The Coffee House: A Cultural History by Markman Ellis

Democracy and social equality were born in the coffee houses. Jonathan Myerson takes liberties with his latte

Sunday 24 October 2004 00:00

No one enjoys their first cup of coffee. The second isn't much better. Yet by the tenth, you're hooked. You don't know why - there are so many less troublesome, more varied flavours out there (tea, to name but one) but every morning, you come back to coffee. And again mid-morning. And again at lunchtime.

No one enjoys their first cup of coffee. The second isn't much better. Yet by the tenth, you're hooked. You don't know why - there are so many less troublesome, more varied flavours out there (tea, to name but one) but every morning, you come back to coffee. And again mid-morning. And again at lunchtime.

According to Markman Ellis' exhaustive new study, it was just the same in 17th-century London. When the first coffee house opened in 1652, initial reactions were horrified by this "Newfangled, Abominable, Heathenish Liquor". But within just 10 years there were no less than 82 coffee houses in the City of London alone - think Starbucks without the pushchairs. Until then the English had been happy with possets and caudles and punches: wines or ales mixed with spices and herbs and creams. Why on earth would they want this "boiled soot" with its "hogo" of "sirreverance"? Ellis revels in this chance to tell us that "hogo" means stench (derived from haut gôut) and "sirreverance" is "a common but polite term for human excrement".

Most of these insults come from pamphlets put about by tavern keepers and ale wives who suddenly saw their trade going - literally - down the drain. In the drinks business, the world was being turned upside down, not so much because coffee is instantly moreish but because, as Ellis sums up: "They failed to recognise that coffee is a habit-forming drug that changed its customers' taste to suit itself."

Daniel Edwards knew this well enough when he returned from trading in Smyrna in 1651. He had become accustomed to the Turkish coffee houses (though he would probably have called it "coffa") and the social life built round this strange black liquid that was always served piping hot. But along with the habit of coffee drinking, Edwards brought back with him a Greek servant by the name of Pasqua Rosee. When Edwards found that he wasn't getting enough work done because of all the associates dropping by to enjoy a dish of his coffee, he solved the issue with Puritan synergy: he set Rosee up in his own coffee business just off Cornhill.

According to Ellis, this was the first coffee house in Christendom. Maybe it is no coincidence that this bridge between West and East was forged during these Puritan days. Puritans and Muslims share the same intense animus for alcohol. In near-prohibition London, a coffee house would have every chance of succeeding. It spawned countless imitators. Edwards and Rosee had unearthed coffee's other remarkable quality: the price mark-up is extraordinary. Nowadays, the price gain from unroasted bean to West End cappuccino is reckoned at about 7,000 per cent and it probably wasn't much less then.

So the suppliers had sufficient encouragement (excise on coffee was half that of tea and chocolate), but then so did the buyers. Along with Puritan abstinence, the Civil War had also unleashed a tsunami of political thought and talk: these talkers needed somewhere to do their talking. Coffee houses became places for men (never women) to sit around and talk about anything - the Royal Society even used the tables for experiments and dissections. These tables were large and you sat down at the next available place and talked to whomsoever. And if the talk was dull, there was always a liberal supply of newspapers - in both senses.

Unsurprising, then, that the new King, Charles II, started to worry about these places. Not only were they genuinely democratic, they also created high-speed exchanges of information and views. Anxious, watchful, in 1675 Charles issued a "Proclamation for the Suppression of Coffee-Houses".

That the King lost the ensuing battle and that the coffee houses thrived is a turning point in the history of the British constitution. These coffee houses had become the spine of British democracy, the place where men met as equals and where their opinions carried equal weight - equal even to the King. These institutions had both created and ensured the rights of the people, rights to "an unofficial knowledge of affairs of state". Yes, the grander members of society may have felt it was "provokingly ridiculous to hear a Haberdasher descant on a General's misconduct", but the titled nevertheless sat down alongside the untitled and then argued with civility. Unlike the tavern, coffee (and no doubt the lack of women) kept men and their arguments sober.

But while in Britain and New England the coffee house and the tavern remained separate institutions, in France, the café served both alcohol and coffee. Sadly, Ellis rarely allows himself to editorialise and here he avoids the inevitable hint that this British dichotomy may well have laid the seeds of our habit of binge-drinking. The British seem happy to remain perfectly sober in the coffee house or club, but resort to manic drunkenness whenever there's alcohol around.

Meanwhile, the French café or Austrian Kaffeehaus was a place to relax, possibly for the exchange of gossip but rarely for politics, let alone dissent. This gave it a permanence, whereas in Britain, the English coffee houses had almost died out by the mid-19th century. If they existed, they were quiet places, where men read in silence. Jonathan's Coffee House survived, now renamed the Stock Exchange; Lloyd's survived selling insurance; and Tom's Coffee House, owned by Tom Twining, diversified into tea.

What had overwhelmed the coffee houses was not only the increase in import duty (in favour of Indian tea and against West Indian coffee) but the rise of the gentleman's club. The easy egalitarianism of the 18th century was erased by the wagons-in-a-circle mentality of the 19th. The inherent classlessness of the London coffee house finally became too much for the English, and all sections of society retreated to be among their own kind.

Ironically, the egalitarianism only returned with the arrival of women: it was Joe Lyons who created a place where "unchaperoned young women could meet together while maintaining respectability". This, in a female and tea-based way, was the first return to the heyday of the coffee house, open to all.

But coffee would not regain its predominance in British society without three Italians. Luigi Bezzera invented the espresso in 1906 and Archille Gaggia made the crucial adjustments to his invention to remove the bitterness (he introduced the use of pistons to force the water through the grounds). And on Frith Street in 1953, Pino Riservato opened the first British coffee bar to use one of Gaggia's machines.

With an acceleration reminiscent of the 1650s, these new coffee houses - serving frothy coffee to a younger clientèle - spread across the cities of Britain. Again like the 1650s, the existing drinks trade despised these "catering freelancers": along with its handsome profit margins, coffee has always been irritatingly easy to make.

So it's inevitable that a American capitalist would clock these factors and realise he could create an annual revenue of $4bn out of it. No one likes Starbucks' globalisation of coffee, but it has enabled all of us to get a decent cup of coffee (from one of their competitors, naturally) almost anywhere in town.

This is a convincing and meticulous read, building an intriguing and engrossing picture of coffee's role in British society. And what a relief that this isn't yet another wide-ranging cherry-picking history of a commodity (like salt or cod), but rather a close examination of how particular rooms shaped the British identity. There are plenty of incidental surprises but the total picture is the revelation: something happened when coffee met the English Enlightenment and the result was an explosion of creativity, both scientific and cultural. Would it have happened without coffee? Ellis doesn't seek to answer that one.

Discreet and academic as ever, Ellis merely chastises the new global chains only for their "lactification" of coffee. I see him now, sipping his pitch-black espresso, sneering at us Grande latte drinkers - but I think Pasqua Rosee would be proud of us all.

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