Notes, Quotes & Inspirations From: Coffee & Coffeehouses

The Origins of a Social Beverage in the Medieval Near East

By Ralph S. Hattox

Coffee has never been a mere beverage and even after three centuries of common use in western society, familiarity has done little to erode coffee’s original mystique. It is usually consumed with conviction and it is rarely used simply as a thirst quencher.

Beverages are generally classified in three categories. Those that supply nutrition, those that intoxicate and those that are known to be stimulants.  Coffee is obviously a member of the latter, which coincidently is the smallest of the three groupings. Despite its popularity world wide, water is still more popular as a beverage than coffee.

The use of iced tea as a thirst quencher is very popular in the American South and it is doubtful that “iced coffee” will ever replace it. Another warm weather beverage is the carbonated soda and it is not unlikely that the added caffeine contributes to its popularity. It is noteworthy that some sodas lack caffeine and are labeled “caffeine free” as if the caffeine were inherent in soda. It‘s as if producers are labeling it “decaf’ to appeal to herbal tea drinkers.

In South America two other stimulant beverages have limited appeal in their respective countries. Guarana as a cold drink in Brazil and Mate as a hot drink in Argentina. Yet coffee has its own place in both of these countries. Likewise, Coca tea is used by some in the Bolivian Highlands and in the Peruvian Andes, but not to the extent you might think.

Coffee did not replace Beer in Germany, it did not replace Wine in France nor did it replace Schnapps in Austria. But it did find a home in all three because it is a practical stimulant beverage and as such has made a place of its own in many societies.

In the Near East the ritual of drinking coffee shows there is something magical about its place in their societies. In Arabia and Ethiopia the ritual is everything. The Bedouin have raised it to high art. Of course here in the west we have a more casual attitude but still we adjust the formula to compliment our moods. The sweetness – the temperature – the strength and for many of us the creaminess. Café au lait for breakfast, Caffé Latte at a mid-morning coffee break, the espresso for a quick “pick me up” and a café noir after dinner.

We all know coffee is naturally bitter and any child will tell you it’s an acquired taste. Maybe it takes a little life experience to appreciate the bittersweet. Of course there is also the alluring smokiness in coffee’s aroma, reminiscent of the millions of years of campfires in our genes.

I reflect on my own youth when I drank institutional coffee in diners and wondered why it had to taste so bad. I still can’t look at Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, without feeling it is saying something about the coffee. Mental scars can last a lifetime.

There is no authoritative literature to date the origin of coffee as a beverage but by the mid 1400’s we are indebted to a few Arab writers who thought the mention of such a mundane subject, as a beverage should be wasted on valuable paper. They gave us the first clues as to the social integration of this roasted seed beverage of a common shrub fruit that has been an article of food for probably centuries where it grew wild. Our first noteworthy sources were from accounts in Arab seaports and trade centers of Yemen where news about new trends in trade found receptive readers. The affluent merchant class took a liking to the beverage solely for the practical reason that it had a beneficial effect on their health and business.

The real popularity of coffee was spread, not so much by the beverage but by the institution of the coffee house. After all it takes some experience, if not expertise, to roast and grind and brew an acceptable cup of coffee and there being no guide or cookbook on the subject at that time, the hapless were dependent on the professional roast master – brewer – and all round coffee house operator to produce the perfect cup. Yet then as now, it was location – location – location.

It would require another century for housewives to acquire the artistry of Mrs. Olsen.