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Coffee Houses – The Seat Of Civilization?

Throughout history, coffee houses have been more than just places where innocent people like you and I could get a regular caffeine fix.

Although coffee itself apparently originated in Ethiopia before the 11th century, the first coffee house known to history was located in Constantinople in 1475. Coffee is an vital part of my life, but in those days a wife could divorce her husband if he could not keep her properly supplied with coffee. In Turkey, coffee was normally brewed in an ibrik, a long-handled pot originally designed for brewing coffee upon the desert sands.

In the early 1500′s a coffee house was established in Vienna, Austria by the only person in town who had both lived in Turkey and who recognized the intrinsic value and potential income lurking in several bags of coffee abandoned by Turkish invaders. It seems to be about this time that the custom of softening coffee by adding sugar and cream came into practice. Value was added when coffee shops started serving pastries as well as coffee. Although some pious individuals considered coffee to be the drink of the devil, the pope who was questioned to so describe the beverage in this manner was already a coffee drinker and, instead, blessed it, calling it a Christian beverage.

Although coffee houses spread through Europe, England really got into the act through a Turkish link rather than the import of the new custom from the continent.

It was in 1652 that history records the first coffee house being founded in England by two servants of an importer of Turkish goods. They left their employer and went into business for themselves marketing the new brew at their establishment, The Turk’s Head. Coffee houses of this era were referred to as “penny universities” because of the penny that was charged for admission and the camaraderie and exchange of thoughts that were included in the price.

In fact, coffee houses of that era were the mass media of the day. The free public exchange of information was really frightening to those in power. Because of this, coffee houses in England were shut down for a while in 1675. Public outrage was so fantastic, but, that this only lasted a few days.

One figure of note, Samuel Pepys, famed diarist of the era and proclaimed “right hand of the navy” noted that he often frequented coffee houses for naval news as it seemed to be more up to date and reliable than the information available to him at the admiralty. One well known coffee house of the day probably provided him with a fantastic deal of news concerning ships and the sea.

Edward Lloyd’s coffee house which opened in 1688 (or 1687, by some sources) near the Thames river on Tower street, eventually lost its roots but became one of the most well-known institutions in the world – Lloyd’s of London. This was perhaps a natural metamorphosis due to the number of seafaring men from the ships at London’s docks who found their way to Lloyd’s. Edward Lloyd, being an astute individual, as are all of us addicted to coffee, started in 1696 the practice of listing arrivals and departures of ships in addition to information received from arriving vessels about the conditions of ships and crews and conditions at sea. Eventually, so much shipping information was exchanged at the nearly round-the-clock establishment, that insurance brokers started doing some of their business there.

One of the earliest functions of the coffee houses of the past was to provide a meeting place for many, but particularly for intellectuals of each era. The combination of the exchange of thoughts and caffeine proved to be a heady experience, launching careers and in some cases legends. Perhaps you have heard of Jonathan Swift, Honore de Balzac, Alexander Pope, Oliver Goldsmith, or Henry Fielding?

One source states that by the end of the 17th century, there were over 2,000 coffee houses in London alone. Although most were just in the business of serving coffee, some had unsavory reputations and customers, and more than one could have been mistaken for a brothel. They were also often the place for assignations or just plain dates.

It has been said that our modern word “tip” as in “to leave a tip” was first coined (no pun intended) in early English coffee houses. Usually a tin receptacle of some sort was marked with a sign reading “To Insure Prompt Service” (TIPS) to receive the coins of those who needed their coffee and needed it quick!

In the new country of America, the coffee house seemed to follow in the footsteps of its Britannic predecessors. One of the earliest coffee houses in America served as the founding location for the New York Stock Exchange. Of course, after the Boston Tea Party, being a coffee drinker was considered to be patriotic. Many strategies of the American revolution were born or raised in the coffee houses of the day.

A breakthrough in the history of coffee occurred when instant coffee was first successfully produced and marketed by Maxwell House in the 1950′s.

Whether instant or brewed, most modern American coffee drinkers would probably not recognize the brew of their forefathers. With a much higher ratio of coffee to water (one tablespoon to 16 ounces of water), and having been boiled for half an hour, not even the introduction of such common additives of the day as fish skin or egg shell would probably have done much to bring the taste close to a modern Starbucks mocha or latte.

In fact, the modern coffee house, typified by Starbucks or Tim Hortons might be recognized by the denizens of the past…if they were able to identify laptops as intellectual tools for research and the exchange of thoughts, and cell phones as a means of conversation.

After much success in America, the modern coffee house, in the Starbucks name, image, and mold has went westward to the East…the Far East, that is. Although coffee was not of much national interest until 1961, by the 1980′s coffee shops were quite the rage in Japan, and Starbucks opened its first store in Japan in August, 1996. Starbucks’ name recognition seems to have been its ticket to success in Japanese culture. By the time the first outlet opened, world-traveling Japanese had already had the Starbucks experience in foreign lands. The tale is told that upon the opening of the first Starbucks store in Japan, the first customer, who ordered a “Double small latte!” did not speak English! As of 2003, Starbucks had 503 stores in Japan.

Starbucks opened its first store in China in 1999, and as of February, 2006, had 165 outlets, complete with cell phone carrying, laptop using customers like anywhere else in the world. I guess it’s possible that considering the history of coffee shops something besides coffee might be brewing.

The author is retired from the Army after 21 years of service, has worked as an accountant, optical lab manager, restaurant manager, and instructor. He has been a member of Mensa for several years, and has written and published poetry, essays, and articles on various subjects for the last 40 years. Although primarily interested in the subjects of health, weight loss, and making money, he started drinking coffee at about age six and 55 years later, still hasn’t figured out how to stop…nor does he want to! Learn more about my-coffee-house-restaurant-shop.com/ coffee.



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