The origins of coffee are highly debated up to this day. We will delve deeper into that topic in the future, but today I want to focus on a period in our history when coffee found itself at the epicenter of a revolution when it created the perfect environment for humans to develop a new way of thinking..an enlightened way of thinking!
That’s right, I’m going to talk about the Enlightenment.
Coffee made its way to Europe in the 17th century, where its energizing and socializing effects made it a very controversial substance. Upon its arrival in Italy, coffee was first branded as “an invention of Satan”, and caused such a stir that the Pope actually had to get involved. This pope, Clement VIII, liked it so much he gave it the official A-Okay, and this formed the beginning of coffee’s meteoric rise in popularity.
Around 1650, a Turkish entrepreneur by the name of Pasqua Rosée opened the first coffeehouse in London. Throughout the 17th century, many more coffee houses would follow, all over Europe. Fun fact about this, though, is that coffee houses did not become popular because of the coffee, per se. As a matter of fact, the coffee itself was sometimes described as “puddle water and so ugly in color and tast” [sic].
The cause of their popularity was because they created a safe place for discourse, where people from all walks of life could gather and discuss new — and old — ideas on philosophy, politics, society, and economy. It’s exactly for this reason that the nobles feared the coffeehouses, and what they represented. Namely, the possible disbandment of the classes. They tried to start an “anti-coffee” movement which focused on the “debauchery” of coffee culture, which allowed for the intermingling of lower-class people with higher class aristocrats without judgment.
As we now all know, this smear campaign didn’t prove very effective. This is in part due to the fact that coffeehouses served such a variety of functions that almost everyone benefited from them. Not only could one debate on politics, one could also get the latest news (or gossip), lectures and even trade stocks there. This type of forum is now defined as the public sphere. They encouraged a place of sociability, equality, and communication.
Although it must be said that this inclusivity rarely included women or people of color (it was still the 17th century after all). Since that is a topic that warrants its own post, we will come back to that later this week.
Now, when talking about coffee houses regarding the enlightenment, a distinction must be made between the British Coffeehouses and their French counterpart, the Salons. Salons were run by female hostesses and were private spaces, which meant that the hostess would pick and choose her patrons. The coffeehouses, on the other hand, were truly public, thus accessible by any man that paid the fee of one penny per coffee cup, but they excluded women.
Coffeehouses became famous for their sociability, i.e. the mixing of rich and poor, as there was no one who restricted entrance. However, most coffeehouses did attract a certain crowd or a regular group of people. This encouraged most to visit different shops throughout the day, which stimulated social cohesion and a growing network of “new age thinking” individuals. Even though the salons restricted themselves somewhat by being invitation-only, this distinction made it possible for a more homogenous guestlist, which allowed the patrons to more easily forget their social and economic differences and partake in civil discussions. In the salons “social differences were ignored and all the players were considered equal.”
This sentiment has unfortunately disappeared from contemporary coffee culture. First, on the consumer end of the spectrum, where enthusiasts try to differentiate themselves from others by talking down on anyone who likes their coffee a certain way. Second, equality and fraternity has disappeared from the supply chain. Of course, we must consider the fact that supply chains have almost never been equal and fair, especially from the 17th century onwards. But considering the heritage behind coffee, the impact it has had (and continues to have) on our society, we should strive to take a closer look at its origins, its producers. And pay our respects to them by choosing more consciously and initiating conversations with the people around us. Call it a new wave of enlightenment if you will, a new revolution in the way that we think, buy, and look at each other!