18 December 2012

Coffee, Europe, and Penny Universities

Uncommon Grounds by Mark Pendergrast, 1999, Excerpts

Europeans took to coffee with a passion. In the first half of the seventeenth century, coffee was still an exotic beverage, and like other such rare substances as sugar, cocoa, and tea, initially was used primarily as an expensive medicine by the upper classes. Over the next fifty years, however, Europeans were to discover the social as well as medicinal benefits of the Arabian drink.

In 1710, rather than boiling coffee, the French first made it the infusion method, with powdered coffee suspended in a cloth bag over which boiling water was poured. Coffee arrived in Vienna a bit later than in France. In the 1700s, coffee practically fueled the intellectual life of the city.

Nowhere did coffee have such a dynamic and immediate impact as in England. Coffee and coffeehouses took London by storm. Like a liquid torrent the coffee rage drenched England, beginning at Oxford University in 1650, where Jacobs, a Lebanese Jew, opened the first coffeehouse.

By 1700 there were more than two thousand London coffeehouses, occupying more premises and paying more rent than any other trade. They came to be known as ‘penny universities,’ because for that price one could purchase a cup of coffee and sit for hours listening to extraordinary conversations. Each coffeehouse specialized in a different type of clientele. In one, physicians could be consulted. Others served Protestants, Puritans, Catholics, Jews, literati, merchants, traders, fops, Whigs Tories, army officers, actors, lawyers, clergy, or wits. The coffeehouses provided England’s first egalitarian meeting place, where a man was expected to chat with his tablemates whether he knew them or not.

No comments: