Old Coffee

Magic Beans

It’s a long story and an interesting story… you might just want to drink your coffee? But how about reading some history whilst you drink your coffee? I certainly think that you’ll enjoy the drink more when you know about its long and complex history… it even explains why there are the different varieties that you get today.

You almost certainly have a jar coffee in your kitchen. Everybody you know almost certainly has a jar of coffee in his or her kitchen. Even people who don’t like coffee have coffee. It would seem very odd if you called at someone’s house and they offered you a drink, but coffee was not one of the options. Not only do you have a jar of coffee, you will probably have coffee paraphernalia: a cafetiere, say, or an Aeropress® Coffee Maker, maybe a grinder. Certainly you will have some coffee cups.

Magic beans – how coffee shaped the world *

This is true of pretty much everyone in the developed world. From New York to Eastbourne to Naples to Moscow, from Johannesburg to Sydney, pretty much every house you could call at will have some form of coffee. In some countries – notably England – they will of course have tea as well, and obviously a range of other consumables, but coffee is by far the most globally universal.

Indeed, the world’s second most valuable traded commodity – after oil – is coffee. Why is this? It is, after all, just a drink. Yes, it tastes delicious – or can do, if well made – and yes it is heavily marketed and periodically fashionable. But can this really account for its all-pervasive popularity?

Stimulating thoughts… *

It could be that there is something about our lifestyles in the industrialised world that makes coffee – which let’s not forget contains caffeine, a powerful legal stimulant – not merely pleasant to drink but in some ways necessary.

In the West, we are so used to the idea of the nine-to-five working day that few of us ever question it. Sure we might moan about it, but it is generally assumed that it is a natural state of affairs. But is it?

If ever you go to villages in less developed countries, in Southeast Asia for instance, or in Africa, and wander into a quiet local shop, you will very often see the owners or their families snoozing, head resting on the counter. As you come in they will rouse themselves, serve you and then when you leave, if things are still quiet, they may well nod off again.

This is not laziness – far from it – but is perhaps a more natural approach to the sleep cycle than we have. If you own a dog or cat you will also see this. Yes, they tend to sleep at night, but they also nap here and there throughout the day.

Early humans *

It is likely that early human hunter-gatherers also had this approach. Hunting was not an exact science: it did not go to the clock. Some hunts would be short and straightforward, others long and precarious. People would aim to sleep at night, broadly in line with our internal clocks, but depending on factors such as safety, warmth, energy expended during the day and so on, this sleep may be erratic. So people would take short rests when they could, throughout the day.

This pattern continued for thousands of years. It changed with the coming of agriculture. Farming requires specific, daily and seasonal tasks. Failure to undertake them would mean a reduced harvest or – in the serfdom that was widespread across pre-industrial Europe – maybe being thrown off your land.

Rise with the sun *

There were no clocks then of course, but it was fairly straightforward: you got up when the sun rose and worked until the sun set. This meant that no two working days were the same length. You would work longer in the spring and summer than in the winter – which worked out quite nicely as there was more to do in the spring and summer than in the winter. This system continued in one form or another for many centuries, but was all to change with the advent of the Industrial Revolution.

Revolutionary matters *

The rise of industry from the 18th century onwards changed everything. People began to trickle, and then flood, from the countryside to the booming industrial cities. This was not always a happy experience. Poverty and disease were rife in the slums, as were overcrowding, malnutrition, infant mortality and crime. But such is the nature of capitalism. People needed to go where the work was.

This all brought with it a huge change to the nature of our sleep patterns. Factory owners demanded long hours. And as there was little if any protection of workers’ rights in those days, they could generally got what they demanded. The pre-industrial model of rising with the sun, working through the day and sleeping with the sunset was no longer appropriate. Far less was the hunter-gatherer model of taking short rests as needed and as possible. And as for working shorter hours depending on the season and the length of the day? No chance.

Coffee for the workers *

So within a few decades, Britain and then most of the rest of Europe had to adapt to a new pattern of working and a new pattern of sleeping. Factory hours were long and unforgiving, failure to keep them could lead to dismissal, poverty and even starvation for workers and their families. What could be more useful to sustain people through these long, unnatural sleep/wake patterns than a widely available, legal stimulant? It is therefore no coincidence that this period of time witnessed a surge in the number of cheap coffee sellers throughout European cities.

Venetian roots *

That said, coffee had of course been popular before the Industrial Revolution too. It was first introduced by Arab traders in the 16th century; it was sometimes referred to in the early days as “Arab wine”. They sailed along the Mediterranean coast, trading spices, silks and other items between North Africa and southern Europe, and it was in Venice that the drink first became popular. The first coffee house on the continent opened there in 1683. One of the best known, Caffe Florian in Saint Mark’s Square, is still open today.

aeropress in italy
coffee in italy

However it was not then the demotic beverage that it was to become during the Industrial Revolution and still is today. Rather, it was a drink for the rich, for royalty and wealthy merchants.

Arab control *

This was because the Arab traders tightly controlled the business and could set a very high price. To protect their trade, they banned the export of fertile coffee beans, meaning that nobody else in the world could cultivate the plants. However the Dutch circumvented this ban in 1616, when they obtained some fertile beans and began to experiment with growing them, first in hothouses in the Netherlands, and then in various colonies such as India.

Arabic Coffee
Arabic Coffee

Soon all the colonial powers were racing to see which of their colonies were climatically suitable to grow this incredibly profitable cash crop. As it began to be grown widely around the world, the price fell and it became a popular drink among ordinary people.

Establishment concerns *

Coffee soon swept across Europe and its popularity caused some alarm. Notably many in the Catholic Church believed it to be ungodly and there were debates over whether it should be banned. This was not just because of its stimulant effect, but also that coffee houses became meeting places for radicals, intellectuals and subversives.

This was a view shared by some in government, and with good reason. Many a plot was hatched in coffee houses – most famously, the Boston Tea Party was (ironically enough) planned in a coffee house.

It was not all about sedition though. Several institutions that are now veritable cornerstones of the establishment – including Lloyd’s of London and the New York Stock Exchange – started out in coffee houses. Businessmen and merchants would meet to discuss matters such as trade, shipping and insurance. While ale and gin houses were always popular, coffee houses were understandably considered a more suitable place to discuss business.

Unstoppable rise *

Little could stop its spread though and over the course of the next century coffee houses sprung up in almost every European city. As this progressed, the product went from being a drink for the wealthy to being one for the people. That this should segue so neatly with the Industrial Revolution and the aforementioned change in sleeping patterns should come as no surprise.

While the wealthy continued to frequent fashionable coffee houses, by the 19th century most English towns and cities had cheap coffee stalls in streets and markets, where low-waged factory workers would daily get their fix.

A rather unsavoury cup *

While we take it for granted that coffee today, whether it comes from a percolator, Aeropress coffee maker or espresso machine, will consist of, well, coffee. This was not always the case.

The quality a cheap cup of street coffee in 19th century England was quite horrendous. Typically charging a penny or two per cup, in order to make a profit from hard-up factory workers the equally hard-up coffee-sellers would dilute and adulterate the coffee as a matter of course. There was little regulation of the purity of food and drink before the 1840s, so this was accepted – and even expected – by the consumer. The actual amount of coffee per litre was around 25 per cent of what would be required for a decent tasting cup today.

Obviously this level of dilution led to a terribly weak flavour and pale colour, so to compensate for this a variety of additives were used. The least offputting one was chicory; this is a flower that grows wild throughout Europe, so was quite cheap and easy to come by. The roots when roasted then powdered have a bitter taste not wholly unlike that of coffee.

Indeed, chicory is still (openly) used as a coffee substitute or to make coffee go a bit further in poorer parts of the world, and was commonly used by lower income people in European countries until fairly recently.

Chicory tip *

Chicory wasn’t the end of it though – it was just the tip of the problem. Other adulterants regularly used by street coffee-sellers in the early 19th century included:

  • Roasted flour

  • Scorched, ground peas

  • Roasted carrots

  • Dried mangelwurzel (a common root vegetable)

  • Iron oxide (rust)

  • Burnt sugar

  • Sawdust from dark woods such as mahogany

  • Acorns

  • Horse and cow livers

All of these had properties of either colour or bitterness that allowed for massively diluted coffee to be sold while still tasting and looking vaguely like the real thing.

That coffee tastes offal *

The last item on the above list – baked livers – seems particularly revolting, and may sound unlikely. But a report at the time stated:

Especially in the east [end of London] are to be found ‘liver bakers’. These men take the livers of oxen and horses, bake them and grind them into a powder, which they sell to low-priced coffee shop keepers, at from 4d to 6d per pound, horses’ liver coffee bearing the higher price.”

Unpleasant though this may sound, there was a certain logic to their use. Liver was very cheap and in plentiful supply and, when baked, dried and powdered, had a coffee-like bitterness and colour. A report at the time, by a concerned doctor, said that cups of coffee bought cheaply commonly “had a disagreeable animal smell” and on further investigation was found to consist of “charred animal matter”.

It was also noted that if typical street coffee was allowed to stand and go cold, a thick congealed skin of offal and other pollutants would form on the top – so it was best to drink it quickly. Horses’ livers were said to have the finer taste.

Caffeine junkies *

Fast forwarding to modern times, the quality of high street coffee has improved somewhat. While the beverages from the likes of Starbucks and Cafe Nero can be perhaps faulted for their prices, their tax practices, their trading ethics and even for their taste, they are unlikely to contain acorns or offal. Which is good, as coffee is an integral part of the day for many of us.

In the UK alone, we spend more than £700m a year on coffee, consuming about half a kilo per person. Many of us have what could medically be classed as a physical dependence on caffeine without even realising it. If you are a regular coffee drinker consuming more that two or three cups a day, and you suddenly stop, you may find you get withdrawal symptoms such as headaches, tiredness and irritability. These symptoms can come on within 24 hours of stopping and can persist for several days.

Is this a bad thing? It is arguably not such a bad thing to be addicted to something that is cheaply available everywhere – for example we’re all addicted to oxygen, in a fashion. But it is interesting, given mainstream society’s views on drugs, that huge swathes of people in the western world consume a habit-forming stimulant on a daily basis, and use it as a method of social bonding. As with nicotine and alcohol, it is a substance that, were it newly discovered today, might well not be allowed in some countries to be freely sold. However, it helps power our nine-to-five work lives, tastes great and is worth billions globally, so you could even say that it is a near-perfect symbol of capitalism – both the good and the bad.

On every street *

As discussed above, caffeine is arguably not just a luxury but a borderline necessity to get us through our unnatural, post-industrial working hours and lifestyles. It is telling that pretty much every high street in England will have easy access to the two drugs that most often bookend out working lives – caffeine to wake us up in the morning, and alcohol to unwind when we finish work. It is difficult to imagine a world without either.

As we have seen, coffee has helped shape the history of the world and is a potent symbol of who we are and how we live today. Whether or not this is a good thing is a discussion for another day.