From Georgian England to Italian Soho


Posted by in November's Magazine

Coffee’s origins can be traced back to 15th century Arabia, the Yemen to be precise. The concept of the coffee shop spread across the Near and Middle East – from Turkey to Syria. These were places where men (almost exclusively) could meet, chat, play board games and while away the time. The tradition continued into the 17th century when European coffeehouses became places where intelligent philosophising could be conducted.

George III’s heavy taxes on tea made coffee the favourite hot beverage in the United States while Dutch colonials in Sumatra started plantations and later began exporting the java bean. Ever since, the popularity of coffee has waxed and waned. By the middle of the 20th century Italian owned coffee bars in the UK, populated by teenagers, provided a cheap place to socialise over cups of ‘frothy coffee’.

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Then in 1971 a little indie coffee shop in Seattle started Starbuckising the world. Now there seems to be a coffee shop on every street corner. The good barista became a high street hero. And the Nespresso machine with its ‘grand cru’ pods brought the coffee bar experience into the domestic kitchen. Thus skinny lattes and flat whites have become part of the everyday lexicon.

In the last 10 years ‘artisanal’ coffee with its flavours and exotic paraphernalia has been co-opted into the realm of Generation Hipster. Making the bearded, extravagantly moustachioed, tattooed barista an absurdly reliable stereotype. A new book Coffee Style by Horst A Friedrichs (pictures) and Nora Manthey (words) takes a journey through what’s been termed ‘the global third wave of coffee’. 

Making the perfect cup of coffee has been deemed a craft. With new brewing techniques combined with vintage coffee machines and steam-punk glass brew cones it’s all a world away from Nescafe instant and the office Cona coffee machine, which dispensed hours old back liquorice. Different varietals of sustainable coffee bean are compared like vintage fine wine. Coffee roasteries now have as much cachet as famous vineyards (really). Café Ritual in San Francisco is famed for a coffee cocktail – the Cherry Bomb – consisting of cold-brew concentrate and tonic water topped with a maraschino cherry. Yes, it does sound disgusting.

From the Georgian coffee shop to the beatnik hangout, coffee has a chameleon like ability to reinvent itself with amazing regularity. America, it has been suggested, was colonised by cowboys high on caffeine, drunk strong and black. President Thomas Jefferson once stated that: “Coffee was the favourite drink of the civilised world.” A sentiment echoed in the famous T-shirt slogan of the time ‘No Coffee No Workee’.

For much of the 20th century being invited back after date ‘for a coffee’ was a sign that the night was going well. In his book on the swinging 60s Ready, Steady, Go, Shawn Levy writes: ‘In the early 1950s Soho had become the centre of a trend that would serve as an important catalyst to the lifestyle changes of the following decade – the vogue for Italian-style coffee bars. In 1953, Frith Street became home to the first Gaggia espresso machine imported into England, and the hot little cups of steamed coffee became, along with a taste for Italian food and fashion, a staple of au courant city life’.

Part of the attraction is that coffee’s got stuff in it that gives you a buzz. Scientific studies have long looked into the effects of caffeine in the system – the antioxidant effects are good for you but too much can cause headaches and even palpitations. There is also (oh the horror!) said to be a major coffee crisis looming. It’s been noted that coffee bean production in Latin America could slump by as much as 88% by 2050 due to climate change so drink up while you still can. ν

Info: Coffee Style:
Horst A. Friedrichs & Nora Manthey
(Prestel Publishing £24.99)

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