Believe it or not, people the world over enjoyed coffee before a certain Seattle establishment opened its first storefront. In fact, the history of coffee drinking is a history of social discourse.
What the little company with the cute name from Washington state did was introduce new generations to the world's favorite beverage. Coffee had been declining in popularity for a number of years. Chalk it up to inferior grades of coffee beans that proliferated from the 1950s on or to social revolution. The young people of the sixties hadn't embraced coffee drinking the way previous generations had. Rather than gather in diners for coffee, young people cruised the local hangout with paper cups of crushed ice and cola.
Soft drinks were rising in popularity, and many newly-minted adults chose to get their daily caffeine boost from a cola instead of a cup. Coffee was viewed as passÃ©, part of the establishment that those below the age of thirty were rebelling against.
What a far cry this was from centuries before when coffee was something to be enjoyed in secret, when it was stolen from countries and smuggled into other countries, and when laws were created to govern the potent brew.
Coffee History - Span Of A Thousand Years
A thousand years ago coffee made its way from Ethiopia to Arabia where it was brewed and enjoyed in the tents of everyone from merchants to sultans. The Moslems aptly called their brew "qahwa" which meant prevents sleep. Their qahwa must have been popular because four hundred years later, it had made its way to Constantinople (modern Turkey) where the world's first coffee shop opened.
Coffee was such a part of the daily life of men and women in that part of the world that it was legal for a woman to divorce her husband if he didn't properly provide for her needs, her coffee needs, that is.
Another hundred years and the ruler of Mecca tried to ban it, but the sultan declared that coffee was sacred. He executed the governor instead. Apparently, the message for one and all was don't mess with the sultan's coffee.
After another century, coffee spread to Venice where the first Italian coffeehouse opened. Cafe Florian, in the shadow of St. Mark's Cathedral, still serves coffee to the throngs of tourists who sit at tiny tables, dodging millions of pigeons, as they drink from little white cups and listen to the orchestra that plays day and night.
This venerable Italian coffeehouse now has lots of competition up and down St. Mark's square, and all the coffeehouses or cafes have orchestras. Most afternoons, as tourists sip an espresso, cappuccino, or cafe lattes, the competing orchestras are reminiscent of a good old American battle of the bands.
Over in England in the 1600's at Lloyd's coffeehouse, shipping merchants and insurance agents gathered to shoot the breeze and probably discuss shipwrecks. The camaraderie and networking that went on at that coffeehouse was legendary. Eventually the coffeehouse became the world famous insurance underwriters Lloyd's of London.
The engaging beverage and its venue of coffeehouses spread from France to Austria to Holland to Germany in swashbuckling exploits that involved smuggled coffee plants, spoils of war, thefts of plants, and love affairs. Coffee was more than a mere drink. It was a conqueror that triumphed country after country.
People really took their coffee drinking seriously. Some men thought it should be reserved only for men so they banned women from coffeehouses. This outraged women and other men. Even composer Johann Sebastian Bach got into the protest on behalf of women by composing the Kaffee-Kantate. Naturally, that ban just didn't work.
In country after country, attempts to legislate the use of coffee failed. People just wouldn't abide by bans or restrictions on it. They wanted their coffee, and they wanted it every day.
Coffee Bean History - The Upstart American Colonies
Coffee drinking has always been done in social settings whether the gathering of coffee drinkers took place in Turkey, Italy, England, the rest of Europe, Asia, or the newly founded colonies of the Americas.
Once it got a foothold in America, it didn't take it long to surpass beer as the favorite breakfast drink in New York City. Yes, that's right. Prior to coffee, in the New York of 1668, beer had been the breakfast beverage of choice. Somehow, bacon, eggs, and beer just doesn't sound as good as bacon, eggs, and fresh-brewed coffee.
What really put coffee on the map in the young country of America was the Boston Tea Party. Remember studying that in American History? You know how colonists dressed as Indians climbed aboard a British ship and dumped all the tea into the Boston harbor to protest the taxes on tea. What you may not know is that colonists shunned tea after that and turned to coffee. Why, a morning cup of coffee was about the most patriotic thing an American could do.
The popularity of coffee continued to grow. In America in 1886, Joel Cheek, a grocer, named a blend he created Maxwell House in honor of a Nashville, Tennessee, hotel where it was served.
Prior to 1900, people bought their coffee from roasting shops and coffee mills where the beans were roasted and then ground. The Hills brothers changed all that. Hills Brothers, a brand still sold in stores today, packaged roasted, ground coffee in vacuum sealed tin cans thus making it available for sale from a store shelf.
During that same time period, afternoon coffee, rather than afternoon tea, became a huge social gathering in Germany. The term "kaffeeklatsch" was created to describe this gathering of mostly women who drank coffee and gossiped. Of course, kaffeeklatsch wasn't a compliment, but over the years the label has come to mean a social gathering. The word even has been Americanized as coffee klatch.
After the Boston Tea Party, the next huge boost for coffee's popularity was Prohibition. With liquor sales in the United States banned, coffee sales soared.
Social Drinking Coffee History
The biggest obstacle facing coffee drinkers who wanted their morning brew was one of supply and demand. Science and brain power solved that problem with patents for instant coffee, freeze-dried coffee, and decaffeinated coffee for those concerned about the caffeine.
After decades of decline, suddenly in the 1970's coffee drinking was chic again. Suddenly, coffee bars were popping up like mushrooms after a hard rain. Over the last thirty years, coffee bars and coffeehouses have synergistically grown alongside and inside book stores, large and small, supermarkets, and stand alone tiny drive-thrus. Everyone from teens to senior citizens likes the ambience of coffee bars and coffeehouses.
Coffeehouses or coffee bars are great places to gather for:
- Getting acquainted with your fellow office workers
- Doing the "Friends" thing and hanging out
- Meeting a date in neutral territory for a face to face
- Breaking up with a boy or girlfriend
- Treating yourself to coffee in a grown-up venue sans kids
- Catching up with friends or spouse after a busy week
- A break from shopping
- Writing papers or books - writers love coffeehouses
The best news about coffee is that health research the last few years indicates that our national enjoyment of coffee isn't necessarily bad for us. In fact, it has many health benefits because of the antioxidants in coffee. As with any substance consumed, one must use good judgment and moderation. Perhaps coffeehouses should hang posters with the myriad health benefits listed as part of their decor.
Just think. The next time you and a friend meet at your favorite coffeehouse, you're indulging in one of life's small pleasures and carrying on a social tradition that's been around more than a thousand years. Enjoying the company of a good friend and having a good cup of coffee. What could be a nicer way to start a day or end one?