Caffeine’s Affect on History

Who loves caffeine? Yeah! Me too.

Sunday mornings have a laid-back tempo. We loiter in bed, waiting for the aroma of freshly brewed coffee prepared by a partner or set by a timer. In yesteryears, we’d fetch the Sunday newspaper from the front porch while waiting for the drip drip to finish. Now we flick on the computer before consuming the news and a cup of the world’s most consumed psychoactive drug, caffeine. 

What is it about this little bean that has hooked us? And we are hooked. When we say we can’t live without it, there is some truth in that. Although coffee and I divorced some years ago, I still enjoy my morning caffeine, tea or matcha.  

Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant. In his book, Caffeine, Michael Pollan writes, “Our addiction represents the largest and longest unsupervised drug trial ever conducted on humans.” Like other mood-enhancing drugs, caffeine changes our outlook and energy. My divorce from coffee was a congenial parting, and once in a great while we come back together. When we do the impact is so powerful, it leaves me wondering if we should get reacquainted. 

On the third day visiting my sister, Jórunn, a coffee drinker like every adult Icelander I know, said, “there is something wrong with this coffee.” I told her I’d brewed decaf. “What is that?” She’d never heard of it, and after I explained, she hissed, “are you trying to kill me?”  

According to the National Coffee Association (2013), 83% of American adults are codependent with caffeine drinking, three cups a day. “Black as the devil, hot as hell, pure as an angel, sweet as love,” is how Charles Maurice de Talleyrand described it. People give up on lovers, but rarely on coffee. Men from past days suggested women wear the aroma of coffee instead of perfume. Given our addiction to coffee, perhaps it’s not gasoline that fuels nations, but coffee grinds. The history of coffee supports this notion. While there is an abundance of studies to show the delight and evil of consuming caffeine, it’s not where I’m headed. Instead, I tell an abbreviated history of caffeine’s influence on the world’s cultures and economies.  

Legend tells of 9th-century goat shepherds experiencing a burst of energy after eating the cherries of the Rubiaceae coffee plant. Don’t know if the goats consumed the plant, but goats love eating invasive plants and will chew on Thistle when goodies are scarce, so it’s likely. Then, the story goes, an abbot from a nearby monastery concocted a drink from the cherries and it worked like a sort of a spiritual no-doze for monks during long meditations.  

“Coffee originated in the Middle East,” Pollan writes, “and some parts of western Africa. Almost all coffee plants found elsewhere in the world today are descendants of one plant that was stolen from Mocha, Yemen, and transplanted to the island of Java, which was, at the time, under French control.”

By the 15th century, coffee was cultivated in East Africa and traded across the Arabian Peninsula. A hundred years later, coffee houses sprung up around the Arab world. Constantinople alone had 600 coffee houses. Coffee’s reputation continued to gather steam and spread to the Ottoman Empire, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and North Africa.

These new public spaces, coffee houses, were hot spots for news and gossip. Conversations often turned to politics, unsettling governments that tried to close them down with little success. A choice between caffeine and the rule of law, caffeine prevailed. In the Islam world (Ottoman Empire), intoxicants were prohibited, coffee was not. (Today, we think of black coffee as an antidote for drunkenness.) At this point in human history, technology, science, and learning were more advanced in the caffeine drinking world than that of non-caffeine drinking Europe. (Tea for British commoners is a 19th-century event.)  

Coffee arrived in Europe in the 17th century with the first coffee house established in England by a Jewish immigrant in 1650. In the following decades, coffee houses, spaces where men of different classes could meet for conversation and commerce, grew by the thousands. But only men could attend. Unlike the British taverns where the night could end up in a brawl, these public spaces were civil. The man who started an argument was expected to buy coffee for everyone. Coffee houses were nicknamed Penny Universities because, for a penny, you could sit by a good fire drinking coffee all day long, sharing news, gaining information, meeting friends, and making transactions. 

In time, coffee houses named themselves after a field of interest, such as the Grecian for philosophizing. “The famous Jonathan’s Coffee House was a meeting place for business titans in London. It eventually became the London Stock Exchange. Likewise, Lloyd’s coffee house eventually became the insurance giant Lloyd’s of London.” Whatever your interest, prose, shipping, banking, export, weather, etc., a coffee house with like-interested men existed. At its peak, there was one coffee house for every 200 Londoners.

However, these gatherings of men didn’t excite everyone. Women said spending all this time at coffee houses was robbing their men of sexual energy. British king Charles II worried the coffee houses fostered rebellious ideas and attempted to close them. But it was too late to turn the tsunami tide of caffeine. The king’s orders were ignored. Charles backed down. Europe’s popularity of coffee houses strongly correlates with the rise of the renaissance in art and science in the 16th and 17th centuries.  

Coffee played a role in America’s struggle for independence. At first, Americans were slow in adopting this black concoction. Colonists relied on tea to get them through the day. Coffee was available to them, but the grinding was laborious, and tea leaves were ready to use. But then came the Tea Act, increasing the colonists’ frustration with the British government trying to control them. This rebellion was the first step in the American Revolution. Even if you didn’t worry about the increasing cost of tea, drinking tea was viewed as unpatriotic. After the Boston Tea Party, visits to coffee houses for a cup of joe became more frequent. It provided a platform for patriots to to share “breaking news.” 

The Green Dragon was one of the more attended coffee houses in Boston and soon named the “Headquarters of the Revolution.” The Merchant’s Coffee House, another popular spot, “was where the Declaration of Independence was first read aloud to the public. Without coffee houses and a new source of caffeine after the Boston Tea Party, who knows where this country would be today.”

Caffeine Created the Modern World, by Michael Pollan