Keeping Up with Coffee Culture

What’s the coffee culture like in your city? Coffee culture, a term that Wikipedia defines as “a term used to describe a social atmosphere that depends heavily on coffee shops, espresso in particular, as a social lubricant”. While that article goes on to talk specifically about Seattle and its thick density of coffee shops and cafes, the truth is that coffee culture has existed for centuries, and the popularity of coffee shops in the late 1900s is just another little bubble in the history of coffee culture throughout the world.

The earliest record of coffee culture dates to the early 1400s in Yemen, one of the earliest exporters of coffee. The tradition of coffee houses, on which the establishment of a coffee culture depends, began in Mecca, and was encouraged by those in power who felt that the influence of coffee was better than that of another popular stimulant, kat. Those coffee houses were called kaveh kanes, and became social hubs where men could gather over coffee to discuss business, exchange gossip, play chess and enjoy entertainment – all for the price of a cup of coffee. Sounds an awful lot like the coffee shops and coffee culture of today, no?The Yemeni coffee houses were also places where politics were discussed and rebellion fomented, which eventually led to their attempted suppression – not once, not twice, but repeatedly. The coffee culture was so entrenched by this time, though, that it proved nearly impossible to eradicate the coffee houses. Instead, the government eventually cashed in on the trend by taxing coffee by the cup. Much later, a Dutch traveler noted about the coffee culture in Yemen that the coffee houses were “the only theatres for the exercise of (non-religious) eloquence. … Young scholars walk about and deliver discourses on all sorts of subjects. They make up the most wonderful tales, inventing, singing, making tales and fables”. The manuscript, written by Carsten Niebuhr in the 1760s, sounds remarkably like an open mike reading at a coffee house today.

Between the beginnings of coffee houses in Yemen and Niebuhr’s visit there, though, coffee culture had started to spread throughout the world. By 1475, there are written records of a coffee house called Kiva Han in Constantinople. Turkish coffee, brewed in an ibrik, was served along with entertainment and – no surprise – political and social commentary. The first recorded coffee house in Europe was, interestingly, the result of the spoils of war. The story of that first cafe is possibly one of the most romantic in the annals of coffee culture. The Turkish armies had encamped in Vienna, taking over the city. A young Pole by the name of Franz Georg Kolschitzky, had been instrumental in engineering the defeat of the Turkish. He and a servant slipped into the Turkish encampment and wandered around it, gathering information that he then carried with him to the Christian troops of King Sobieski and Duke Charles of Lorraine. His message brought the troops to Constantinople just in time to save the city. When asked to name his reward for his service, Kolschitzky asked for 500 pounds of ‘camel fodder’ that had been left behind by the Turks. Using that camel fodder – green coffee beans – Kolschitzky established Vienna’s first coffee house, Kolschitzky’s Cafe.

Coffee culture spread througout Europe quickly and made its way to the British isles. Between 1670 and 1685, coffee houses sprouted up throughout London, attracting scholars and politicos. Writing in 1675, a young man noted,

“Now, whither shall a person, wearied with hard study, or the laborious turmoils of a tedious day, repair to refresh himself? Or where can young gentlemen, or shop-keepers, more innocently and advantageously spend an hour or two in the evening, than at a coffee-house? Where they shall be sure to meet company, and, by the custom of the house, not such as at other places, stingy and reserved to themselves, but free and communicative; where every man may modestly begin his story, and propose to, or answer another, as he thinks fit…In brief, it is undeniable, that, as you have here the most civil, so it is, generally, the most intelligent society;”

Nearly 350 years ago, the unnamed scholar described what is still the dominant coffee culture in coffeehouses throughout the world – a place where people come to spend an hour or two, meet company, tell stories and entertain each other. Coffee culture revolved around entertainment, erudition and politics. In London, the coffee houses were nicknamed “penny universities”, where a man could learn more in an evening of listening than he could in a month of studying. In 1675, King Charles II tried to ban coffee houses as ‘hotbeds of revolution’, but had to withdraw his proclamation after just 11 days because of the public outcry against it. The coffee culture was so entrenched and involved that it birthed other innovations in society. Jonathan’s Coffee House in Change Alley, for instance, was the birthplace of the London Stock Exchange, and Edward Lloyd’s Coffee House eventually became the headquarters for Lloyds of London, still the world’s most famous insurance company.

The coffee culture of Paris is credited with spawning the French Revolution. In 1773, the American colonists adopted coffee drinking as their patriotic duty after the British government allowed the East India Tea Company to import their tea untaxed, creating an unfair advantage for them over domestic companies. Coffee vendors and coffee shops were well-established in Italy and throughout Prussia. In every one of those cities, coffee, culture and politics became intertwined.

Today, the general impression of the coffee culture is not much different than it was back in Yemen and Constantinople in the 1400s and 1500s. Coffee houses are congenial places where people meet, exchange ideas, listen to storytellers, enjoy art and entertain each other. While the big chains spread across the country and across the world, independent coffee shops continue to offer more than a fix of espresso – they offer a heady shot of coffee culture well-mixed with company, political discourse and a chance to mingle with others who are as enchanted by the atmosphere as they are the bean.