Laura Dean Bennett
“Without my morning coffee, I’m just like a dried-up piece of goat.” ~ Johann Sebastian Bach
Most people can’t imagine starting the day without their morning cup of coffee.
It’s just part of our lives – wake up, have a cup of coffee. Stop for a break, have a cup of coffee. Come in from working outside in the cold, have a cup of coffee. Go to a meeting, have a cup of coffee.
The joy of a good cup of coffee is something that everyone in the world seems to be able to agree on – it’s grown commercially on four continents and consumed on all seven.
Right behind water and tea, coffee is the most consumed beverage on the planet.
Considering its popularity, it’s odd that coffee’s fascinating history isn’t common knowledge.
It’s remarkable how seeds growing on little shrubs in Ethiopia could have affected so many cultures and become the second largest commodity traded in the world today – behind oil.
About a thousand years ago, the amazing little red seed pods from the flowering coffea shrub belonging to the Rubiaceae family- native to Asia, the Middle East and tropical and southern Africa – are thought to have been discovered in the ancient coffea forests on the Ethiopian Plateau.
Besides being edible, they also yielded a tasty brew.
The rest, as they say, is history.
And what a fascinating history it is.
In Africa and the Middle East, coffea seeds (later called beans) were used to make energy-enhancing drinks and even wine.
Besides making a delicious and invigorating beverage, coffee beans have influenced geopolitical developments throughout the world over the course of centuries.
It wasn’t long before coffea was being cultivated.
The fruit, with its red exterior removed, was being widely traded in the Middle East in the 14th and 15th centuries, and the concept of the public coffee house was born.
The famous auction house, Lloyds of London, was founded in 1688 in a coffee house.
Beethoven wrote some of his masterpieces in coffee houses.
Bach wrote an opera about coffee called “The Coffee Cantata.”
There were five attempts in various countries to ban the consumption of coffee – all were unsuccessful.
It was highly valued as a trading commodity, smuggled, stolen from royalty and, ultimately, it upended entire nations and economies.
Where water wasn’t safe to drink, people drank beer, wine or ale, even for breakfast, and had, for generations, lived in an almost constant state of inebriation.
It didn’t take long for brewed coffee to come to Europe, where, by the 17th century, it quickly became the morning beverage of choice.
The general populace became more alert and aware and lo and behold, change ensued.
Most private homes were not equipped to brew coffee, so coffeehouses rapidly became popular places for people to meet and discuss the politics of the day.
Coffee houses were known to be frequented by artists, writers and intellectuals who enjoyed exchanging ideas over a warm cup of coffee, so it’s no wonder that historians point to the introduction of coffee as a turning point in the societies of many nations.
By the mid-17th century, there were more than 300 coffee houses in London alone and the British were bringing coffee to all their colonies, including America, where coffee became just as popular, even though selling coffee in the colonies required a government license from the British Crown.
Historians make a credible case for coffee’s part in the fomentation of the American Revolution.
The first coffee house in Boston opened in 1689 and was called the London Coffee House.
As revolutionary ideas took hold, it was renamed the “American Coffee House.”
George Washington grew coffee at Mount Vernon, and Thomas Jefferson famously noted the connection between those who frequented coffee houses and bold thinking – calling coffee “the favorite drink of the civilized world.”
Tea was still generally more popular – at least until 1773 when the Crown’s excessive taxation on tea and other imports became the straw that broke the camel’s back – hence the Boston Tea Party.
The colonists revolted against British tea along with British rule, with many colonists vowing never to drink tea – “the beverage of the enemy” – again.
The famous Green Dragon coffeehouse and tavern, built in 1701, has been called the “Headquarters of the Revolution” because of the secret political meetings held in its basement.
Coffee was frequently consumed by our founding fathers, as the First Continental Congress held meetings in Philadelphia’s City Tavern- also known as Merchant Coffee House.
In 1774, John Adams, who had been a confirmed tea-drinker, wrote a letter to his wife, Abigail.
“I believe I forgot to tell you one Anecdote: When I first came to this House it was late in the Afternoon, and I had ridden 35 miles at least. ‘Madam’ said I to Mrs. Huston, ‘is it lawfull for a weary Traveller to refresh himself with a Dish of Tea provided it has been honestly smuggled, or paid no Duties?’
‘No sir, said she, we have renounced all Tea in this Place. I cant make Tea, but he can make you Coffee.’ Accordingly I have drank Coffee every Afternoon since, and have borne it very well. Tea must be universally renounced. I must be weaned, and the sooner, the better.”
Coffee never relinquished its hold on Americans.
During the Civil War, Union troops were each issued 36 pounds of coffee per year.
In WWI, part of the mobilization effort for the U.S. War Department included establishing local roasting and grinding plants in France to ensure fresh coffee for our troops fighting in the European theater.
It shouldn’t be a wonder that coffee is even being brewed at the International Space Station, which is said to have an espresso machine.
And now there is another coffee revolution coming on the scene.
Scientists are experimenting with creating coffee from cultured cells in a laboratory.
This is in response to the worry that coffee growers may be unable to keep up with the growing demand for coffee as they face increasingly difficult environmental factors like deforestation and global warming.
It’s not a stretch of the imagination to assume that soon our morning coffee may originate in a bioreactor.
A team of Finnish scientists has already managed to create coffee in their lab that both smells and tastes, at least close, to the real thing.
It’s probably fitting that this project originated in Finland, as the population of Finland consumes the most coffee in the world, followed closely by Norway, Iceland and Denmark.
The U.S. ranks 26th on this list, but judging by the spectacular growth of Starbucks, we’re coming up fast.