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How Coffee Fueled The Enlightenment

By Christian Hotten


Drinking coffee is now so much part of our culture that not having a mild addiction to it could almost be deemed abnormal. 

Globally we consume 400 billion cups of coffee a year, with 450 million cups consumed in the US.


The force behind this bitter drink is, of course, the stimulant caffeine.


This ‘miracle’ drug is both the cause and cure for our zombie-like states in the morning. We’ve all experienced, or seen in our family, friends and work colleagues, a sort of twitchy irritation before the first hit of caffeine starts coursing through the bloodstream.


Caffeine works as an adenosine antagonist. As you go about your day, adenosine builds up in your bloodstream, which makes you feel fatigued. Caffeine blocks the adenosine receptors, preventing you from feeling its inhibitory effect. 


However, since one-quarter of the substance will stay in your system for 12 hours, caffeine negatively affects sleep. We wake up sleep-deprived and in need of another coffee. 


We take caffeine as a solution to the problem it creates. 


Being so widespread, you would think caffeine has always been around. The best recent work on the history of caffeine comes from American author Michael Pollan. 


In his audiobook, ‘Caffeine: How Caffeine Created The Modern World’, Pollan traces the origin of caffeine to China in 1000 B.C., in the form of tea. However, it was in Ethiopia 850 A.D, where, according to legend, a herder noticed his goats being particularly jumpy after eating the berries of an arabica plant. The herder gave the berries to a local monk, who used the arabica plant to make the world's first cup of coffee. 


Pollan’s most insightful finding is caffeine’s potential influence on ‘The Age of Reason’. 


Before caffeine, the drug of choice was alcohol, and for good reason. During the Middle Ages (14th-15th century), people battled constantly with various diseases. 

Dysentery, malaria, diphtheria, flu, typhoid, smallpox, and leprosy, led to dead bodies being piled high on the streets. 


Beer, however, involved the process of fermentation, which killed off many of the deadly microbes found in everyday drinking water, making beer the safest beverage around. 


A pint with your breakfast was commonplace, as opposed to our contemporary caffeine kick. In the Middle Ages, many people spent their days with a permanent alcoholic buzz. This was about to change (for many people, anyway).


In the 17th Century, an outpouring of rationality, a fresh writing style and feverish revolutionary energy spread across Europe. According to Pollan, the reason for this was coffee, and its stimulant, caffeine. 


The trade and cultivation of coffee began on the Arabian Peninsula, in the 15th-16th Century. It became extremely popular in the Ottoman Empire, as it offered an alternative to alcohol, which was (and still is) prohibited for practising Muslims, the most dominant religion in the empire.


Along with enjoying the chemical benefits, people also enjoyed the social aspects. The development of coffee houses - where people of all ranks and statuses could come together and converse over a hot coffee. Coffee houses offered egalitarianism with a kick. 


The Ottomans saw the influence of coffee houses as a threat to the social norms and, in 1633, Sultan Murad IV made the consumption of coffee illegal.


European travellers, however, had already begun spreading the news about this mysterious hot black beverage from the East. In the 17th century, coffee made its way to Europe. 


People stopped feeling hungover and began feeling energised. Caffeine changed how people worked - the introduction of night shifts, and a coffee break, led to increased productivity by workers and, consequently, spurred industrial progress. 


At first, like the Ottomans, the elites saw coffee as a threat. The first coffee house in London, Pasqua Rosée, opened in 1652, and within a few decades, there were more than 300 coffee houses in London. 


In June 1672 King Charles II attempted to restrain the talks of liberty that had begun to take place in coffee houses. His Secretary of State, Sir Joseph Williamson, created a network of spies across the coffee house scene. 

Charles was unsuccessful and coffee houses became known as penny universities: a place of thriving intellectual discussion, stimulated by copious amounts of caffeine. 


Many of the great English thinkers of the era - Newton, Pope, Swift and Dryden - conversed over a hot cuppa.


Coffee also had begun to sink its roots into Germany, France and the American colonies. In the latter two, coffee appeared to help stir up revolutionary feelings. 


In America, the consumption of caffeine became a patriotic act, after the Boston Tea Party, where American colonists protested against unfair taxation from the East India Company, by throwing 342 chests of tea into the sea.


In France, great intellectuals such as Diderot and Voltaire, who laid the foundation for the Enlightenment, drank coffee daily. Voltaire reportedly drank more than 70 cups of coffee a day. 


As in England, coffee houses across the rest of Europe acted as fertile meeting places for activists behind the growing movement towards what became The Enlightenment. 

The Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, and the Scientific Revolution created the Age of Enlightenment. But it’s not implausible to believe that coffee, and the meeting places where it was drunk, provided some rocket fuel to spur on the new schools of thought.

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Tags: Enlightenment Michael Pollan Coffee Caffeine


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