The Reason for Coffee’s Swift & Almost Universal Acceptance Was More Complex Than Just the Appeal of Caffeine.
It didn’t hurt that coffee was mysterious, romantic and intriguing. This certainly helped in its promotion. There were also outrageous claims that it promoted good health. This was probably good marketing, then as it is now. Yet it was the other perks that came with coffee that contributed to its quick recognition and wide spread acceptance.
True, the allure of coffee’s unique taste and aroma could have played a big part in its popularity but in general coffee beverages in the earliest days were so poorly prepared one could not expect taste alone to have been the only impetus. Bitterness wasn’t just in the coffee, but in the boiling. Two hours or more in a cauldron would render something akin to turpentine. Can you imagine how bad coffee tasted in a time when adding mustard and fish skins was recommended to improve it.
It is my belief that it was the concept of the “coffeehouse” itself, that propelled coffee cross-cultural and across all classes. Above all, it was a matter of timing. The fact that coffee took hold at different times in different cities shows it wasn’t spread like the plague. It spread as to social need.
The historic period between 1600 and 1800 was one of profound social change. The Turkish coffeehouse as an institution was waiting there in the wings when the west was ready for it.
For one thing, European life was becoming more complex with worldly concerns since the era of conquest and colonization. We were being exposed to new cultures, new foods and curious customs from around the world.
As for the aristocracy, the cultural life of the courts was gradually declining and the private gentlemen’s clubs were too conservative and restraining. A democratic venue to examine new ideas became more attractive. The coffeehouse itself promoted such social intercourse by encouraging speakers, posting news and thriving on public debate.
This time of progressive ideas embraced a gathering place and forum for expression. Just as the school, church and town hall are necessary institutions for any town, the coffee house would soon become indispensable.
When the first coffeehouses were opening, communication and information services – newspapers, telephones, directories and street maps were non-existent. Taverns, brewpubs and alehouses were popular destinations but not the places to read and discuss the news or engage in intellectual conversations.
In Europe as in Turkey, the coffee house attracted clientele from all walks of life, the professional and political mingled with the commercial and creative. Here it was possible for a new form of social interaction to develop. Merchants seeking an alternative to the alehouse saw a place where they could transact business, as did the emerging financial and insurance communities.
As each city developed around the emerging middle class the need for networking evolved. Here was a meeting place that acted as a bulletin board giving notice of work opportunities, available housing and professional services. Advice and recommendations could be freely solicited.
In a way the coffeehouse was a designated common area, like a courtyard or public square; a place to relax while playing backgammon, dominos or chess. Sometimes it was a garden kiosk or a commercial-district oasis.
The owner or headwaiter of a coffeehouse often fulfilled other needs by taking on the role of social arbiter, diplomat, matchmaker and message taker. Not everyone knew your private address but everyone knew which coffeehouse you frequented and at what time of day you could be expected.
The coffeehouse fit so many social needs that it seemed to have been there all the time just waiting for the coffee.
It was a place where artists and writers working in the isolation of their lofts and rooming houses could make contact with each other and the outside world. Of course every coffeehouse had its characters and eccentrics. It would attract storytellers, poets, guides, gossipmongers and certainly musicians.
The Age of Enlightenment and later the rise of the Risorgimento movement in Italy gave Europeans plenty to talk about and the coffeehouse became the chief outlet through which public opinion could vent itself. The Marques del Azeglio is reputed to have said: “Italy has been unified: now we must unify the Italians.”
It was not until then that the Italians were concerned with the quality of coffee they were drinking. But once they set their minds to it, they achieved a quality that is one of the jewels of Italian culture and can be summed up in just one word: Espresso.
From Venice to Vienna the coffeehouse started its march across Europe. It took almost one hundred years for the coffeehouse to first become a Turkish tradition and over the next two centuries it’s popularity would change the world.