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February 19th, 2018


BY Christian Ford

Howard Schultz’ bet that Americans would abandon their Mister Coffees for Italian coffee has made us a culture readily identifiable by the way its members adorn themselves with tall paper cups.  Others in the food service industry made a different bet, that Americans could be seduced into identifying themselves with alcohol, specifically mixed drinks with their roots in the golden age of the cocktail.  So, for once in this era of overchoice, we don’t have to choose.  We can have our customized coffee and our obscure cocktail and simply alternate between the two.  But in opting for all of the above, we forget that these two beverages were once soldiers of entirely different conceptions of life. I’m not talking about drunk and sober exactly, though the (not entirely legit) notion of coffee as a sobering agent remains as strong as ever. No, what I’d like to do is take a peek at 1600s Europe, when coffee first crashed alcohol’s long party.

Coffee began as a curiosity, an expensive affectation for the nobility.  If you can think back to your first experiences with coffee, it is an admittedly acquired taste — black, hot, bitter. The hot part of that was particularly significant in seventeenth century Europe, because this was a society of room temperature drinks, and in the depths of the Little Ice Age, room temp was anything but hot.

Interestingly, while the nobility saw coffee as a new weapon for social climbing via expensive accessories and impenetrable etiquette, the newly minted bourgeoisie of Europe saw coffee in a very different way.  Coffee, in their belief system, was a delivery system for amazing properties.  Coffee, they thought, could cure ills and remedy personality defects.  It could inflame lust and inspire chastity.  And though we would not be surprised to hear that they believed coffee would awaken the sleepy, they also found it useful to cure insomnia.  What’s peculiar, given this laundry list of completely imagined powers, is that the dominant trait they valued, the one that stood above the others, was that coffee was an agent of sobriety.  Not even in the sense of not-drunk, but in creating clarity of mind.  Coffee, people were starting to think, was a rational drink for a rational age.  And something that might displace alcohol.

That was a fairly radical notion in seventeenth century Europe because the primary ingredient in coffee — water — could kill you.  Long before the understanding of micro-pathogens, every peasant in Europe knew that water was a dangerous drink. So it was beer to the rescue for just about everything. Beer (effectively bread in liquid form) was food, and consequently beer-making was a fundamental household skill, and the purview of the woman of the house. In seventeenth century England, every man, woman and child of the average family could be assumed to drink over three quarters of a gallon of beer per day. That’s three bottles for breakfast, three for lunch and four for dinner.

But before we picture plastered peasants, like those Dutch genre painters gleefully produced in the very years when coffee was conquering European palates, consider that their beer was low in alcohol and, what’s more, they needed those calories.  Today, the USDA recommends 2000 calories per day for a moderately active adult. In comparison, the Royal Navy — no bestower of unearned generosity, they — dished out 5000 calories per day to Napoleonic-era sailors. Yes, those sailors lead a highly active life, but, more importantly, they walked around barefoot and unjacketed (and often drenched) in the environment of the North Atlantic, year round. They needed calories to fuel the furnace inside.  Ashore, in the near permanent wet of the European winter, it was the same, only with mud to make the cold stick.

What’s interesting about Europe’s dependence on alcohol after the end of the High Middle Ages  is that it was a damn clever solution to a cluster of pernicious problems.  By converting barley to beer, brewsters made hydration safe, increased the nutritional availability of the barley, and made liquid bread as portable and instantaneous as baked bread, only with a longer shelf life. As a bonus, the discarded mash from brewing was used for baking.

They did all this by leveraging the unseen work of microorganisms and in that, brewing was just part of an entire constellation of industries dependent on forms of ferment.  With the onset of the Little Ice Age and the arrival of the plague, the High Middle Ages’ warm weather, bounteous harvests and swelling populations came to a crashing end.   What followed were hundreds of years of tough times in which trade was minimal and resources of all kinds very tight.  The survivors, in a rather gruesome way, created a rather poetic response to their predicament  —  they built an entire economy based on forms of decay.

Our familiar fermented foods, beer, wine, and cheese among them, were part of the Economy of Decay but so were all manner of trades and products which are no longer made in quite the same way.  The economic engine that gave rise to the Renaissance was dark, dank, foul, and humming with microbiological activity.  Leather making, wool fulling, dye working, the manufacture of gunpowder and its twin, fertilizer, all thrived in cold and humid towns where the waste of life was the rootstock of earning a living.

A society were even human waste was a valuable asset is, to our senses, alarming.  But it kept society from collapsing in a time when there was very little surplus anything to go around, and that included the most basic form of energy, firewood.  In the long hard centuries after the end of the high Middle Ages, harnessing the energies of physical corruption made the difference.

It’s difficult to grasp living like that, with an impact near zero, particularly when we inhabit a society where the imaginary “mining” of a made-up currency (Bitcoin) consumes more energy than any of 159 countries on the scale of Ireland or Denmark.  (To bring that statistic into the realm of personal experience, note that a single Bitcoin transaction sucks down enough power to run a US household for ten days. I leave it to you to invent your own invective deriding the addled inventors of Bitcoin.  Renaissance men, they are not.)

So now, imagine the entrance of coffee into seventeenth century Europe because here was a drink that needed to be cooked.  The “energy” drink of coffee required more energy from its consumer and even before that, it was filled with the embodied energy of its production.  Coffee needed to be ground, and boiled, it had to be roasted before all that, and what’s more, it had to be transported. Long distance trade was not a new thing back then, but it was restricted to luxury items.  Coffee, however, was the harbinger of change, and it’s an open question whether it represented the first stirrings of globalized trade or whether it was a midwife of the same.

While the nobles were still dressing up in Turkish costume to play their coffee games of etiquette and prestige, the newly minted bourgeoisie were quickly making coffee their own.  It was the drink of the merchant, needing a clear head to keep accounts and make sharp deals.   Coffee houses were breeding ground of a different kind of ferment — intellectual.  Famously, coffeehouse denizens were instrumental in the American revolution.  Less celebrated but perhaps — from our particular point in time — more salient than the pieties of the founding fathers, is the other revolution that emerged from coffeehouses.

I’m speaking specifically of a London coffeehouse belonging to one Edward Lloyd, a short walk from the Royal Docks, and a place where sailors, ship-owners and merchants often rubbed shoulders.  The globalized economy that seventeenth century Europe was building depended on a few key innovations.  Many of them were about the technology of sailing, but others, just as crucial, were financial. Global shipping would not have become global shipping without the invention of the insurance market, and that’s what happened in Lloyd’s coffee house, which is long gone, but lives on as Lloyd’s of London.

Coffee-trained and coffee-fueled capitalism won in the end and brought us to our current gilded age.  The coffee economy even folded the ferment economy into its holdings.  Harnessing the energies of all those microorganisms meant that, once upon an time, just a few people could produce a bounty of beer, wine or cheese, but that’s irrelevant these days.  The bulk of beer, wine, and cheese is now multinational, with the huge energy-intensive methods and value chains that coffee has from the start.  Of course, “gilded age” is just another way of saying that more people are living in hard times, which would explain why alcohol is booming, too.

Still, it’s coffee that resonates with history’s deep ironies.  The eminently rational Age of Coffee has brought us to this day when the values of the coffee economy — clear thinking and global horizons — are suddenly no longer heeded.  Coffee is a hot “energy” drink for a global culture that needs hot energy to keep running and its exhaust fumes are desiccating the vineyards of the Rhône valley and driving coffee plantations to seek refuge on cooler hills, even as those hills sink into a rising sea of hot air.  The world the men of the coffeehouses built is teetering, and among their descendants there’s a refusal to think like a coffeehouse man.  Instead, they’ve adopted the cogitation of drunks, giddy and willful and convinced that what they wish to be true is reality.  The age of coffee, I wincingly say, is grinding down.  But never you mind.  The Age of Decay is always waiting.


Coffee Cocktail by Michael Van Vleet
Drunken Couple by Jan Steen
Dutch Girl at Breakfast by Jean-Etienne Liotard
Lloyd’s of London by Aurelien Guichard
Razorwire Brewery by Thomas H Photo