Beginning in the ports and souks around the Horn of Africa, the bitter brew derived from the genus of plants known as Coffea, has records of being enjoyed in coffee houses as early as 1511 in the Islamic Holy City of Mecca, modern day Saudi Arabia.
While little more than smoking dens littered with cushions and hookah pipes, these early establishments were influential enough on early Muslim society that prohibition was imposed by the local Pasha in belief of coffees role as an intoxicating agent and therefore in violation of Islam. Despite these restrictions in an early Arabic powerhouse, this humble new drinking establishment would be responsible for spreading enlightenment, intellectualism and culture across multiple empires, religions and continents – and all for the love of a naturally occurring bitter pesticide named coffee.
Although served hot from an infusion of the Coffea plant, this ancient form of coffee served out of steaming pots atop open fires in the public shops of Mecca, was merely a shadow of the smooth crèma layered brew of our modern addiction. With the effects of the roasted bean still to be discovered by the religious Sufis of Yemen, this early beverage was more likely a direct infusion of the dried coffee cherry (bean removed) known as Kish’r – a drink still consumed throughout the Arabian Peninsula today. Who exactly was the first to bring coffee cherries across the Red Sea from Ethiopia to Yemen, is a topic of great debate. With stories as rich as the plant in subject telling of multi-coloured coffee birds, plague ravaged princesses and dancing goats – it is known that a figure of influence within Sufism (a religious order of Islam who practice Ihsan, “perfection of worship”) was the first to established coffee drinking as a part of their prayer ceremonies. It’s thought that upon discovering the effects of caffeine, the plant was introduced for its ability to assist disciples of Sufism in remaining alert and lucid throughout late night worship.
The evolution from Arabia to the modern European coffee house would take almost another hundred years before the first Western traders would encounter what they initially called the “Wine of Araby”, and not in the hands of Arabs but the super power of the Ottoman Empire. After successfully defeating the Marmeluks in Egypt in 1517 the Ottomans acquired a country of historic and cultural development with strong links to Sufism. As such they also discovered a nation dominated by the drinking of coffee and the establishment of the coffee house. With all things that come with the capture of a new nation, the coffee bean and brew naturally came with it. By 1555 the Ottoman Empire would see the very first coffee house opened on their own home shores of Constantinople (later renamed Istanbul) by two Syrian merchants named Hakim and Shams. Ten years later, around 600 coffee selling establishments would be recorded in the city alone – the coffee house culture had finally been reborn.
If you were able to revisit an early 16th century Turkish coffee house, you’d discover coffee brewed on mass in large pots or cauldrons atop open fires often enhanced with the aroma of exotic spices like saffron, cardamom and even ambergris (dried whale vomit – honestly!). Like the multitude of cafe’s today which cater for all classes, coffee could be acquired throughout a range of different locations from humble souk kiosk to luxurious tree shaded gardens with bards, beautiful servant women and views over the Bosporus. This new world of comfort and engagement presented the Ottomans with one of the first public locations of social enlightenment outside of the constraints of religious or alcoholic venues. As such, these new places of population and sobriety became forums for intellectual debate, listening posts for news and meeting points for commerce and trade. In the more elite establishments patrons could hire their own Kaveghi to cater for all matters of coffee acquisition, brewing and service.
However the induction of coffee into what was the world’s longest standing Empire of the time, wasn’t without its hurdles. Since the Sufis of Yemen first began using coffee in the mid 15th century, the drink had already been banned more than twice in belief of its blasphemous role as an intoxicating beverage in the eyes of Islam. By the time the Ottomans tried to lay down their own prohibition in 1580, the drink was already too widely spread to be effective and merely went underground. As such prohibition wasn’t to last and when legally back in the public domain, continued its spread across the Empire and the Balkan states. With such a network of sober meeting houses throughout their nation, it was no surprise that many in power were concerned for their use as dens of conspiracy. With taverns previously associated as places of sedition and uprising, the coffeehouse presented a new threat to the power paranoid. While devious plans may be hatched during a night of alcohol fueled banter, it was coffee’s ability to help recall the details of said plan the following morning, which kept the grand Vizier awake at night [albeit that and his own love of coffee].
While the West was not to adopt coffee until late in the establishment of the beverage, their role would grow to define its place in the world’s future. Despite trading with the bean and plant since before the 17th century, European merchant hubs Venice and Genoa saw coffee’s role in Europe merely as a product of medicinal benefit and not social consumption. A view which would quickly change when in 1651 a Lebanese Jewish entrepreneur remembered only as Jacob would open the West’s first coffee house in Oxford, England called the Angel Inn. Remembered in his personal writings, Jacob describes the Angel Inn as a place where coffee, “was by some who delighted in noveltie [sic] drank” (today another coffee house can be found on the site named “The Grand Cafe”). A second coffee house would be opened nearby the following year by another Jew named Cirques Jobson and by the time a third was opened three years after that by Arthur Tillyard, coffee had found a new home in the West. Of these new establishments, it would be Tillyard’s which would set the standard for future coffee houses to follow. With a focus on the more educated middle class patrons of Oxford, Tillyard charged two pence for a cup of coffee and one for entry (a lot in those days), allowing access to various newspapers, pamphlets, broadsheets, lectures and ballads. With such a fine spending patronage, future houses would follow suit developing the early nickname – Penny Universities. These new locations would pave the way for a new era in English society labelled by historians as the Age of Enlightenment, a period which saw a reform in the way intellectuality is pursued and accepted socially, and the coffee house would be at the heart of it. Through weekly meetings at Tillyards to discuss and debate maters if mutual scientific interest, The Royal Society was established, a syndicate which today advisers the English government on scientific matters. By 1672, the Royal Society were established enough to elect a lead chairman, they found one in the form of a promising young man named Isaac Newton and the rest they say is history.
In a city dedicated today as it was then to the students, the inspired youth of Oxford supplied the majority of the cities coffee house clientele. In a time before the university common room it is no surprise these young intellectuals flocked to the houses to meet, discuss, study and debate their specific areas of study, albeit while indulging a hot cup of Mocha (named after the Yemeni port by the same name from where coffee was initially acquired). In fact so popular were the student numbers that in 1679 the local mayor attempted a ban on all coffee houses from opening on Sundays to ensure the youth remained in either church or college. Needless to say it had little effect. However it wouldn’t be until London opened her first coffee house in 1652 at St Michael’s Alley in the city, that the coffee house would begin to influence an entire nation.