Edible histories: coffee

Categories: History of food

From Ethiopian highlands to world domination via the transformation of London’s social scene, Mark Riddaway on the epic story of coffee

Surprisingly, given how thoroughly it has soaked itself into the planet’s daily life, coffee is something of an upstart. Compared with beer, wine and tea, whose stories are woven into the histories of the world’s ancient civilisations, it is a brash arriviste—a market disruptor that conquered the world like a taxi app, changing everything for better or worse. Often worse.

The arabica coffee plant first grew wild in the highlands of Ethiopia, where its bright red, caffeine-packed cherries were utilised by local tribes. It was across the Red Sea, though, on the Arabian Peninsula, that a hot beverage made by roasting and brewing its seeds first took hold. Exactly when is a matter of some debate. All we can say for sure is that by the end of the 15th century, coffee was being intensively cultivated in Yemen and had begun a relentless march through Arabia, Persia and north Africa, popularised by Sufi mystics who used it to fuel their late-night prayers. Before long, the drink would be as central to the social and cultural life of the Islamic world as heavy boozing was to that of Europe.

Coffee’s rapid progress hit some bumps along the way. In 1511, the governor of Mecca forced the closure of the city’s lively coffee houses: one of many attempts made by skittish authorities to quash the threat of a drink that encourages people to gather and talk. The most notorious of these was instituted in 1656 by the grand vizier of Constantinople. The punishment for flouting his ban was brutal: for a first offence, being beaten with cudgels; for a second, being sewn into a bag and thrown into the Bosphorus. Despite such grotesquery, coffee’s takeover continued unabated.

The first European to write about coffee was Leonhard Rauwolf, a German physician and traveller who described a visit to Aleppo, Syria in 1573: “They have a very good drink, by them called ‘chaube’, that is almost as black as ink, and very good in illness, chiefly that of the stomach; of this they drink in the morning early in open places before everybody, without any fear or regard, out of china cups, as hot as they can.”

Delusional Elizabethan gadabout
In 1601, William Parry produced the oldest surviving English reference. Writing about his adventures in the Islamic world alongside the colourful, delusional Elizabethan gadabout Antony Sherley, he described “a certaine liquor, which they do call coffe, which is made of seede much like mustard seede, which will soone intoxicate the braine like our metheglin”. Given that metheglin is alcoholic, it seems unlikely that Parry actually tried coffee. Other Brits who encountered it on their travels weren’t glowing in their reviews. In 1610, the poet Sir George Sandys, described Turkish coffee as “blacke as soote, and tasting not much unlike it”.

The first reliable record of coffee being drunk in England comes from a 1637 entry by the diarist John Evelyn, who mentions it being consumed every morning at Baliol College, Oxford by a Cretan migrant. It was also in Oxford, in 1650, that the first English cafe opened. Overseen by a Lebanese Jew called Jacob, it quickly became a popular haunt for scholarly types.

Two years later, a coffee house (described by one chronicler as a “shed”) opened within the tight warren of alleyways behind St Michael Cornhill in the City of London, at least part-owned by Pasqua Rosée, a Greek who had come to Britain as the servant of a British merchant. A handbill promoting Rosée’s establishment made some interesting claims for this exotic drink, suggesting that as well as preventing drowsiness, its “vertues” included protection against consumption, coughs, dropsy, gout, scurvy, scrofula, miscarriages and the unpleasant-sounding “hypocondriack winds”.

Such hyperbolic claims were a common feature of early European descriptions of coffee, which, while divided on the merits of its flavour, tended to agree on its power as a medical panacea. Punters quickly took to this miraculous new beverage, and London’s social scene underwent a fundamental shift. By May 1663, there were 82 coffee houses in the City, with dozens more around Covent Garden. Estimates from the early 18th century suggested that between 500 and 8,000 coffee shops were in operation in London. Nowhere else—not even Constantinople, the heartland of Ottoman coffee culture—could claim such a concentration of cafes.

Caffeine-fuelled interaction
Coffee houses transformed the commercial and political life of Restoration England, providing a place for men (and it was just men) to gather, talk and make deals while being marginally less drunk than they would have been in a tavern. Many of the activities now associated with banks, stock exchanges and insurance markets evolved in London’s coffee shops—Lloyd’s of London, for example, started life in Lloyd’s Coffee House on Tower Street, a popular haunt for merchants and ship-owners. The nascent newspaper industry was also sparked into life by demand from these bustling pits of caffeine-fuelled interaction.

Different political factions each had their favourite haunts. Thomas d’Urfey’s comic play Sir Barnaby Whigg (1681) drew a laugh with the line: “In a coffee house, just now among the rabble, I bluntly asked, which is the treason table?” But Charles II wasn’t laughing. In December 1675, the King, who had an understandable aversion to sedition, published a proclamation banning coffee houses, insisting that from their smoky rooms “diverse false, malicious and scandalous reports are devised and spread abroad”. Such was the outcry, though, the ban was quickly withdrawn.

A more entertaining objection to coffee houses was presented in 1674 in the form of the Women’s Petition Against Coffee. This satirical pamphlet complained that London’s men were being rendered impotent by the coffee house (“they come from it with nothing moist but their snotty noses, nothing stiff but their joints, nor standing but their ears”) and that, far from being a sobering influence, coffee was being used as fuel for even heavier drinking.

Since emerging in Arabia, coffee had been brewed using a ‘decoction’ method, with the roasted, ground beans boiled up in a pot over a stove or fire—a method that has reached its apogee in the form of Turkish coffee. Unless done with skill, care and well-prepared beans, boiling grounds can result in a gritty, bitter drink. During the London coffee boom, some coffee houses used isinglass, obtained from the dried swim bladders of fish, to clarify the murk.

Danger of the leprosy
Milky coffee took several centuries to catch on—the 16th century Arab physician Daud al-Antakiī warned that “some drink it with milk, but it is an error, and such as may bring in danger of the leprosy”—and for the most part it was taken black and unsweetened.

The French were the great innovators of coffee preparation, with the idea of infusing coffee into hot water through a cloth bag emerging in the early 18th century. Around 100 years later, the De Belloy pot pioneered the percolation method. French inventors then spent most of the 19th century patenting increasingly clever and occasionally wildly elaborate percolators, filters and infusers.

In 1884, the Italian Angelo Moriondo was granted a patent for “new steam machinery for the economic and instantaneous confection of coffee beverage”. This was refined and developed by Luigi Bezzerra and Desiderio Pavoni, resulting in the first espresso machines being produced in Milan in 1906. After the second world war, Milanese cafe owner Achille Gaggia built a lever-operated version that utilised pressurised water rather than steam, resulting in a less bitter coffee with a foamy ‘crema’. Gaggia’s machines—compact, and chrome-plated—cemented espresso as the very essence of modernity. Italian migrants took this convenient drink to London and New York, and espresso-based coffees have come to dominate our coffee culture.

Jealously guarded
At the start of the European coffee boom, almost all coffee beans were grown in Yemen and exported from the port of Mocha—a monopoly that was jealously guarded by Yemen’s rulers. The British East India Company fought tooth and nail to control the Mocha trade, while the Dutch took a different route.

Starting in 1696, the Dutch East India Company began to establish its own coffee plantations on the Indonesian island of Java. The success of Javanese coffee, the first sales of which took place in 1711, sparked a rush by European powers to introduce the crop to their colonies in the East Indies, the Caribbean and the Americas. What had for centuries been purely an Arabian asset rapidly became a global one.

In the 18th century, as its influence over supply rapidly faded, Britain’s consumption of coffee collapsed, and tea became our drink of choice. But global consumption continued to grow, bolstered by the amazing appetite for coffee in the USA. More and more land was seeded with coffee plants, but this explosion in cultivation came at a cost, fuelled as it was by the widespread use of slave labour. In 1822, Brazil declared independence from Portugal and rapidly turned itself into the world’s biggest coffee producer, but its rise was paid for with the labour of millions of slaves and the destruction of vast swathes of forest.

In 1869, a fungus began to spread through Sri Lanka’s coffee plantations, causing a deadly condition known as ‘rust’. Within a few years, the coffee industry of the East Indies was all but wiped out. One result was the rise to prominence of a sub-Saharan African coffee species, Coffea canephora. Branded ‘robusta’ by its early advocates, it had a harsh flavour, but was hardy and rust-resistant. Adopted by Asian producers to fill the gaps left by their obliterated arabica plants, it now accounts for around 40 per cent of global coffee production.

A bear pit
High demand and fluctuating supply made coffee a product ripe for commoditisation. After a coffee price bubble burst in America, ruining many in the industry, a coffee exchange was incorporated in New York in 1881. Speculators rushed into the market, turning it into a bear pit in which the welfare of growers and the experience of drinkers came far down the list of priorities. “Coffee is the most speculative business in the world,” pronounced the American coffee magnate John Arbuckle in 1897, and that remains not far from the truth today.

The global trade is still as murky as a 17th century coffee stove-top decoction. The profits of the world’s staggering capacity for cappuccinos are still hoovered up by western corporations and speculators, while those who cultivate the beans remain poorly rewarded, their livelihoods at the mercy of markets and middlemen. That’s not true of those who supply the likes of Monmouth Coffee and The Colombian Coffee Company, part of a new wave of coffee sellers whose ethics are as sound as their roasting skills. Their approach offers a very different model to those of the past. Their coffee still won’t cure dropsy though.