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The Coffee House: A Cultural History by Markman Ellis

Living in the modern world, it’s hard to imagine a time when people didn’t start the day with coffee or that we didn’t consider meeting someone in a café or inviting them over for a cuppa one of the sweetest of leisure time activities. Yet, until travellers explored the Ottoman Empire and encountered the Coffa-Houses in Constantinople, and trade between nations flourished during the Renaissance, coffee was unknown in the western world.

1364758In his book, The Coffee House: A Cultural History, Markman Ellis, does a magnificent job of following the journey of the humble coffee bean, briefly from its growth and cultivation to its fascinating arrival as a drink that signified both civility and sociability across different cultures, but with particular emphasis on England and London during the 1600s.

Described as the “wine of Islam”, coffee drinking, and the various rituals associated with it, were soon embraced by first, traders and merchants (which encountered the bitter drink that was “black as soot” on their adventures) and then by the folk of London, curious for the new experiences and products shipping companies like the Levant and East India brought to their thriving capital.

It was through the establishment of Coffee-Houses, the first a small stall run by a Greek man named Pasqua Rosee, that proved this black, apparently medicinal drink, was a serious rival to ale, beer and wine that English men and women imbibed so freely. Coffee-Houses (of which there were over 80 by 1663) provided men (they were very much masculine “clubs”, though women might serve – and in various ways) with spaces to read the latest news, exchange information about trade and shipping and catch up on all the latest gossip. They were also places were new inventions were often discussed, auctions held, writers and musicians could demonstrate their latest compositions and, most importantly, political views could be aired.

Developing a reputation as centres of sedition, there were attempts to close them down and control the licensing of the venues. It’s indicative of the significant role these places had in Englishmen’s lives that these efforts were not only resisted, but regarded as attacks on the right to freedom of speech as well.

Contrasting with the drunken atmosphere of taverns, Coffee-Houses were renown for their sobriety and thus the kind of clientele they attracted – men of learning or those who wanted to learn (they were later referred to as “penny universities”). They also became important locations for those wanting to reinforce and make social and professional connections. Samuel Pepys, for instance, understanding the role the Coffee-House could play in furthering his own career, quickly abandoned the tavern for the coffee-house and the more useful people he might meet behind their doors.

Egalitarian in nature, Coffee-Houses didn’t stand on formality and, providing a person could pay the charge, he had to sit in the next available seat and engage with whoever he happened to be seated next to.

As time went on, Coffee-Houses became even more numerous, grander in their interiors, offered their clientele more by way of news and spaces to engage freely in debate and even did their utmost to attract particular trades and professions. It’s from the Coffee-House that Lloyd’s of London, for example, was born, along with other well-known institutions – and not only in England – Florians in Venice also started as a Coffee-House.

Filled to the brim with wonderful anecdotes and interesting facts about coffee, those who drank it, ran the coffee-houses and traded in the commodity, Ellis’s book also catapults us into the present and the changing social role of coffee, cafes and drinkers, including information on large coffee-based corporations such as Starbucks.

It was the historical and cultural aspects that I found most compelling. Ellis writes in such a readable way, and with a light touch, that only enhances his meticulous research and makes this book so insightful.

A must-read for lovers of coffee, history and those who simple enjoy learning more about how what was once a luxury commodity became not only ubiquitous but part of so many people’s daily rituals.

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