It took me 20 posts to come to one of my favourite topics! Coffee!! This post has no review… But it is an attempt to shed some light on coffee culture across generations. And a quick analysis of what makes a coffee house click with me! The following synopsis is a work of internet and book research.Legends believe that as early as the 10th century, coffee the drink was first discovered by Kaldi, the goatherd in Ethiopia when he realized that his goats, after eating a certain type of “berries” became so active, that they stayed up all night. Locals made a drink from the berries, and saw similar effects and thus, began the journey of coffee… The Arabs were the first ones to actually cultivate coffee for trade, and the first known coffee cultivation started from Yemen and then spread to Persia, Egypt, Syria and Turkey.
The coffee house culture!
The first recorded history of coffee houses is seen across 14th and 15th Century in near East, namely Istanbul… where they were called “Qahveh Khaneh” or “Kiva Han”. Coffee houses soon became a place where people socialized, engaged in active conversations, communicated news, rumours, information or even for passtimes like playing board games…
The popularity of the coffee houses grew so much, that they were even called “Schools of the wise”. So powerful was this interaction and exchange of information, that it is believed that in the mid-15th century, the coffee house was banned in Mecca, and Muslims were banned from drinking coffee. However, the coffee houses did reopen, and the spread after that in Middle and Near East was unbounded. The Arabs even tried to maintain monopoly for production of the “Arabic Wine” as it was referred to at times.
However, travelers and traders from Britain and Europe to the Near East brought back stories of the Qahveh Khaneh, and the black hot Arabic Wine, thus, coffee slowly but surely made its way into Europe. The Arabic name qahuwa was transformed into kaweh (meaning strength) and Kaweh became coffee…
Coffee house culture reached England in 1650s, with the first coffee house opening in Oxford. Legend has it that the site of the first coffee shop in Oxford today has a coffee shop called ‘The Grand Café’. Oxford’s Queen’s Lane Coffee House, established in 1654, is also still in existence today.In the England of that time, Coffee houses became a place where businesses were carried out, London Gazatte (government announcements) were read out or the menfolk got together to discuss shortfalls of the rulers. By mid-1700s there were as many as 500 coffee houses, each catering to different strata of society, different types of trading communities etc.
Coffee reached Europe in the 16th century, however, the first coffee shop of Europe was opened in Venice around the early 17th Century.
Coffee houses culture, it is believed was brought to the United States in the 19th Century by the Italian American migrants, and they started coffee houses across major US cities, namely, Little Italy in New York City, North End in Boston and North Beach in San Francisco. As the youth culture of the 1960s evolved, non-Italians consciously copied these coffeehouses.
Coffee House and Arts & Politics:A William Hazlitt’s Essay beautifully notes and explains the phenomena of “Coffee House Politicians and Politics”. Although politics was not the only topic of debate and talk, politics made its way into the coffee house culture and stayed there for years to come! Formally dressed men, wearing hats and carrying the newspapers sat around and discussed and opined about latest happenings. So much was the power of Coffee Houses that, King Charles II saw coffee houses as a threat to his rule and in 1670s tried to suppress this culture. However, he failed and coffee houses since grew into vital political, economic, and social institutions . In fact Anglo-European coffee houses have been instrumental in the starting up of organizations such as the London Stock Exchange and Lloyd’s of London. They also became critical forums through which the beliefs such as freedom of speech emerged. We often see the seeds of these coffee houses sown in Asia too. Coffee Houses had gained tremendous importance during the freedom struggle in India. In fact, the historical Indian Coffee House at Albert Hall in Calcutta was often frequented by the likes of Subhash Chandra Bose and other freedom fighters to plan, discuss and try to find solutions and paths to political upheavals in British-India. Arts also played an important role in coffee house culture. Some of the coffee houses in Vienna, Austria like the Cafe Central and Hawelka, have been in operation for over a hundred years! In the late 1800′s and early 1900′s, coffee shops around the city welcomed and housed revolutionaries, scientists, writers and some of the brightest minds like Sigmund Freud, Stefan Zweig, Peter Altenberg, Leon Trotsky, and even Mark Twain. Then, in the mid-19th century, a revolution took place in New York City’s Greenwich Village where coffeehouses became the stomping grounds for poets and revolutionaries and songwriters and musicians and artists like Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg, Tom Paxton, etc.
Coffee Houses Today:
While coffee houses or Café’s as they are referred to today are still prominent, their purpose has changed. With news and local gossip available at fingertips (internet, whatsapp, emails, facebook) the need for face-to-face exchange of ideas and information has disappeared. Discussions and debates are replaced with twitters, facebook likes and comments or social activism on the networking sites.
Today, coffee houses are places to read books, catch up with friends, a place to get out of rains, business meetings or even dates. There are even those who promote their “coffee” and “coffee beans” and “coffee making techniques”.
Further, coffee houses today are strictly divided into “Take your coffee and leave” and “Please stay and chat”. Starbucks and such other coffee chains depend largely on huge turnovers and take aways. Their coffee shops, in most parts of the world are decorated in the same way, minimal. But, thankfully, there are those that make you want to stay longer… and “just hang out”. They have spent time making the place comfortable, even homey, which encourages long chats. They have concentrated on giving you unique blends of coffees, that suit your palate.
I love spending time in coffee houses, and often go on hunts to search for those unique places I would like to sit and chat, read a book, if alone or generally sit and think while I enjoy the aromatic coffee! It is my dream to start a coffee house someday, a place where people meet, talk and interact. Having said that, over the next few days, intermittently, I will be reviewing coffee shops.
To that effect, I often ask myself the question, what will make a coffee shop click! Here’s what:
I am biased towards shops located street side to those located in the malls. A calm shop on a crowded street, a coffee house in a heritage building, a coffee house lake-side… The location matters to me.
Do they have a theme to the décor? Is the music too loud or too soft? Are the seats comfortable enough for a long stay? Does the place have a character? Or is it just bunch of things haphazardly put together? Is the place tacky or classy… if it is tacky is there a theme to the tackiness!
There are times when I go to a coffee house for the aroma and the coffee itself. At such times, I like the coffee and its flavour to be the hero. Having said that, a great ambiance and location with run of the mill coffee is unacceptable. In that sense coffee has to be in the least, good.
The history:Being a sucker for historical relevance, a coffee house with a history… matters. And when a place has history, and maintains a basic quality… in terms of the coffee they actually serve, the ambiance and even the location can fade away. The biggest examples being the Coffee House at Albert Hall in Calcutta, where the servers still wear the uniform they did during the colonial times. Someday soon, I shall do a feature on the place…
Over the next few weeks, intermittently, I shall try and review some unique coffee shops around Singapore that I absolutely loved… for one or all of the above clicks!
Tagged: Albert Hall, Coffee, Coffee culture, Coffeehouse, Hawelka, India Coffee House, Kaldi, Leon Trotsky, Little Italy, London, Mecca, Near East, New York City, Oxford, Starbucks, Subhash Chandra Bose