Coffee 102 - History of the World in Six Cups

source: A History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage

Historical Context

  • In the early 17th century, European thinkers began to challenge the Greek philosophical traditions, the monarchy and the Catholic church.

  • This period is known as both the "Age of Reason" and the "Age of Exploration".

  • The diffusion of this rationalism was sped up by coffee. It became the preferred drink of "information workers": scientists, intellectuals, merchants, and clerks.

  • Part of this was because coffee is prepared using boiled water, which made it a safe alternative to alcoholic drinks without dulling the senses.


  • Nobody knows exactly where coffee started, but it generally first became popular in Yemen in the mid 15th century (1450s). It's attributed to Muhammad al-Dhabhani, a scholar and member of the mystical Sufi order of Islam, who died around 1470.

  • Coffee percolated first through the Arab world (it reached Mecca and Cairo in 1510). After this period, it stopped being a religious drink and became a social drink.

  • Shortly before his death in 1605, Pope Clement VIII officially approved coffee for Christians, which sped up its adoption in Europe.

  • At first, coffee shops were "respectable and temperate alternatives to taverns".


  • Until the end of the 17th century (1600s), Arabia was "unchallenged as supplier of coffee to the world."

  • The Dutch took control of international trade in the 17th century, smuggled cuttings from Arab coffee trees to Amsterdam, cultivated them in greenhouses, then used them to establish coffee plantations in Indonesia (back then, it was called Java) and eventually Central and South America.

  • A French naval officer smoozed his way into getting a cutting from the one coffee tree in the royal French greenhouse, which was then smuggled to the West Indies (now the Caribbean).

  • After the Dutch and the French, coffee was no longer an Arab monopoly, and they couldn't compete anymore.

Coffeehouses ARE the Internet

  • Coffeehouses were news and gossip spaces.

    • If you wanted to learn the latest in politics, local gossip, science, you went to a coffeehouse.
    • It was so pervasive that coffeehouses would specialize. What you did and which coffeehouse you went to were the same thing.
    • In London, politicians went to St. James and Westminster
    • Clergymen went to the coffeehouse near St. Paul's Cathedral.
    • Writers went to Will's coffeehouse in Covent Garden.
  • Coffeehouses were safe spaces. Social differences were left at the door. Who you were didn't matter as much as what you brought to the table at the coffeehouse. If you started a fight, you apologized to the house by buying a round of coffee for everyone.

  • Coffeehouses were business spaces.

    • Traders, merchants, sailors, and carpenters discussed mathematics and formed companies that would pave the way for the Industrial Revolution at coffeehouses.
    • Lloyd's of London, the world's leading insurance market, literally was a coffeehouse.
    • The London Stock Exchange began as a coffeehouse.
  • Coffeehouses were learning spaces.

    • Students and the general public held academic discussions in coffeehouses.
    • Isaac Newton wrote the Principia (the foundation of modern physics) because of a coffeehouse conversation.
    • Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations at a coffeehouse.
  • Coffeehouses were revolutionary spaces.

    • King Charles II rose to the throne on the back of coffeehouse meetings.
    • The French Revolution was kickstarted by Camille Desmoulins when he stood on a cafe table and shouted "To arms, citizens! To arms!"
  • In other words, coffeehouses were to the 17th century what the Internet was to the 21st century.

You'll only receive email when they publish something new.

More from 2107
All posts