"One of the ironies about coffee is it makes people think. It sort of creates egalitarian places — coffee houses where people can come together” — Mark Pendergrast, Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How it Transformed our World.
It’s a special drink in a myriad of ways. The five years of laborious love to grow coffee is impressive. As a commodity, the fact that coffee is only second to oil as the most traded natural resource globally is wild. In moderation, coffee is great for mental stimulation and for your metabolism.
All these interesting factoids are great, but there is another layer. More mystical is the legend of coffee and its deep history in stimulating and sustaining influential social movements that changed the world.
The list is long and we could go on for days talking about the sociocultural power behind a cup of coffee. So lets look at five social and political movements throughout history that were fueled by the world’s most influential beverage.
The Ottoman Empire
Liquor and bars were frowned upon by most practicing Muslims, so coffee houses quickly became a gathering spot for a wide range of people across all classes. Coffee was cheap so most could afford it, making it a unifying force. Soon coffee and coffeehouses were banned as they became the facilitators for social, political, and economic discourse that eventually spread to Europe and challenged the ruling classes between the 16th and 18th centuries.
King Charles II Takes on the London Coffee House
His father, Charles I, was a victim of the English Civil War, and the end of his tyrannical rule was devised and organized throughout the coffeehouses of London. Charles II feared he would have a similar fate and tried to ban coffee houses all together. 11 days later, Londoners voiced their discontent, the ban was lifted, and coffee continued to unite society across the class.
Penny Universities and the Enlightenment
As the Enlightenment arrived and coffee houses were now the center of intellectual discussion for social, political, and economic matters, the term “Penny University” arose. The idea was that for the cost of a cup of coffee (one cent at the time), you could have access to the same type of high-minded content you’d pay for in university. It was during this period and in these coffee houses that thinkers like Locke, Voltaire, and Rousseau began to pen the ideas of liberty, tolerance, and constitutional government.
The American Revolution
One unexpected impact of The Boston Tea Party was how it pushed coffee to prominence for American revolutionaries. Tea was in short supply after colonists dumped roughly 400 chests of tea into Griffin’s Wharf in Boston and relations with Great Britain soured. So, what would be the new fuel of the revolution? That’s right, coffee. Drinking tea was quickly seen as supporting the King, and coffee assumed its role in the American Revolution, stimulating many meetings for the Sons of Liberty leading up to the war.
Egypt and the Arab Spring
A country embroiled in corruption and domineering political and military regimes, Egypt was one of the more closely watched countries in 2010 when the Arab world began challenging its social and political order. As the revolution unfolded, at a famous coffee house, Café Riche in Cairo, prominent intellectuals and activists gathered to observe and make meaning of the change happening in front of their eyes. Coffee, and its figurative house of worship, again became a centerpiece to a society trying to change for the better.
If there is one constant throughout history, it’s change. Trends come and go, laws are passed and stricken down, leaders rise and fall, yet this one constant remains - and by its side throughout many of history’s finest and most influential moments was of course, coffee.
For additional reading on coffee and social movements, check out some of great resources