A History of Coffee

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Whenever coffee is mentioned in society today, the first image that often enters our mind is that of a young college student in a bustling Starbucks. We see the student typing tirelessly away at an essay that will surely be forgotten the moment that it’s graded. Although this perceived image of what the drink embodies is not entirely wrong, it fails to highlight the importance coffee has had in shaping Western civilization. The expansion of coffee as a common drink is deeply intertwined with an ongoing intellectual revolution and a change of ideas throughout seventeenth century Europe. The taste, marketing and consumer of coffee reflects the evolution of intellectual reason, rational thought and economic principles of seventeenth century Europe.

Coffee was a prominent drink for intellectual minds who promoted the advancement of science and understanding of the world beyond European borders. The creation and enjoyment of coffee can be seen as far back to the early Arab world, where various stories of its discovery can be found. Moving into seventeenth century Europe, coffee was widely enjoyed by intellectuals and those we would consider today “pencil pushers”. During this time, laborers often drank beer, while coffee stimulated the minds of those who were seen as scholarly or educators. The seventeenth and eighteenth century is often referred to as the “Age of Reason”, when religious doctrine and beliefs were constantly being challenged. Western citizens had a growing desire to look back and expand upon the intellectual philosophy of the Greeks, but the enjoyment of coffee was preferred over wine. By enjoying a new drink rather than wine, Europeans showed that they were moving into their own realm of reason and philosophy. As a result of the increasing desire for coffee, trade and commerce involving it expanded.

European countries in the early and mid-seventeenth century depended heavily on the Arab countries export and cultivation of coffee. In the 1690s, the Dutch were the first to attempt a coup of this monopoly by maintaining their own coffee plantations in modern day Indonesia. This type of self-reliant commercial principle soon spread like wildfire in Europe. The result of internally owned coffee plantations resulted in more profit, and an expansion in commercial power for those countries that invested in producing their own product. The Dutch also developed a new type of financial system where they sold shares of enterprises to investors who would not take part in management of the companies, but were still entitled to a profit (Cole, 376). This type of business is still seen in modern Western civilization in the sale of stock shares and stock ownership in companies. With coffee becoming more prolific and affordable, it became a staple for intellectuals during the ‘Age of Reason’ and now is seen as a necessity for students and workers alike today.

The Catholic Reformation ending in 1648 and the Reformation ending in 1690, shook the Western civilization to its ideological core. The movement of applying new theories to philosophical, scientific, and religious principles that followed religious reformation, became known as the Enlightenment and was led in some small part, by the introduction of coffee throughout Europe. These challenges to the long standing authority of the church and dogmatic ideals, laid the groundwork for intellectuals to question some of the foundational issues which plagued Europe at the time. Martin Luther once stated, “I hope we have laid the false and lying specter by means of which the Romanists have kept our timid consciences in subjection” (Martin Luther’s Address to the German Nobility). This reflected how many felt under the rule of the existing religious policies. Where beer had an inebriating effect on those who ingested it, coffee acted as a stimulant and this meant that “those who drank coffee, increased the quality and quantity of their work.”[1]

The expansion of coffee as a preferred beverage fueled a development of intellectual reason and economic principles during the 1600s of Europe. The challenges faced by the Catholic Church during the Catholic Reformation, allowed rational thought and reasoning to begin to shape Western civilization in a new way. The increased yearning for coffee by citizens in European countries also laid the groundwork for economic progress. Would these changes have still occurred without coffee? The answer is quite likely, yes. However, we cannot rewrite or change history. Coffee is the drink that revolutionized an economy, and continues to provide fuel to the minds who influence rational thought and reason.

[1] Tom Standage, A History of the World in 6 Glasses (New York: Walker and Company, 2005), 135.

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