In 18th century London the place to go for information about stock market speculation, political gossip, news media and the latest books and plays was the coffee house. No doubt some contemporary PR-type person trumpeted that this was a new media channel which could transform communications like no other medium before and that, for a large fee, they would explain why it was important and how to use it.
But what was really new about it, of course, was the coffee and new ways of brewing and preparing it which made it rather less bitter than earlier forms. Indeed, coffee was one of those miraculous things the Old World got from the New along with potatoes, corn and possibly the pox (although there are strong indications that might be the other way round) while the Old World gave in return lots of diseases which killed many people along with a religion possibly even more violent and persecutory than the local ones.
By the end of the 18th century the British subjects in the bit of North America now known as the USA, but whose residents have pre-empted the name of the entire continent as short hand, were dumping tea in Boston Harbor and patriotically turning to coffee in an early milestone of US PR history. Today three quarters of US people drink coffee compared to a quarter drinking tea – almost the direct reverse of the proportions in the UK. In contrast in Australia – demonstrating a bit of each culture – the split is almost 50/50.
By the 20th century it was ubiquitous and the addictive caffeine was giving all sorts of people daily jolts. Indeed, Orson Welles, for instance, was so jolted that he was hospitalised during the filming of Chimes at Midnight from a caffeine overdose brought on by dozens of cups of expresso and the blog suffered sensory and choice overload when it first visited a Starbucks seeking respite from the hot Las Vegas sun.
But in the 21st century coffee is cool in entirely new ways which Ruth Brown’s new book Coffee Nerd explains. (Declaration of interest: Ms Brown is married to the blog’s son.) As the book’s blurb states: “When did coffee get so cool? Just a few years ago it was something that cost seventy-five cents a cup, existed primarily as a study aid, and came in two varieties – regular or black. Today, drinks cost upwards of $4, take three times as long to make, and are half as big. Coffee Nerd is a funny, practical guide to taking coffee too seriously. Learn how to navigate a hipster coffee bar without feeling like an idiot, find obscure Japanese brewing equipment to increase your geek cred, and finally discover what the hell a single-origin micro-lot Huehuetenango washed Pacamara is.”
You can find the book at http://coffeenerdbook.com/ Ms Brown is arts and entertainment editor at The Brooklyn Paper; was an editor and reporter at Willamette Week in Portland Oregon (see the TV show Portlandia if the significance of that to coffee is unfamiliar); and, was website editor at crikey in Australia. (..and one further declaration of interest: the blog is a tea drinker.)