Thursday, January 14, 2016

Facts: About the History of Coffee

I still can't get my head around the fact that coffee was discovered so late. It was discovered in the Ethiopia sometime in the 14th century (although the exact date is uncertain) and only really hit Europe in the late 16th century. I imagine the generations upon generations of humans who toiled through the dim stupor of life, suffering because they lacked the cup of coffee they couldn't know they needed. Think of what Homer might have written if he'd been able to pound back an espresso shot! Think of the extra plays we might have enjoyed if Shakespeare had enjoyed a French Press. Think of all the extra math Copernicus might have done if he'd been able to order an Americano from his corner cafe!

So why did it take so long to discover coffee? The traditional story is that an Ethiopian goat herder named Kaldi discovered coffee when he spied his goats acting pleasantly jumpy after eating coffee berries from some mountain bush. Another story says that a Sufi sage saw birds eating coffee and flying with particular vigor.
Site of the first London coffeehouse, honored by a plaque.
The first coffee house in England was opened in 1652 in London at the sign of the Turk's head. Some contemporaries thought that the dish was unchristian, would spur rebellion, and lead to epidemics of male impotence. One writer called it a devil's drink "that witches tipple out of dead men's skulls." Although the impotence and occult qualities of the drink are pretty hard to understand, the rebellion part of the critique was not all that fanciful. At the time Britain was being ruled by a Republican government which had recently decapitated the rightful king. Besides, you couldn't toast the health to the king with a cup of coffee the same way you could with a jug of beer.

But a lot of people loved coffee, giving it all sorts of magical properties. Some used it as a emetic--shoving it down the throat with a whalebone stick to induce vomiting. (It worked!) But most simply drank it, discovering that it made conversation easier, and that you could talk for longer over that "wakeful drink" than over mugs of beer.

The early coffeehouse was a perpetual fair of learning, discussion, selling, buying, arguments, and fun. Robert Hooke, the first demonstrator of the Royal Society, dissected a porpoise in Garraway's Coffeehouse in the 1660s to prove that the animal was a fish. (He was wrong.) Other coffeehouses catered to businessmen. Lloyd's of London, the insurance market, began as Lloyd's coffeehouse. Still others catered to fops and other fashionable young men who'd smoke, gamble, drink coffee and stay out too late.

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