How coffee changed the course of civilization

Matt Hershberger

// By


Imagine for a minute that you live in a 17th century European city. Life isn't too terrible – mass industrialization and urbanization haven't quite started yet, so the population of the city is still relatively small, and the air is still pretty clean. There are only 400,000 people living in Paris, about the same in London. So these centers of the world are basically the size of modern-day Tulsa. You know your neighbors, and you bump into people you know all the time.


Sure, there's still an occasional outbreak of the plague; sure, a fire occasionally burns half the town down; and sure, people still die of things like diarrhea. But you aren't breathing smoke, and everything's pretty quiet all the time, church bells and clopping of horse hooves aside. It's a shorter life, but in many ways it's a more tranquil life.

There's one big problem, though – the water you drink is basically poison. You share a well with hundreds of other people, and things like pollution, germs, and drainage haven't really been figured out yet, so the water has some gross stuff in it. If you drink it straight, it'll make you sick.

So instead, you drink fermented beverages. You're still generations away from the discovery that alcohol kills germs, but you do know that for some reason beer doesn't make you sick, so you drink it all the time. As does everyone else. Pretty much everyone in the city – men and women, young and old, rich and poor, are at least mildly tipsy 100% of the time. But the world is about to change. You're about to discover coffee.

The Enlightenment and caffeine

In his TED Talk, science writer Steven Johnson attributes the rise of the Enlightenment to the arrival of caffeine in Europe. The idea being, of course, that rather than drinking beverages that slow you down and dull the senses all day, people switched to drinking beverages that were stimulants, and they became both more productive and marginally smarter. The rise of coffee and tea was also accompanied with the rise of coffee houses, which were places for people to exchange ideas (this, of course, also happens at the pub, but we all know that ideas from the pub never sound quite as good the next day, and that plans made after several drinks tend to fall through).


There's a lot of evidence to back this up – coffee and tea both require the heating or boiling of water before they can be served, which would mean that they would kill the same pathogens as alcoholic beverages would. The Enlightenment started around 1685, which was the exact time that both tea and coffee were introduced to the European upper classes.

Coffee was originally grown in what is now Ethiopia, on the edge of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans, being Muslim, were not drinkers of alcohol, so coffee became one of the Empire's most popular drinks. During the Middle Ages, the Ottomans were far more advanced than their European neighbors, and this may have had something to do with the fact that the Europeans were three sheets to the wind, while the Ottomans were energized and firing on all cylinders.

Trade espionage, civil unrest, and mass violence in the name of a pick-me-up

Perhaps recognizing their advantage, the Arab world tried to ban the export of coffee, but Dutch traders smuggled live coffee plants out of Africa and the Middle East, and started growing them in Java, which had both the climate they needed and the benefit of being a Dutch territory. From there, they shipped coffee back to Europe, and it exploded in popularity.

Tea's story was similar – because the British badly wanted tea, and because tea was in China and was expensive, they leveraged their trading position by selling Indian-grown opium to the Chinese. The Chinese were naturally upset at the rise of opium addiction, and banned the drug, leading to the Opium Wars. The outcome (other than thousands of deaths) was that China was forced to trade tea with the west.

The most famous incident in America regarding tea, obviously, is the Boston Tea Party. American coffee drinkers can thank the Founding Fathers for the fact that they drink more coffee than tea – during the revolution, many Americans (including John Adams) switched from tea to coffee, as the former was seen as unpatriotic.

The effect of all of this espionage and violence was that a continent stopped being drunk and started being energized. The Enlightenment kicked off in the West, and with that, nearly everything about being a human changed: we no longer die of diarrhea, for example, and our cities have grown huge and bright and loud and chaotic to an extent that 17th century you would never have been able to comprehend. In the little shops that sold coffee, then a magical, world-changing liquid, revolutions were planned, artistic movements were launched, and innovations were conceived. Not bad for a pick-me-up.


Matt Hershberger

About Matt Hershberger

Read more about Matt Hershberger here.


incrementing counter