Planet earth gets through a lot of coffee. On a modern high street, few things are more pervasive than the cartoonish facade of a franchised coffee shop. The fourteenth century had the Black Death, we have Starbucks. You can run, but you can’t hide. Estimates put global daily consumption at a whopping 2.25 billion cups, giving weight to the argument that we are now all slaves to caffeine. But for all its contemporary ubiquity, the world was not always as coffee mad as it is today. Like many marriages, humanity’s relationship with coffee has taken time to properly brew. In a world where the coffee market is such a dominant force, we’ve delved into the drink’s past to get a grip on how we all became so hooked and whether there is any prospect of, or indeed point in, breaking our habit.
While today coffee is grown throughout the world, the plant actually originates in tropical East Africa. Though the invigorating effects of coffee have been known since the 9th century, it was not until much later that a process anywhere close to our modern techniques was used. Previously, people had either eaten the bright red, ripe coffee fruit raw, or made a wine-like drink from the fermented pulp. It took until the 13th century for some enterprising Arabians to roast the beans and create the first examples of what could be considered contemporary coffee.
Coffee remained exclusively available in Africa and Arabia for over 600 years, until the drink finally made its way to Europe in the 17th century. Arriving as a result of trade with the Ottoman Empire, it became wildly popular across the continent. This popularity meant that the ever empirically-minded European powers of the day exported the drink to all corners of the globe - hence why coffee is now grown everywhere from New Guinea to Nicaragua.
There were a number of reasons why coffee proved to be such a hit. For centuries, countless questionable health claims helped the industry to flourish and expand. The drink was said to sharpen the intellect as well as increase alertness. Famous patrons ensured that the drink gained legitimacy: the renowned French author and philosopher Voltaire, for instance, was said to drink between 40 and 50 cups a day. In addition to the stimulating effects of a caffeine-loaded cup, coffee became the number one alternative to alcohol in countries where booze was banned. In some circles, coffee was seen as a catalyst for intelligent political and critical discourse, where alcohol was the refuge of the intellectually inferior.
In addition to the exaggerated benefits, coffee consumption has been boosted by a unique collection of historical circumstances. There have been several specific events that have fuelled our obsession and helped spread the word around the world. For instance, despite being perhaps the greatest of all current coffee-drinking nations, America was largely indifferent until the late 18th century. It took the Boston Tea Party of 1773 to turn coffee drinking into a patriotic duty. Similarly, the presence of coffee as a staple of soldiers’ rations during the First and Second World Wars helped distribute the drink across every strata of society.
For all our history with the drink, however, nothing has done more to shape our current relationship than the advent of the franchise. Traditionally, coffee houses operated as individually-run businesses. Though incredibly popular, they were not the monolithic giants of global food and drink that they are today. Perhaps the most significant factor that limited a coffee business’ growth was speed. Until the 20th century, the average cup of coffee took about four minutes to properly brew. This necessitated a more leisurely approach to coffee drinking than an average modern consumer would be happy with.
As a result of the technological hurdle, the first truly successful businesses focused on selling pre-roasted beans, rather than profiting from the drink itself. This allowed people to bring coffee into their homes. Entrepreneurs such as the Arbuckle brothers enjoyed great success selling beans directly to the emerging cowboy and gold mining markets across America’s “Wild West”. This approach continued until relatively recently and even Starbucks started out exclusively selling beans for use in the home.
It was not until 1905 and the invention of the first ever espresso machine that things really began to gather steam. The “La Pavoni machine” reduced brewing time from four minutes to 20 seconds, meaning that coffee became a drink for the speedy as well as the stationary. Using these machines, coffee houses in Italy began offering an ever-expanding menu of readily available beverages to their customers.
As well as speed, it was this greater diversity that helped coffee franchises to thrive. The mechanisation of coffee brewing allowed businesses to experiment and innovate with a range of different products. When Starbucks did eventually decide to sell the drink as well as beans, it was the ability to cater to a range of tastes that allowed them to explode. The same is true for every coffee-based franchise around the world. While a frappuccino might be about as far removed from Arabia as it’s possible to get, it’s only through similar inventions that coffee has come to dominate the world.
While there is currently little real threat to coffee’s grip, there are a few factors that might affect the drink’s popularity in the future. Beyond the seemingly endless debate over the health benefits and drawbacks of a cup of Joe, there are more insidious psychological factors that may drive new customers away. While diversification has given rise to a host of tasty options, the drink is increasingly developing an elite status. No longer just a regular brew, many people are turning their noses up at anything other than hand-harvested beans from a particular Peruvian plantation, or any number of other unnecessarily criteria. It could be argued that the “hipsterfication” of coffee is turning it from an everyday person’s drink into something far more snobby, and ultimately unappealing.
That we hear so much complaining about the huge numbers of coffee shops invading the high street could be a sign of our relationship turning bitter. Despite the power that the industry wields and the continued popularity of the drink, there are signs that our attitudes are changing. Between irritating remarks from overly interested hipsters and scorn over various tax scandals and ethical considerations, we may just be getting fed up. It remains to be seen whether coffee can change as it has before or if the days of the giant franchise are numbered. In any case, it seems that, for many people, it’s annoyance with the industry rather than anything to do with the drink itself that could be what prompts a breakup. We might be hooked, but that doesn’t mean we can’t walk away.