Manifest Bean: Go West, Young Coffee

Posted by Christopher McClure on

Have you ever sat down at a coffee shop, ordered yourself a latte, and found yourself thinking, "Who thought this thing up? Why does this delicious mixture of pressure-extracted coffee and steamed milk exist?" or perhaps a slightly more existential, "How did someone living in America come to drink something made from the ground, roasted seed of the fruit of a tree that originated from Ethiopia?" Okay, you've probably never asked that question, but if you are asking it now you're in luck: mysteries like this baffle and delight me to no end.

"The door is open... but it can be closed... but it's not? THIS IS AMAZING?" -Me everyday
"Problems, problems..." by Ion Chibzii is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
Let's start with the origin stories. There's a few. I've mentioned the myth about the Ethiopian goatherd in my first post ever (oh what a young foolish man I was...), but that story didn't appear in print until 1671, a rather suspicious 800 years after it supposedly took place. Other origins attribute either the avian observations of a Sufi mystic or the desert wanderings of exiled disciple of a Sheik (his discovery of coffee not only revoked his exiled status but got him honored as a saint, because, well, you know, coffee!), but as before, it's unclear how exactly coffee was "discovered."
The best guess is that the the tribesman of Ethiopia consumed coffee fruit for its stimulating properties, and at some point a visiter from Yemen tried it and thought it was rather swell. What we do know is that the first written evidence of coffee, as we know it, was in the 15th century in the Sufi monasteries in Yemen, used to keep them alert during prayers. This precious beverage was given the name qahwah, which had originally meant wine.
Except when you drink too much of this wine you just start pretending that you're getting a lot of work done.
Photo by Scott Feldstein is licensed under CC BY 2.0

In its early years, coffee lived a mostly religious life,  doing it's prayers and being a good boy. It was mostly found in areas of Sufi influence, with coffeehouses first popping up around a religious university in Cairo, but coffee quickly spread across the Ottoman empire. The bad news for coffee was that as soon as it stepped out into the world, it's reputation started to sour (or perhaps I should say bitter? sorry). In 1511 coffee was banned by conservative Imams for fear of it being too stimulating, possibly encouraging wandering thoughts, or worse, outright rebellion. Lucky for us the people's love of coffee was so great that the ban only managed to last fifteen years.
In Europe coffee was less liked, with no small part of that caused by its association with Islam. Viewed as the Devil's beverage, the drink of infidels, and all manner of other insults you may apply to potable liquids, coffee was shunned if not outright banned in most of Europe.
"Such mudslop! Truly this is the bitter invention Satan."
Wink by Chris Blakely is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

That is until Pope Clement VIII was pressured by some of advisers to officially declare coffee the drink of sin in 1600, or so the rumor goes. The advisers may not have thought the plan throw and it backfired a little; Clement decided he had to try the drink first to make his decision, and after a taste he supposedly said, "This devil's drink is so delicious...we should cheat the devil by baptizing it!" Fanciful at best, but I do personally like thinking my coffee has received official Papal approval.
It wasn't long after that coffee spread throughout Europe, with coffee shops becoming the new place for thinkers to gather to exchange ideas. Coffeehouses earned the nickname "penny universities" because for the price of a cup of coffee you could join in on conversations about almost anything with the educated elite. The effect was similar to when the internet first kicked off, although probably with less 12-year olds practicing their curses and all the other unsavory bits.

Who could debase anything wearing wigs like those?
The white powder prevented any and all wrongdoings, I'm sure.

"Wait, they can do what to us?"
-The Low Class, on Coffee

In fact, egalitarian ideas, shifts of power, and, slightly less fortunately, rebellion, seemed to follow coffee where ever it went. One might venture to say that coffee may have been the substance the gave people the power to fight for the rights that they deserved. Or, one could observe that the rise of coffeehouses gave people something safe to drink that wasn't alcoholic, and perhaps all the people needed to do was sober up a little and realize they were being toyed with.

Keep an eye out for the next history post, where I'll go over coffee's travel from Europe to the rest of the world.

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