Why Coffee?

Coffea Arabica Linnaeus

From coffee plants to coffeehouses

The coffee we drink worldwide comes mostly from the plants called Coffea Arabica Linnaeus and Coffea Canephora Linnaeus. There are several accounts depicting why and where humans first noticed and started using them, but many of these are merely legends of which there is no documented proof. Irrespective of when this was, at some point they started drying and roasting their fruits, long before starting inventing modern and increasingly sophisticated machines to prepare coffee drinks.

There were times when people enjoyed coffee as a morning soup. It is fair to say that for the many who had drunk beer soups up until then this was a time of awakening. At other times the pulp of the coffee berries was fermented to make wine, it was dried to make hot coffee drinks; or their berry seeds were dried and roasted for the dark brews we know until today.

We have made coffee the Ethiopian way by roasting them with spices and serving them in daily rituals to family members and guests. We have done it the Turkish way, the Mexican way, the Scandinavian way, the Italian way, the US American dinners way, the Cyprus way. Coffee cultures have developed for well over four centuries, if not much longer.

These developments continue and can be seen in places throughout the globe where millions gather daily to have a break, or have their home away from home, their social and business meeting places, intellectual conversations, inspiration, their chit-chat and much more, but to always enjoy their cup of coffee. These places have inspired architects, composers, writers, philosophers and many creative minds. They are called café and cafetería, kahvehane in Turkey, kafenio in Cyprus, were only men meet or kawiarnia in Poland or kissaten in Japan,

Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony

Kaffeehaus in Vienna, where the high-society, the homeless, tourists, businessmen, romantic couples and opera house goers alike gather under one roof. Some others are called coffeehouses, where revolutions had their historic starts and music greats like Joan Baez or Bob Dylan began their singing careers. There were also houses, where for as little as one pence London upper-class businessmen, students, artists, politicians, intellectuals and many others socialized. Hence they were seen as the place where one could pick up more useful knowledge, than by reading a book: they were the Penny Universities.

Why always coffee?!

I do not believe there is one single mouth which had its first sip of coffee, whiskey, beer or dry wine and was immediately delighted by the taste. Some people claim that drinking coffee is not about great taste- but about a necessity. Is it the caffeine and the need for being awake? That seems to be the most common excuse for many and the most obvious attachment, but in my view not the right reason. It is, above all, its taste and aroma. And there is an industry to prove it.

Wether in the East or in the West, Christians and Muslims have witnessed various coffee prohibition times through the centuries. Let us just think of the beginning of the 16th century in Mecca, or Charles II of England outlawing coffeehouses in the 17th century, or Ethiopian clergymen prohibiting coffee through most of the 19th century. To prevent people’s choice of this expensive imported product over the local commodity beer, Frederic the Great prohibited Germans from drinking coffee, as well.

Political, economic and moral conflicts in different cultures and systems have repeatedly tried to interfere with the increasing demand for coffee.  It was, however, not only the prohibition that brought along the need for alternatives – it was the love for that special coffee taste. If this had not been the case, the many companies and recipes producing Caro, Postum, Cafix, Pero and the likes would have not succeeded. People wanted this new and unique taste and the so-called “coffee substitute” industry flourished. Recipes have been developed worldwide using barley, chicory, carrots, asparagus seeds, beetroot, beech nut, dandelion root, figs, potato peel, rye, wheat bran, rice, peas and several other ingredients.

The creation and success of these new products by merely trying to resemble coffee, shows that one taste conquered the planet, and those who have had the privilege of knowing it, did not and do not wish to miss it. Coffee substitutes contain no caffeine, thus one is free to assume that a great deal of the attraction is not based on its drug – but on its taste. The decision of many to drink decaffeinated coffee underlines this claim.

 

Café Zeman, Brno/Czech Republic, Architect: Bohuslav Fuchs, built in 1926 (demolished in 1964)

Why the drama?

Why coffee architecture, why so many palaces built for coffee drinkers, while the fine and elegant wine drinkers gather in cellars? What is this whole fuss about coffee?

It was a tea dealer in Berlin who brought to my attention the fact that in countries where tea grows people tend to be quiet, meditative, slower in their life rhythm, while in countries where coffee grows, habitants are much livelier, they dance more and their temperament clearly manifests in their physical energy. Coffee seems to be a special compound and so are perhaps the countries and regions where it grows.

According to Michael J. Breus, PhD in his Insomnia Blog, some benefits from caffeine has seem to be limited to coffee. This means that the caffeine found in tea does not necessarily provide the results obtained through the caffeine in coffee. Not caffeine alone, but supported by the coffee compound, both lower the risk of strokes.

Hundreds of studies in different scientific fields repeatedly provide information about the health benefits and other medicinal advantages of coffee. The list of uses in various other fields is not shorter, either. Coffee serves as a deodorant; it is being used as colour for printers, as compost for special mushrooms, as active ingredient against hair loss, to only name a few. Coffee grounds are being used to produce furniture and for baths in Japan.

Why ever coffee?

I dare answer that coffee is not just a unique compound for a variety of uses in the field of medicine. For years I have visited coffeehouses in different countries and cities, observing not only the fact that they serve a wide spectrum of drinks between undrinkable brew and magical drops, but also contemplating customers to define or decode the various reasons for their sitting there, which may go far beyond the taste of coffee.  The people sitting in these coffeehouses read the press and the magazines they wish, devour information or even culture. They may watch others around like couples, a waitress, or the commings and goings in the streets through the window; but they may still enjoy being alone in a secluded big room. There are still others who look for a silent, intimate place, undisturbed while absorbed in their depressive loneliness. Still, they will not be left alone. And everything around coffee.

We have been celebrating coffee, while celebrating ourselves. Or we have been celebrating ourselves – while indulging into coffee, without noticing how much we have been celebrating these roasted seeds and not ourselves. Recollecting the flow of coffee history, much of which I have recounted here, considering which international powers coffee has as second most important commodity and admitting which important role it plays in the wide world of pleasure, it is fair to say that coffee is a loaded thing.

The third wave.

Dozens of hot drinks and well over a hundred of cold ones are called coffee. Its potency as a spice has yet to be expanded, we have barely dealt with its surface. The various coffee cultures have each succeeded in their own realms. Italy is not Italy without its coffee and machines, its espresso and coffee palaces, its baristi, its coffee design and coffee technology. Vienna is not Vienna without its Coffeehouses (called Kaffeehäuser) with their Melange, newspapers and Apfelstrudel. Turkey is not Turkey without its mocca, and coffee is not coffee without the third wave we have seen being spread in the last couple of decades. A passion, dedication and at times exploitation of coffee as specialty and less as a routine pick-me-up brew, which shows how much coffee indeed is.

Minimalism at Penny University, London

Yet, a bit beyond this wave, a bit beyond this multi-layered approach to coffee, there is the concentrated approach: the redutionistic “back to coffee” attitude. Quite contrary to the tradition of the Penny Universities, the new London’s Penny University, the coffee bar of the Square Mile Coffee Roasters has chosen enhancement through concentration and extravagant reduction. It is almost anti-social! Six persons may be seated only. No milk. No sugar. No espresso. Penny University has ‘only’ a source for hot water (Über Boiler) and three coffees could be ordered, prepard with “flannel drip”, V60 pour over or siphon.

Why Coffee? Penny University seems to be simply about just humbly answering the question. The concept may be seen as a bold step, snobbery, a religious statement, business strategy, but it may also be seen as the greatest form of shwoing the most honest respect for coffee. With Extroverted and Introverted Espresso I thought to have clearly seen that a ‘simple”, though proud, Italian barista could count as introverted, if compared to another barista working with a Synesso machine, using not 7, but 14 or even more grammes for one shot after meticulously measuring the tamping. I must rethink a bit. Perhaps compared to an Italian barista James Hoffmann and Tim Williams from Penny University are the real introverted coffee makers. And they are not alone, and not the first ones. Japanese Sekiguti Itirou (or Sekiguchi Ichiro) has roasted and served coffee at his Café de L’Ambre in Ginza (Tokyo) for over 60 years and has never done this by using coffee machines or by serving espressi. More and more coffee drinkers, including experts like Scott Rao and Jeffrey Steingarten, realise that espresso is a wonderful drink, but neither the only way nor the best way – just the espresso way.

Are we entering the fourth wave?

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