A Brief Look at the History of Coffee and Business
You are likely well aware of the foundational role that coffee plays in your own personal ability to get down to business every day, but what you might not know about is how influential coffee was on modern day capitalism.
The coffee bean, which is in fact the seed of the fruit of the Coffea plant, originated in Ethiopia. The caffeinated beverage began to be consumed throughout the Islamic world. But with its introduction to Northern Europe, the humble brown bean actually changed some fundamental ways people lived their lives and did business, with impacts that are still reflected in how we do business in the contemporary world!
By the late 1400's European traders to Turkey had become familiar with coffee, but it didn't gain a major foothold in Europe until the 1600's. At first it was valued primarily for its medicinal properties, but in 1652 London's first public coffee house opened. Prior to that the primary place for gathering were the public houses, which centered around serving ale and beer. The stimulant effects of caffeine provided a sharp contrast to the intoxicating effects of alcohol.
By the first half of the next century there were as many as 550 separate coffee houses in London. The British couldn't get enough of the brown stuff. In Oxford, what became known as the "penny universities" took off, where men would have to pay a penny for admission, which would include a cup of coffee as well as access to the printed newspapers as well as the lessons and lectures delivered within the coffee house by the same dons and masters who also wandered the halls of academia. Meanwhile, reporters, called runners, would run between coffee houses, delivering the latest news (not to mention gossip).
Coffee houses were a place where people could gather and share ideas. In addition to coffee, chocolate and tea were also served. There was definitely a pattern of caffeine consumption. And there was a lack of intoxicants. But it wasn't just the lack of booze which changed things. It provided a place for the emerging merchant class to gather and do business. Prior to this England had very stratified social classes, but during the Age of Enlightenment a prospering middle class began to coalesce. Distinct from landed gentry and titled royals, but also different from the laboring poor, this group was varied in its own right and had new worlds of opportunity with new trade routes and the exploration of the Americas.
Coffee houses became the central hubs from which the merchant class emerged and rose, eventually leading to the great merchant houses that had so much influence and control throughout the 19th century. And it was the merchant class which led to a system in which we value free market capitalism. Think of that the next time you're about to grind up one of those little brown beans.