Trouble brewing

The Coffee House: a cultural history

Markman Ellis <em>Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 304pp, £18.99</em>

In the 17th century, coffee houses were sites of bad coffee and radical politics. The coffee has got better, but the politics has vaporised, like steam through an espresso. Such is the conclusion of Markman Ellis's fascinating and readable history of the coffee house. For Ellis, a cultural historian, the coffee house has never been just a place where coffee is sold. When they first reached London in the 1650s, coffee houses were hubs of "gossip, scandal and sedition", places for debate, sociability - and democracy. By the 1660s, coffee houses were firmly linked with republican values. As one anonymous satirist wrote: "The great privilege of equality is only peculiar to the golden age, and to a coffee house."

Unlike salons, which have always functioned in an exclusive way, coffee houses were social levellers. All comers were welcome (except, often, women, but then democratic politics has seldom led to feminism in the easy way we might expect or wish). The poet Samuel Butler thought it was something about the physiological properties of coffee that brought people together in this way, cutting across class boundaries: the coffee house, he wrote, "admits of no distinction of persons, but gentleman, mechanic, lord, and scoundrel mix, and are all of a piece, as if they were resolv'd into their first principles".

Coffee was the perfect drink for sedition. As the philosopher Robert Burton saw, this bitter black brew had the power to cure melancholy and produce "alacrity" in the drinker - that alert social liveliness that keeps discussion going and foments controversy. Being non-alcoholic, it also suited the austerity of the Commonwealthmen. As a poet wrote in 1665:

Coffee and Commonwealth begin
With one letter, both came in
Together for a Reformation,
To make's a free and sober Nation.

The connection between coffee and sedition continued with the Restoration when Charles II signed a "Proclamation for the Suppression of Coffee Houses" on the grounds that such places encouraged "disaffected persons" and "produced very evil and dangerous effects" - in other words, they were places where people felt free to be rude about the king. Coffee-house proprietors were commanded to stop selling their "coffee, chocolate, sherbet and tea". The coffee men were, understandably, outraged at the prospect of going out of business. Eventually, a compromise was reached whereby the coffee houses could keep going, but only if they agreed to "prevent and hinder all Scandalous Papers, Books and Libels concerning the Government, or the Publick Ministers thereof". Thus, the government hoped to turn the coffee men from agents of rebellion into spies.

It didn't entirely work. The connection between coffee and radical politics would continue, and in fact spread far beyond London. Boston had its first coffee house in 1670; Paris in 1671. Both the American and French revolutions were plotted, in large part, in coffee houses. The American "sons of liberty" met at the Merchants' Coffee House in New York, where they planned their break from the oppressive tea-drinkers of England. By this point, coffee had become a symbol of Enlightenment. The most important journal of the Milanese Enlightenment was Il Caffe; the word itself was by now synonymous with progressivism. Il Caffe's contributors included Cesare Beccaria, famous for his brilliant attack on capital punishment.

There is an undeniable glamour to coffee - the same glamour that the Angry Young Men, those "espresso evangelists", tried to drink up in the 1950s. It is easy to imagine that, because the first coffee houses were such exciting places, the drink itself must have been delicious. However, Ellis, in one of the book's best passages, plausibly argues that this was not so. The soot-black "coffa" that Englishmen first encountered in Constantinople may have tasted good, as Levantine practice placed great emphasis on roasting, grinding and infusing the coffee in very quick succession. But English coffee was different.

The beans were generally poorly roasted, in a frying pan over a smoky fire, so that half were burned and half were raw. Then, after grinding, they might be boiled up for as much as 15 minutes, until all the volatile oils were lost and nothing remained but a highly caffeinated, bitter, flat drink, with none of the fragrance that coffee addicts nowadays prize. It was served in tin cups, or sometimes rough earthenware. No wonder many consumers despised coffee as a "Newfangled, Abominable, Heathenish Liquor". The taste was compared to old shoes; to hell-broth; to puddle-water; and to "Dog or Cats turd".

They don't put that on the menu at Starbucks. Ellis seems to feel a certain despair at the current proliferation of the US- style branded coffee chains, churning out colossal mugs of immaculate coffee to customers who are the opposite of rebellious, as they sink into their easy chairs and read the banal soundbites on the walls about the "romance of coffee". Some might say that the ubiquitous comfort of Starbucks is a sign of democracy's success. Others would say that the politics of the beverage has moved elsewhere - away from London coffee houses to the third world coffee producers, who sell their precious beans for 7,000 times less than British consumers will pay for that same commodity when it is dolled up as a caramel macchiato.

Somehow, it is hard to see the coffee house as an idyll of equality any more.

Bee Wilson's The Hive: the story of the honey bee and us is published by John Murray

This article first appeared in the 08 November 2004 issue of the New Statesman, Bleak morning in America