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Coffee and Community

For centuries people have gathered to cultivate community over beverages. In the Middle Ages ale-houses and taverns dotted the landscape of Europe. These often raucous establishments offered a home-away from home for travelers, townspeople, and regular patrons. The most common of beverages was beer, a safe alternative to often polluted drinking water, as the fermentation process and presence of alcohol diminished potential water-borne illnesses - something all too common in the squalid conditions of Europe in the Middle Ages. The sense of community that developed at such establishments was surely varied and most likely of lesser importance in a day and age when rural communities were closer-knit and religious rituals and ceremonies brought the local community together on a regular basis.

Across the world in Africa, Asia, and the “New World” of the Americas, local populations surely gathered around fermented beverages, be they wine, hard cider, mead, sake, chicha, mosato, and others... Humans have always found local foods with high sugar or starch contents to convert into a safer, more preserved, and often enjoyable alcoholic beverage. The Mayflower upon its departure from England brought no fresh water; instead the crew brought exclusively “wort”, or a low alcohol beer. Upon their arrival to what would become New England, settlers planted apple trees - one main reason to ensure the year-round ability to enjoy hard-cider, which was used to pay taxes, wages, and tithes. The community that is formed around the ingestion of alcoholic beverages is often in stark contrast with the community that forms from non-alcoholic beverages.

In East Asia people found that the leaves of a magical plant made a powerful infusion. In the Americas, the indigenous peoples found the seeds of a peculiar jungle fruit produced a powerfully stimulating and rich beverage. In the Arabic world the seed of a small fruit was roasted, ground and steeped into a dark beverage. These new beverages employed the use of boiling water to destroy bacteria and waterborne contamination. In contrast with the popular alcoholic beverages, tea, chocolate, and coffee were initially used by religious devotees. Buddhist monks sought to improve duration and concentration of all-night meditations, Sufi Muslims stayed alert and energized for their all-night whirling dervishes, and shamans used the psychoactive power of pure cacao during rituals. The use of these stimulating beverages lead to concern among the local ruling elites. Tea experienced periodic bans throughout East Asia, much the same as coffee did many times throughout the Arabic and European worlds for varying reasons. In the Americas the high-value of cacao (being literally used as currency and tax/duty) likely meant commoners were not able to consume the beverage. The intellectually stimulating beverages brought people together, often questioning the status quo.

Europe received all three beverages at a similar time and reactions were mixed. Under various leaders throughout the continent coffee, tea, and chocolate were banned. Interestingly enough the first adopters of these new beverages other than royalty were doctors. Intrigued by their powerful effects on the human body, many praised them as cure-alls while others sought to demonize them as dangerous for the body. Eventually the burgeoning middle-class throughout Europe widely adopted the beverages and regularly consumed them in tea, coffee, and chocolate houses.

Original Blue Bottle Coffee Shop in Vienna, Austria 17th-18th Century

What’s interesting is the nature of the community that seems to form around these three beverages. The stimulating effects of caffeine, theine, and theobromine help evoke discussion, questioning, and critical thought. The coffeehouses of the Arabic world were known to be a hotbed of revolutionary activity. Likewise the coffeehouses in Paris and Boston are often credited as sewing the seeds for their country’s respective revolutions. The coffee house communities in England showed quite a contrast to their ale and gin-house counterparts which often housed violent, chaotic, and destructive environments. What started as a gathering place for intellectuals and artists quickly lead to a place where thoughts, ideas, and news were exchanged. Merchants, traders, and even politicians gathered to share the latest news of the day and debate. Both the London Stock Exchange and the large insurance company Lloyd’s started in coffee shops. In contrast with the private clubs and royal societies of the era, the coffee shop became a democratic place where any man was welcome.

Perhaps the importance of the modern-day coffee shop is a bit different from its historical past. In a day and age where information is shared worldwide in a matter of seconds and revolutionary activity starts and gains momentum on online social platforms, the coffee shop has taken on a new role. What I’ve seen and often sought from coffee shops is simply a sense of community. We no longer live in small towns and cities knowing each familiar face, we no longer all attend religious ceremonies where we cultivate community on a regular basis. Instead we all know the faces of our celebrity stars, we all connect with the broader community when we watch our team play every Sunday from the comfort of our own couch. To a differing degree we each may take comfort and feel part of a community when we receive that warm greeting from the familiar face of a local barista, or when we sit down next to our neighbor, unlikely to exchange thoughts outside of the communal setting of our neighborhood coffeeshop.

I serve a cappuccino at George Howell Coffee in Newton, Massachusetts. Image courtesy of Natasha Yunen.

Having lived in rural coffee and cacao farming communities in Peru, I decided to learn more about where their agricultural goods are consumed. I came to work at George Howell Coffee with an appreciation for the tremendous importance of coffee and cacao to rural communities in Peru. At George Howell Coffee we explored many unique “terroir” coffees from around the world. I learned of the nuance possible in coffee based on the unique landscape on which it is grown, the harvest and process style, the roast and preparation. These factors all coalesce into distinct flavors and aromas and working at the cafe I saw employee and customer enthusiasm in sharing some truly special coffees. The coffee we consume in our local coffee shop not only fosters a connection with each-other, but with the greater global community as well.

When farmers know who roast and consume their coffee they put more energy and attention into their craft. Likewise, when roasters connect more directly with coffee growers, they appreciate the tremendous work inherent in cultivating coffee. These global connections will surely strengthen as more roasters visit distant coffee farming communities, and more coffee farmers make the journey to the US to share stories and information about their lives. Understanding coffee’s history, origins, and cultural significance helped me connect the two distant worlds of coffee production and coffee consumption. Small, artisan roasters cannot visit rural communities with any regularity, much like small coffee farmers cannot afford expensive visits to consumers in the US. I now know the importance of the farmer-roaster relationship to both parties and will foster more meaningful direct connections between these two worlds.

Further Readings:

-”The World of Caffeine: The Science and Culture of the World’s Most Popular Drug” by B. Weinberg and Bonnie K. Bealer

-”Coffee: A Dark History” by Antony Wild

-”Tastes of Paradise” by Wolfgang Schivelbusch


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