The Origins of Caffe Culture

The origins of coffee culture

So what is caffe culture and how did it start –

Well it’s a long story but it’s nothing new and has been in existence for over 300 years. True ! It’s seen a revival, and lets give credit to where it is due – Starbucks ! Whilst it is true to say that in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s Italian Americans principally began to crave the espresso of back home, this coincided with the birth of Starbucks in the mid-1980’s following the pioneer of Starbucks’ caffe culture, Harold Schultz. On his first visit to Milan, he returned to Seattle “re-born” and enthusiastic about trying to promote Italian dark roasted coffee in a shop environment to Americans.

However, caffe culture has been in existence since people gathered in a place to drink coffee. In Turkey, it began with a men’s only arena, where people met to relax, drink coffee and talk about society.

In London, cafes were typified by professions, with lawyers frequent visitors to cafe’s near the Inns and Courts, doctors near hospitals, etc. In fact it was in a coffee shop frequented by merchants and ship owners that led to the creation of the most famous insurance company, Lloyds of London. People spent so much time in London Cafes that they used to have their letters delivered to the cafe, even using the cafe as their official post box. They were also known as “penny universities”, why ? because a cup of coffee used to cost a penny and for drinking coffee for a penny, you could easily gather a huge amount of information about any particular subject, provided you were in the right “subject area” coffee house so to speak. Coffee was the first official social drink of London with over 500 established by the year 1700.

(in fact, it’s only when cafes started charging over a penny for coffee did people move to coach houses, where alcohol was served and that is what began the “pub revolution, but now caffe culture is coming back with a vengeance in London – see my posts on 2011 London Coffee )

In any case, due to their popularity back then, it was no surprise that Government’s disliked caffe culture and often sent spies to cafes to find out about trouble makers. This was confirmed by the French Revolution, which actually began in a famous Parisian café, where the instigator climbed on to a coffee table and urged his fellow coffee drinkers to express their dissatisfaction with the monarchy by taking up arms – things got out of hand literally and vive la difference ! The Bastille fell in 2 days after that.

As their popularity grew, cafes began to be visited by more and more people than those that visited the traditional wine and beer taverns.

Cafes however were not idle in trying to entice people to not only come to their cafes but to stay there for as long as possible and thought about very innovative ways to keep their customers by offering theatrical plays, lectures, business journals, books, daily newspapers, live poetry and in the end even alcohol – something that remains to this day in most European Cafes, although less common in the UK and America.

So caffe culture was and is still about the experience of drinking coffee outside your home in a nice setting – it is about being in a different reality, drinking coffee, tea, juices, smoothies and eating cakes, muffins and sandwiches – in a cosy and peaceful environment unlike bars and pubs. What made it popular before is what makes it popular now, caffe culture is transcending across time – it is vibrant, exciting, stimulating – it is culture – an atmosphere that makes you think – when was the last time you saw someone sleeping in a cafe!

In summary, what we have now in the 21st Century is a repeat of what existed before but, of course on a grander scale with the expansion of “modern” coffee shops across the major cities of the World in America, Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Southern Africa, with Starbucks close to having more coffee shops than McDonalds outlets (can you imagine, more people drink coffee than eat burgers). In fact Starbucks have more or less copied what existed before by creating that other place from home, which is what coffee houses were 300 years ago.

Cafes are also promoted as a healthier environment to socialize despite the abundance of cakes and muffins but, generally they are less smoky and rowdy than alcoholic drinking establishments. For news and information sharing, we still go to the cafes but we use the internet on our laptops, however, we seem to be losing out on one major thing from the past – a place for great conversation, learning and socializing, as sometimes we visit cafes to surf the web and gather our thoughts – a place for the escapist, but let’s escape with friends and enjoy the journey of the caffe culture together.


2 responses to “The Origins of Caffe Culture

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