20 December 2012

Coffee Revolution

Uncommon Grounds by Mark Pendergrast, 1999, Excerpts

As coffee gained in popularity throughout the sixteenth century, it also gained its reputation as a troublemaking social brew. Various rulers decided that people were having too much fun in the coffeehouses. In 1511 the coffeehouses of Mecca were forcibly closed. Constantinople, fearing sedition, closed the city‘s coffeehouses. Offenders found imbibing a second time were sewn into leather bags and thrown into the Bosporus.

Why did coffee drinking persist in the face of persecution in these early Arab societies? The addictive nature of caffeine provides one answer, of course; yet there is more to it. Coffee provided an intellectual stimulant, a pleasant way to feel increased energy without any apparent ill effects. Coffeehouses allowed people to get together for conversation, entertainment, and business, inspiring agreements, poetry, and irreverence in equal measure. Unlike rowdy beer halls, the cafes provided a place for lively conversation and mental concentration.

Coffee aided considerably in the sobering of an alcohol-soaked Europe and provided a social and intellectual catalyst as well. As William Ukers wrote in the classic All About Coffee, “Whenever it has been introduced it has spelled revolution. It has been the world’s most radical drink in that its function has always been to make people think. And when the people began to think, they became dangerous to tyrants.”

By 1777 the hot beverage had become entirely too popular for Frederick the Great, who issued a manifesto in favor of Germany’s more traditional drink: “It is disgusting to notice the increase in the quantity of coffee used by my subjects, and the like amount of money that goes out of the country in consequence. My people must drink beer. His majesty was brought up on beer, and so were his ancestors.”

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