers drank this stuff as often as they could.
Union soldiers during the Civil War boasted about just how much coffee they drank. It was so extreme that quantities were claimed in quarts rather than cups. In fact, a memoir of the Civil War written in 1887 was titled Hardtack and Coffee (by John Billings). It’s been said that the Union Army had consumed more than forty million pounds of coffee by the time victory rolled around. A popular Civil War rifle, the Sharps Carbine, had a coffee grinder built into its stock.
Thanks to global imperialism and slave labor, the cost of coffee beans was plummeting and the role of the drink was changing. Instead of being the sophisticated social stimulant of the rich and famous in London, Paris, and Vienna, the industrial revolution saw coffee as the fuel that could keep factory workers going for long hours. A cup or two and twelve hours at a steam-driven loom might have been exhausting, but it was doable.
It didn’t take long for American food to catch up with its favorite drink. As the Industrial Revolution came on in full-force, wagons (we’d call them “food trucks” today) opened selling hamburgers and coffee. They were all you needed to do your job.
The notion that coffee was cheap turns out to be relative. Menus of the 1880s show meals and cups of coffee to often be the same price; roast beef platters and cups of coffee each priced at ten cents. Imagine walking into a diner of today and ordering the twelve dollar roast beef platter and washing it down with a twelve dollar cup of coffee.
As the twentieth century began, two inventions were to set the stage for how coffee was consumed in the United States and Europe respectively. Americans embraced the percolator, a device that used steam pressure to repeatedly spray water and partially brewed coffee over the grounds. This ensured a bitter and over-extracted cup. As awful as it tasted, the sight of the percolator remains a symbol of coffee and coffee shops. Today, collectors fawn over them at swap meets and antique stores. In Europe, Melitta Bentz punched some holes in a tin cup and then lined it with blotting paper. It was the first filter coffee maker. Soon, the Melitta (TM) brand of filters and filter holders were ubiquitous in northern Europe, giving Continentals a superior cup of coffee for decades before Americans caught on. Caught on we did though; in the seventies, an electric filter coffee making device called “Mr. Coffee” unseated the percolator and filter coffee became America’s choice too.
Coffee in Italy traveled on a whole different track. While Americans were first getting the hang of the percolator, inventors in Italy were trying to figure out a way to brew with high-pressure steam. There were two distinct advantages to this. First, the resulting beverage would become thick and unctuous without their being pieces of coffee grounds in the liquid, and second, that blast of steam could brew a single, tiny, potent serving at a time. A cup expressly for each customer — espresso.
As Italy urbanized, bars opened to serve espresso and espresso-and-milk drinks. With a government-mandated low price that applied only if you stood at the bar and an extortionate price for those who sat at tables, a class-sensitive stand at the bar or show-off at a table culture took root. Tourists in the great cities during the twenties were treated to extravagant service at tables while locals stood at the bar watching carefully.
Back in the States, The New York Times reported that “men who drank one cup of coffee before prohibition take two now” and described this situation as “jazzed up.” During the Roaring Twenties, Americans were consuming half the world’s coffee beans. This was also the time that supermarkets took hold. A&P, the first big chain, sold whole roast beans and ground them for you at the checkout counter, a practice that continued for decades.
Along with supermarkets, cars and car culture begat a whole new range of places where a person could buy a cup of coffee; gas stations, roadside snack bars, diners, motels, and campgrounds all introduced the now normal practice of offering coffee, sometimes for sale and sometimes as part of a larger purchase in all sorts of places. The now normal practice of offering free coffee in motels began back then.
During the twenties, Brazil was our major coffee supplier, but that didn’t last through the Depression. Insisting on maintaining a sort of cartel with huge quantities of warehoused beans, it was beaten in the market when its neighbors refused to go along. By the onset of the Second World War, coffee was coming into the United States from almost every country in South and Central America. This set the stage for coffee becoming the world’s most traded edible commodity. And soon, coffee growers in Africa and Asia were clamoring for a piece of the market they could call their own.
The widespread downhill slide in food taste and quality that began in the late forties was most obvious in two coffee products: instant coffee and large, vacuum-packed cans of pre-ground coffee. The pressure to offer them at lower and lower prices forced manufacturers to use lower and lower grades of coffee. The Robusta bean, which grew faster and yielded more than its fancier sibling the Arabica, found its way into these products, first, as a few percent of the blend, and later as half or more. In a final blow to coffee quality, vending machines offering hot cups of coffee began appearing in places where a friendly human being would have brewed a pot twenty or thirty years before.
In the fifties, Americans weren’t enjoying a cup of coffee, they were forcing it down so they could stay awake. It seemed like the only places where people actually enjoyed coffee were on television. The mythical characters of early TV appeared to be drinking the same bland, reheated, brown water as the rest of the country, only with far better results. Nobody was looking for something better because they had no idea that better was possible. Even espresso, the drink that would start the revolution a few decades later, was often so bitter that it was served with a twist of lemon peel to help it along.
Today, the tone of coffee consumption around the globe is set by the Starbucks chain. So ubiquitous that many people believe they invented the concept and at least a dozen times larger than its nearest rival, Starbucks is so big that many Americans are shocked when they go to a new or strange place and don’t find one. In fact, the espresso/coffeehouse trend had its beginnings at Peet’s — today, a chain with a respectable number of stores of its own, but back in the sixties, it was a single shop run by a guy named Alfred Peet. His first store, in the part of Berkeley, California, now known as the “gourmet ghetto,” had high-quality coffee beans that were roasted in small batches.
Peet’s soon became a gathering place for America’s first espresso fans. And in a very real way, he was appealing directly to the drug culture of the time. When you visited Peet’s, you bought a drug that was perfectly legal, very strong, and surrounded by a veil of esoteric knowledge. To the rest of the world, Mocha was an ice cream flavor, while at Peet’s it was one of the many points of origin for his coffees. Indeed, the coffees came from many places that were classic hippie destinations and others that seemed like they should have been.
Fine coffees grew high in the remote mountain regions of tropical third-world countries. Imagine how hip it would have been to sip espresso in a tiny, smoky shop while discussing Ethiopia, Indonesia, Kenya or Jamaica! Your mind awakened by the caffeine and camaraderie. You could do all the things that pot smokers did and never fear arrest. Even better, unlike those other drugs, artisan coffee offered business opportunities that were actually legitimate. Yes, a pothead could make money selling, but the risks were pretty great; a coffee fanatic could open up a shop that drew in addicts like flies, never risk a bust, and if he was robbed, he could call his insurance company and file a claim.
This combination of legal drugs and esoteric knowledge led to coffee’s modern age. Some guys from Seattle opened a shop near the Pike Place Market and began selling Peet’s beans; they called their place “Starbucks.” Other folks tried out the same idea all across the country and then all around the world. Chains of espresso bars, supermarket coffee packaging that proudly displayed countries of origin, and cappuccino in gas stations are now America’s coffee reality. In Ethiopia, the birthplace of coffee, locals now down espresso drinks. In Asia, people who had noodles and tea for breakfast a decade ago start their mornings with Danish pastries and cappuccino. And in a full circle business challenge, chains like Korea’s Paris Baguette are opening shops in American retail locations near the Starbucks shops that started the whole thing not so long ago.
So much coffee is consumed today that measurable amounts of caffeine are found in lakes, harbors and other bodies of water that are near towns and cities. Boston Harbor is said to have the equivalent of one million cups of coffee per day dumped into it via sewage and runoff. No wonder everybody is rushing around!
As Justin, my auto mechanic says, “we are awake and sufficiently caffeinated.”
Author, Educator, Photographer
Brian Yarvin is an author and photographer from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. While most of his time is spent producing cookbooks and stock photos, he also writes food and travel articles for publications throughout the United States.