Every now and then, I quit coffee. Now is not one of those times. Right now, and I guess even when I’ve quit again, I love coffee. I love its aroma, the anticipation as it brews in the morning, its particular width on the tongue and its surprising bitterness. I love its reddish brown color when the half-and-half has blended in, the pleasure of a balanced cup at just the right temperature.
Memories of coffee form a large part of that pleasure. I remember drinking it in on foggy mornings in the redwoods, the beans ground coarse with cardamon, hot water from the kettle poured through our stained hemp filter. I remember the shock when I tasted it as prepared in France, elegant and black and strong in an impossibly small cup, with only a tiny sugar cube on a tiny spoon to cut the intensity. Emptying spent grounds into the compost bin, I’m transported straight back to the galleys of the coffee shops I worked at, stepping on my coworkers’ toes as I hurried to tamp down a basket of ground espresso beans for the guy in a hurry, crisply-dressed and displeased.
Hurry. Coffee. Please.
When I was younger, I never thought I’d be a coffee drinker. I saw the way my father lived for the stuff, from morning cup to morning cup. I hated the smell of it on my high school teacher’s breath as he bent over my desk to correct my paper. I didn’t think it tasted or smelled good, and didn’t understand why people drank it. It turned their teeth yellow, and still they kept drinking it. Now I am older and wiser and yellower, and I still don’t understand why we drink coffee, or do half of the things we do, but I do know that I love coffee.
I’ve absconded with an article on coffee and music during the Enlightenment, from the music bulletin board at work. (Yes, Dan, it was me!) “Music in the Age of Coffee” was written by John Rice and published in 2007 in a Cambridge journal called Eighteenth-Century Music. It’s a fascinating little read, all about how much coffee guys like Mozart, Haydn, Bach, and Beethoven consumed. Table 1 lists the year of first coffee houses in various major metropolises (metropoli?) in the Western world. Boston: 1689. New York: 1796. Imagine what a different experience popping into your local coffee shop would have been in those years.
Caffeine and her “close chemical cousin” theobromine may very well have been the flint to the steel that sparked the Enlightenment. (Tea contains caffeine in smaller amounts; theophylline, a related compound, is found only in tea.) A brief intermission while we break down the chemistry:
“Theobromine and theophylline are two dimethylxanthines that have two rather than three methyl groups. Theobromine is considerably weaker than caffeine and theophylline, having about one tenth the stimulating effect of either.” Coffee FAQ
( Come again? Sure, here’s a simplified, cute examination of the history and chemistry of chocolate, written by a columnist for “Neuroscience for Kids.” Or, see 1.)
Coffee reached Europe in the 17th century. According to Dale Pendell, by 1700 there were 3000 coffeehouses in London. The 18th century saw a boom in intellectual, artistic, literary, and musical achievement. Rice’s essay and a huge wealth of similar, more in-depth studies connect the two time-lines and suggest they are correlative.
His opening paragraph may be familiar to present-day imbibers of coffee:
“On 7-8 October 1791, about two months before his death, Mozart wrote to his wife: ‘Right after you left I played two games of billiards with Herr Mozart (who wrote the opera for Schikaneder’s theater); then I sold my nag for 14 ducats; then I had Joseph summon Primus and bring me black coffee, with which I smoked a wonderful pipe of tobacco; then I orchestrated almost all of Stadler’s rondo.’”
Familiar not because we are Mozart-like geniuses, but because we know the manic frenzy of activity that often follows a coupla cuppsa coffee. Rice’s hypothesis is that coffee and coffee-houses stimulated the mental alertness of coffee drinkers, and encouraged their interaction with other coffee-drinkers, resulting in the flourishing of public forums for creative exchange. “Caffeine thus helped to fuel the Enlightenment.”
Rice’s brief appraisal of coffee and the Enlightenment-era artists could not help but touch on similar effects of tea and chocolate. Tea arrived in Portugal in 1580, but didn’t really take hold until the middle of the 17th century. Chocolate ruled in Vienna; in England, Samuel Johnson drank tea all day long– apparently forty cups per day! Voltaire and Balzac each drank seventy to 100 cups of coffee per day. (Frankly, I don’t see how that’s possible. They must have been extremely small cups.)
For more on the history and chemistry of coffee, I went to Dale Pendell’s Pharmako Dynamis. “It is difficult to separate the history of coffee from that of tea and coffee and the spice trade,” writes Pendell. “And there is another story. Coffee, tea, and chocolate created a huge demand for sugar.”
Which, in turn, created a huge demand for slaves. “By the mid-seventeenth century, during the Mercantile Era, almost all of Europe’s sugar came from the Caribbean, where the plant had first been introduced by Columbus. The first plantations were on Barbados, followed by Jamaica, Cuba, and later other islands… All of the labor for the extremely labor-intensive production of sugar was captured in Africa.” From whence came the coffee beans themselves.
What right did Europe have then, and what right do I have now, to be drinking this beverage made from plants grown halfway around the world in climes which are quite literally polar opposites? The interweaving historical, cultural, and chemical threads amongst the beans and the leaves may be far more complex than I can manage in one post. Of the many books sitting on my shelf, waiting to be read, there’s Sidney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History.
More to come.
1. This little piece from about.com was also interesting: Caffeine is quickly and completely removed from the brain. Its effects are short-lived and it tends not to negatively affect concentration or higher brain functions. However, continued exposure to caffeine leads to developing a tolerance to it. Tolerance causes the body to become sensitized to to adenosine, so withdrawal causes blood pressure to drop, which can result in a headache and other symptoms.