Coffee shops are about much more than the product they serve

From the ‘koffwey rooms’ of 16th century Constantinople, to the high street chains of today, coffee shops have always been about so much more than simply drinking coffee, explains Robert Hume

Coffee shops are about much more than the product they serve

Decaff flat white soy milk mochaccino, with caramel drizzle, marshmallows and chocolate sprinkles, please. Wafer? Why not.

A drink for teetotallers

For the Turks, drinking koffwey was a social activity. It was sipped, scalding hot, from dainty porcelain cups, while relaxing in rooms adorned with comfortable sofas, table lamps and plush carpets.

Music, chess, and backgammon were offered for entertainment, as was the company of “pretty boys”.

Nicknamed the “wine of Islam”, because their religion forbade alcohol, this black-as-ink concoction “intoxicated the brain”, helped conversation flow, and “driveth away drowsiness”.

Foreigners, however, found the liquor strong and bitter. English poet, George Sandys, complained that it looked —and tasted — like stewed prunes, burnt peas, and soot.

Loathsome potions and fake news

A 17th century London coffee house.
A 17th century London coffee house.

By the mid 17th century, coffee had arrived in Europe. Oxford, London and Vienna reverberated with the babble of coffee house conversation and laughter, the rattle of kettles, and the banging of ladles.

Diarist Samuel Pepys records two or three visits a week to a London coffee house in the 1660s. He enjoyed lectures and debates, and the companionship of men from all walks of life, from servants to aristocrats and, unlike in a tavern, all were sober. Coffee had trickled down to the masses.

Scientist, Robert Hooke, mentions visiting 64 London coffee houses between 1672 and 1680, up to three a day, even when he was ill. Hooke discussed philosophy, and showed off his scientific instruments.

Coffee houses were notorious for disseminating scandal, and “speaking vily of one’s superiors”.

In Paris, they provided a meeting place during the Enlightenment for the philosophers Voltaire, Rousseau and Diderot. Discussions sometimes got heated. One contemporary engraving depicts a man throwing a dish of hot coffee in another one’s face. Itching to know the latest news, customers could read about fires and murders in the newspapers provided, while they smoked pipes. Many stayed the whole day, especially in winter, and who could blame them? They only paid a penny for admission and a coffee, and were not obliged to buy another. Soon, they earned the nickname “penny universities”.

However, the coffee, served unfiltered with milk, had not improved. One satirist described it as “a loathsome potion… Syrrop of Soot, or Essence of old Shooes”. Many customers preferred hot chocolate. One coffee house in Dublin was even called The Cocoa Tree.

Cafe au lady

a dish of coffee is thrown in a man’s face in a coffee house in Paris.
a dish of coffee is thrown in a man’s face in a coffee house in Paris.

Traditionally, no woman would be seen dead in a coffee house, unless she was the owner, served the brew, or was a prostitute. Married women complained about them, and argued in a petition of 1674 that coffee made their husbands impotent.

The English spa resort of Bath established a “ladies only” coffee house next to the Pump Room in the late 18th century. According to Irish novelist, Oliver Goldsmith, ladies could subscribe a small sum for “the advantage of reading the news, and for enjoying each other’s conversation”. But not “ladies of younger years”, because discussion included politics and philosophy, subjects “above their capacity”.

“Ladies only” coffee houses soon spread to London and Dublin.

Irish coffee

The first coffee house in Ireland was the Cock Coffee House, in Cook Street, Dublin, built in King Charles II’s reign.

Dubliners could choose between an incredible 24 establishments by Georgian times, including Lucas’s Coffee House on Cork Hill (frequented by young men, and famous for duels); and Dick’s Coffee House in Skinner’s Row, a favourite with lawyers and literary men, as it was situated over a bookseller’s.

By 1700 Cork, Limerick, Kilkenny, Clonmel, Wexford, and Galway could all boast busy coffee houses.

Things go flat…

Alchemy Coffee and Books, Barrack Street, Cork. In 1854, a correspondent for the Cork Examiner described coffee in Ireland as ‘a sloppy, straw-coloured drink’. Below: Women petitioned against coffee in 1674. Picture: Larry Cummins
Alchemy Coffee and Books, Barrack Street, Cork. In 1854, a correspondent for the Cork Examiner described coffee in Ireland as ‘a sloppy, straw-coloured drink’. Below: Women petitioned against coffee in 1674. Picture: Larry Cummins

By the end of the 19th century, the term “coffee house” had become a misnomer. “You will have brought you something in a cup purporting to be coffee… but coffee it certainly is not”, wrote journalist Jack London in 1902. It was more like “water-witcheries”.

In 1854, a correspondent for the Cork Examiner described coffee in Ireland as “a sloppy, straw-coloured drink”.

Coffee houses had become “greasy spoons”, where tablecloths and napkins were unknown, and the previous customer’s mess was strewn on the floor. Some doubled up as houses of ill-fame, and advertised beds by the hour. Although coffee houses continued to flourish in Paris, Venice, and Vienna, they lost their appeal in England and Ireland, where cheap tea came to displace coffee as a staple beverage, one that could easily be brewed at home.

…but perk up again

Gaggia coffee machines arrived in the slick, space-age, espresso bars of London’s Soho during the 1950s.

Rubber plants, plastic stools, and unbreakable transparent cups and saucers replaced the table lamps, sofas and tiny porcelain cups of Constantinople’s koffwey rooms.

But the “angry young men” of the day were just as full of critical ideas. Since the 1990s, coffee shop chains have brought espressos and frothy cappuccinos to every high street. In 1996 the Irish Examiner marvelled at “the growing number of Continental style coffee houses”. It doesn’t seem to matter that only one roast is usually on offer: for we appear to be equally interested in the milks (soy, skinny and latte), or the high-calorie syrups. Newspapers are still available. In Cork’s Alchemy, walls are full of books to read.

Most shops provide wifi, much as Francis Dickenson’s coffee house in early 18th-century Dublin provided international dailies. Today, we have just as big a thirst for news as we do for coffee.

Eco-friendly coffee pods

No need for a trip out to the coffee shop when the weather is not too good.

Invite your friends back home for a cup from that new Nespresso machine. Perfect every time. Well, provided the pods can be recycled, that is. Coffee pods have seen colossal growth recently. But they have the potential to create a lot of waste. Filter coffee produces no waste at all, assuming you drink all that you make. And the internet is full of ways to reuse coffee grounds, from homemade fertiliser to drain cleaner. With instant coffee, again no waste, as long as you only boil as much water as you need. But a one-cup machine. Yikes! What are you going to do with all those pods?

The Nespresso ones are made of aluminium because that’s supposed to be the best way of protecting the coffee flavour. Nestlé says it is working to limit the impact of its pods by promoting recycling.

In Ireland its coffee pods can be recycled in three different ways:

  • 1. Used pods can be dropped off at your nearest Nespresso pick-up point — one of their recycling bags can hold about 200 pods.
  • 2. They can be taken to a Nespresso boutique for recycling.
  • 3. Nespresso can arrange to collect them by courier from your home.

The Irish Examiner asked how many pods are actually being recycled. Well, Nestlé does not say.

But certainly more than those of its biggest rival, Keurig, whose mixed plastic pods are impossible to recycle. Keurig says it will come up with a recyclable pod, but this could be three years away. Until then, the Rogers Family offers an excellent solution. Their OneCup Bio pods are biodegradable. You can put them on the compost heap.

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