One more cup of coffee

September 25, 2022

In the addictive, historical, non-fiction book, The Coffee-House: A Cultural History, we learn about the rise of coffee over centuries.

The Coffee-House: A Cultural History by Markman Ellis is scholarly and as addictive as its subject matter.
The Coffee-House: A Cultural History by Markman Ellis is scholarly and as addictive as its subject matter.

The year was 1453.


he city of Istanbul, with its rich history, became recognized as the most powerful city in the world and the capital of Europe. It was also renamed Istanbul.

Before Istanbul and the Turkish war, it also went by other names including Byzantium, Constantinople, and Nova Roma.

“One more cup of coffee for the road,

One more cup of coffee
before I go

To the valley below.”

– ‘One more cup of coffee’ by Bob Dylan

For urban Pakistanis, the cultural history of coffee is an engaging idea because of our own consumption of coffee, whether we drink it at a swanky coffee house or buy a cup from a kiosk. Only our penchant for tea is stronger.

However, it is not only a bitter, gritty drink. It is much more - as it has been in the past.

Back then, somewhere in the sixteenth century, things were different, even for the most powerful empire. Instead of other drinks, the “mysterious” drink was considered supreme. Known as ‘Coffa’, it was the choice of the Turks, who found the taste bitter and appealing even then. Others found ‘coffa’ as an “insipid drink”.

Before arriving at the name coffee, it was also referred to as ‘koffwey’, in addition to ‘coffa’.

Writing to one Sir Anthony Sherley in Persia, one gentleman noted, “They have a certain kind of drink, which they call Koffwey, it is made of an Indian seed; they drinke [drink] it extremely hot; it is nothing toothsome, nor hath any good smell, but it is very wholesome.”

As William Biddulph suggested in 1609, drinking coffee was a social norm.

“This time, smell the coffee, the coffee.”

– ‘Wake Up and smell the coffee’ by The Cranberries

In Pakistan, coffee-houses seem to emerge more frequently than book stores. Most food joints offer the drink too.

Like the Turkish love affair with coffee, in present Pakistan, going out for coffee is the anecdote to being able to do little else, particularly as the security situation is almost always tense. The modern consumption of coffee at a cafe is not something new. It is reflective of another time where people didn’t go to a coffee house to simply buy a cup of coffee.

Samuel Johnson, quoted in the book, picked up on this trend centuries ago. To him, a coffee house was more than a place to buy or sell coffee.

Said Johnson about a coffee house, “A house of entertainment where coffee is sold, and the guests are supplied with newspapers.”

The book notes ahead: “More than a place that sells coffee, Johnson suggests a coffee-house is also an idea, a way of life, a mode of socializing, a philosophy.”

“My nerves have gone to pieces,

My hair is turning gray

All I do is drink black

– ‘Black Coffee’ by Ella Fitzgerald

Coffee is the most consumed drug (because of its addictive properties) in the world, surpassing both alcohol and nicotine. And its trade on the international front is only surpassed by oil.

Coffee found a space in Europe at first. While coffee houses were common to the Ottoman Empire, the first modern European coffee house opened in London in early 1605.

Decades later, it is so ubiquitous that different coffee houses have sprung and thrived, and some have even shut down because if the coffee isn’t good, everything else falls to the wayside.

Scientific research in coffee has been going on for decades, but early travellers, traders, considered the Turkish coffee as the most superior even as the interest in the drink had moved beyond.

A coffee house in London during the 17th century. Image by Getty Images
A coffee house in London during the 17th century. Image by Getty Images

In fact, research in the properties of coffee, paradoxically enough, is similar to scientific facts presented now.

The most important research, notes The Coffee-House: A Cultural History, or the one that is still considered relevant emerged in the eighteenth century. Certain scientific research in coffee’s psychoactive properties is still the same: how it helps in wakefulness but also affects sleeping patterns.

Not surprisingly, consumers drank coffee, “even when they couldn’t account for its efficacy”.

As the interest in coffee became more and more popular, papers on its therapeutic powers were also released.

The Coffee-House: A Cultural History by Markman Ellis, is aware that coffee is a major part of the urban lifestyle. Like an odyssey, it takes readers and/or coffee enthusiasts to the time when it was first discovered and how its popularity grew, not over decades, but centuries.

This intriguing portrait of coffee may be historical/non-fiction but it is very well-researched and while almost scholarly, it doesn’t read like a dry and only-factual manual. Like the subject in question - coffee - this one will push you to read each and every chapter and not put it down until you finish this historic learning.

One more cup of coffee