Coffee, a drink that symbolized productivity and vigor, soon became fused with the American way. Try to visualize the following scene: a group of grizzled cowboys gathered around a prairie campfire at nightfall, rifles leaning against their knees, talking in low voices as they brew a nice pot of tea. It seems absurd, doesn’t it? Coffee is a vital part of that picture, just as it is a vital part of our national identity. The drink helped define us as a nation — industrious, energetic, and efficient — and provided the fuel of American ascendance. By the turn of the twentieth century, we were drinking half of the world’s supply.
But if the coffee bean was so crucial to our lives, how did we let it decline in quality to the point where Starbucks’s offering of a decent brew could spark a nationwide cultural revolution? More than anything else, the advent of gourmet coffee purveyors like Starbucks was a protest against the decrepit state of the once-proud American cup, carried out by a small band of amateur epicures who still remembered that coffee could taste good. These scattered and slightly batty men, tinkering in their spare time with beans and brews, knew nothing about coffee except that they wanted it to taste better than battery acid. Yet their experiments sparked a modern phenomenon.
To fully understand the dramatic redemption of coffee, the saga of Starbucks, and the ascendance of café culture, though, we must first travel back in time to the period when the whole caffeinated shebang began.
A Brief History of Coffee
Coffee is so pervasive in our lives and so simple to prepare — you just roast some beans, steep them in water, and drink — that the beverage seems to have been almost historically inevitable. Many of us shudder at the very idea of a world without coffee, our daily savior from the merciless ravages of fatigue. But considering all that the coffee bean had to go through in its centuries-long journey to reach the American “World’s Greatest Dad” mug, we’re actually lucky we ever got the drink at all.
First, there was the problem of finding it. Coffea arabica, the stout, leafy tree that generates all of the planet’s palatable coffee, hails from the remote highlands of Ethiopia, which wasn’t much of a high-traffic region in days of yore. According to one legend, humanity’s first experience with coffee occurred sometime around the sixth century, when a young goatherd named Kaldi noticed that his normally placid goats were suddenly dancing jigs and turning pirouettes; they’d been nipping at the coffee trees. Kaldi popped a few berries in his mouth, found himself energized — as well as strangely inclined to talk about politics and write bad poetry — and thus the world discovered the coffee bean.
So now that we had a hard, bland seed that made goats hyper, what were we supposed to do with it? The Ethiopian natives tried fermenting the beans into a cold wine, making them into a porridge, and mashing them into dense pancakes that they sautéed in butter. Members of the Galla tribe would grind the coffee berries into pulp and blend them with animal fat, then roll this mixture into billiard ball–sized orbs that they would store in leather bags and take with them on war parties. Galla warriors claimed that one of these pulp-lard delicacies could fend off hunger for an entire day. It took seven centuries of culinary experimentation before the Yemeni mystic Ali Ibn Umar al-Shadhili found the perfect use for the beans, in about AD 1200: steeping them in water. The drink, he found, helped him stay awake during prayers, and thus coffee brought him closer to God.
Coffee soon voyaged east to the greater Arab world, where it swiftly established its supremacy over every other liquid in the land. Sixteenth-century visitors to the Middle East, mystified at the rage for this bitter brown drink, nicknamed coffee the “wine of Islam”; since Muslims weren’t allowed to drink real wine, a caffeine buzz was the best they could hope for. No less a personage than the prophet Muhammad purportedly claimed that after a dose of coffee, he felt he could “unhorse forty men and possess forty women.”
Wealthy Arabs often constructed sumptuous rooms dedicated to the beverage in their homes, but it was the Turkish who truly set the standard for opulent coffee consumption. Ottoman sultans liked to lounge on cushions as a slave brought a gilded, diamond-encrusted demitasse of coffee — perched on a bejeweled saucer called a zarf — to their lips. The men of Constantinople would gather in plush dens to drink coffee brewed in huge cauldrons and seasoned with cardamom, saffron, or opium; the venti java chip Frappuccinos of today look positively austere by comparison.
This Turkish coffee addiction was not to be toyed with. Sultan Selim I once punished two doctors who claimed coffee should be banned by ordering that they be sliced in half at the waist. Failure to provide one’s wife with coffee was even considered sufficient legal grounds for a divorce.
The Turkish enthusiasm for the drink eventually kindled the two most famous and ornate coffee cultures on the planet, the Parisian and the Viennese — in the former through inspiration and in the latter through invasion. In 1669, the Turkish ambassador Suleiman Aga journeyed to Paris to deliver an important message from his sultan to Louis XIV, the enormously powerful and extravagantly vain monarch known as the Sun King. (When he received the Turk at court, for instance, Louis appeared in a new multimillion-franc robe, covered in diamonds, that had been commissioned specifically for the occasion.)
Besides being vain, Louis was also a bit impetuous; after receiving the sultan’s letter, Louis told his guest he’d get to reading it whenever he felt like it, which meant the Turkish emissary had no choice but to wait around for the imperial whim to strike. During his stay, Suleiman Aga turned his charm on the Parisian society women, inviting them to his lavish quarters for elaborate, dimly lit coffee ceremonies, complete with Oriental rugs and exotically dressed Nubian servants. These get-togethers became the most prized invitations in town, which stoked the fashion-conscious Parisians into a frenzy for over-the-top imitations of his coffee service. In salons all over the city, Frenchwomen donned turbans and ornamental robes, taking their coffee “à la Turque.” A couple of decades later, after they had lived down the embarrassment somewhat, the Parisians opened their first proper café.
The ambassador wasn’t just entertaining for fun, however; he was also collecting intelligence from the loose-lipped aristocrats, trying to discover if Louis intended to support his sultan’s secret plans to invade Vienna. Louis didn’t. The Turks invaded anyway. In July 1683, three hundred thousand Turkish troops descended on Vienna and surrounded the city with tents, intending to starve the Austrians into submission. Vienna’s population shrank, its rulers fled, and the Viennese were left with only one hope: a small band of Polish soldiers who had come to their fellow Christians’ aid.
But with a force of only fifty thousand troops, the Poles needed to know the perfect time to strike or the Turks would crush them. Enter Franz Kolschitzky, the seventeenth-century Slavic James Bond. A Polish journeyman living in Vienna, Kolschitzky had served as a translator in Ottoman lands and knew how to pass for a Turk. Disguised in a Turkish uniform and fez, the spy sweet-talked his way through the enemy camp, quickly finding out the date the Turks planned to attack — information he soon slipped to the hidden Polish forces. As the invaders began storming the city on September 8, the vastly outnumbered Poles set off fireworks overhead and attacked the Turks’ unguarded rear, sending them into such a panic that the mighty Ottoman forces fled the scene without collecting their belongings.
Among the odd effects the Turks left behind — including guns, gold, and thousands of camels — were many sacks of pale green beans, which the Austrians assumed to be camel food. The only one who recognized it as unroasted coffee was Kolschitzky. When the grateful Viennese asked the hero to name his reward, he baffled everyone by asking for the beans, later using them to open Vienna’s first café, the Blue Bottle. So goes the legend, this battle also gave coffee its most stalwart pastry companion. Seeking to remind customers of his own valiant role in the war, one Viennese baker began making rolls shaped like the crescent on the Turkish flag, and thus the croissant was born.
This newfound taste for coffee represented an enormous improvement over what Europeans were sipping with breakfast before: beer. In fact, since their drinking water was so often contaminated, most Europeans downed beer with pretty much everything. The average Elizabethan-era Briton — children included — drank more than six pints of beer every day. Even Queen Elizabeth I knocked back a few each morning with her meat stew. But if you worry that you’ve missed out on the merriment of an ages-long frat party, ponder this recipe for a typical breakfast dish of the time:
Heat beer in saucepan.
Add a hunk of butter.
Add cold beer.
Pour mixture into a bowl of raw eggs.
Add salt, and whisk to prevent curdling.
Pour mixture over scraps of bread.
Serve with beer.
Given this continuous bender, Europeans generally lurched through their daily existence in a state of mild intoxication. Drunkenness was normal. So one can imagine the great sensation coffee ignited; this was a drink that could revolutionize your life. For the first time in history, humans could easily regulate their waking and working hours — all it took to lift oneself out of the fog of grogginess was a life-giving cup of coffee. Sleep, long a cruel and domineering mistress, fell under our control. As any modern cubicle dweller can confirm, coffee almost single-handedly made office work possible. And centuries later, the brew would fuel the industrial revolution, especially once factory managers learned that filling workers with free coffee boosted productivity. Coffee made people feel smarter, helped them do better work, and enabled them to punch in at a consistent time every morning.
Some refused to accept this caffeinated future. “Everybody is using coffee,” grumbled Germany’s Frederick the Great in 1777. “If possible, this must be prevented. My people must drink beer.” But the resistance quickly crumbled. Strangely enough, some of coffee’s biggest early boosters were religious conservatives. Many members of the clergy clamored for widespread coffee use because they were annoyed that so many parishioners fell asleep during their sermons. The Puritans in particular campaigned for coffee as a great soberer and as a promoter of the mental effort necessary to understand the Bible’s teachings. (As a bonus, they also thought it killed the libido.)
Horrible fates befell those who spurned coffee. Consider the following trend. What happened to Napoleon’s army once the diminutive emperor insisted that his people substitute chicory (which grew in France) for coffee (which they imported)? Defeat. During the Civil War, how did the Confederates fare after the Union blockade deprived them of their morning cup? Poorly. Nazi-occupied territories in World War II were so starved for coffee that, according to the coffee historian Mark Pendergrast, British Royal Air Force planes sometimes scattered tiny bags of it over towns to remind the locals just how awful life under Hitler was. Need we ask why the Germans really lost?
Once the thinkers of the Enlightenment caught on to the bean’s powers, the Western world’s rich tradition of tweaking on coffee began in earnest. Artists, writers, and intellectuals came to see the drink as the key to their success, and they treated it with a corresponding level of obsession. Every day, Beethoven counted out exactly sixty beans for his ideal cup. Voltaire threw mugs of it back by the dozen, and the French novelist Honoré de Balzac reputedly drank as many as sixty cups daily — a claim that sounds absurd until one reads his acid-trip account of coffee’s effect on his mental faculties: “Ideas quick-march into motion like battalions of a grand army to its legendary fighting ground, and the battle rages. . . . Forms and shapes and characters rear up; the paper is spread with ink — for the nightly labor begins and ends with torrents of this black water.”
These trembling, caffeine-addled thinkers needed a place to unleash the lightning bolts darting around their minds, and they found it in the coffeehouse culture of eighteenth-century London. Here, coffeehouses reached their pre-Starbucks pinnacle. In 1652, London harbored one solitary coffeehouse, but by 1700, the city claimed more than two thousand of them; they grew so popular that patrons often used a favorite coffeehouse as their mailing address. London’s coffeehouses were more than just places for heffed-up citizens to claw at the wallpaper and babble incoherently, however. This was important babble. The vibrant coffeehouse gossip industry ultimately spawned the world’s first modern newspapers — the Tatler and the Spectator, two compendiums of the juiciest hearsay. One coffeehouse birthed the first ballot box, which allowed patrons to air their views anonymously, without fear of the government spies who prowled the premises in search of traitors.
For their frenetic intellectual activity and egalitarian atmosphere, these establishments were called “Penny Universities,” because for the price of a cup of coffee, patrons could hear the latest news, participate in debate, or witness, say, Adam Smith writing his “Wealth of Nations.” If a Londoner was in the mood for science, he could wander over to a place like the Grecian Coffee House, where Isaac Newton, the astronomer Edmond Halley, and the physician Hans Sloane once dissected a dolphin that had wandered into the Thames river. Edification came free with every purchase.
Historians disagree about why the Brits switched so abruptly to tea, terminating the London coffeehouse phenomenon, but one possible cause is this: the coffee tasted repulsive.* Since the government taxed coffee by the gallon, proprietors had to make it in advance — first roasting the beans in frying pans over a fire, which left them half scorched and half raw — and then reheat the brew later. Thus, the gastronomes of the day dubbed the beverage “syrup of soot” and “essence of old shoes” and called its flavor reminiscent of “Dog or Cats turd.” A few hundred years later, displeased Americans started making the same kinds of complaints.
Also read the following articles on Starbucks:
- Learning from Starbucks: 10 Lessons for Small Businesses
- Learning from Starbucks: 10 Lessons for Small Businesses (Part 2)
- Lessons from the Success of Starbucks
- Competing with Starbucks