Coffee and the Enlightenment

I’m reading Steven Johnson’s The Invention of Air, which is primarily about the Joseph Priestley, the great chemist and adviser to the American founding fathers. Along the way, Johnson quotes historian Tom Standage:

coffeehouse-buttons-100x107“The impact of the introduction of coffee into Europe during the seventeenth century was particularly noticeable since the most common beverages of the time, even at breakfast, were weak ‘small beer’ and wine. … Those who drank coffee instead of alcohol began the day alert and stimulated, rather than relaxed and mildly inebriated, and the quality and quantity of their work improved. … Western Europe began to emerge from an alcoholic haze that had lasted for centuries.”

As a contributing factor, coffee (and tea) certainly gets credit on physiological grounds. lloyds-101x100Also contributing was the development of European coffee house culture, the coffee houses bringing businessmen, artists, and scientists together for drinking and socializing. The great Lloyd’s of London company, for instance, had its beginning in Edward Lloyd’s Coffee House in London, which dates from (possibly) 1685 or (more likely) 1688, the year of England’s Glorious Revolution and John Locke’s return from exile in Holland.

As the Turks had both coffee and coffee houses at least a century earlier, coffee is at most a contributing factor. But it is thanks to the Turks’ militaristic and imperial ambitions that Europe got its first coffee house. As the inscription on a coffee cup at my office says: Given enough coffee, I could rule the world. Too true, as history bears out: I offer you the Suleiman-Kolschitzky-Axis-of-Coffee Thesis.

suleiman-100x109Led by Suleiman the Magnificent, the Ottoman empire was expanding westward into Europe until halted at Vienna in 1529. Writes Sean Paajanen:

“Vienna was invaded by the Turkish army, who left many bags of coffee behind when they fled the city. Franz Georg Kolschitzky claimed the coffee as the spoils of war, and opened a coffee house. Apparently, he had lived in Turkey and was the only person who recognized the value in the beans. He introduced the idea of filtering coffee, as well as the softening the brew with milk and sugar. The beverage was quite a hit.”

Coffee and coffee houses then spread rapidly across Europe. (Braun has some pictures of famous European coffee houses.)

So let us give thanks to Suleiman of the Magnificent Headwear for the coffee and to Herr Kolschitzky for spotting the entrepreneurial opportunity.

Yet — amidst all the praise, we should not neglect the dissenting position. I quote from The Women’s Petition Against Coffee of 1674: “Coffee leads men to trifle away their time, scald their chops, and spend their money, all for a little base, black, thick, nasty, bitter, stinking nauseous puddle water.”

Hmmm … . I will take that under advisement, ladies, while I have another cup.

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