Coffee and Revolutions

Coffee has often played a part in revolutionary activity. It was the drink of choice for the great intellectual minds of the Enlightenment period. Coffee fueled the feverish discourse of 18th-century philosophers and thinkers who were bent on casting off tyranny and the burdens of old-world superstitions. Voltaire practically lived on caffeine, and Isaac Newton was known to haunt London’s coffee houses. The royal establishments of Europe looked askance as the great minds of the day started to question the authority of the old order, their cups brimming over with the thinkers drink, their minds sharpened, wide awake and poised for the promise of the future.

Europe during the late 16th century was awash in alcohol. Potable water was scarce, and most of the continent’s population was drunk, morning, noon, and night. The introduction of coffee helped to sober up the masses and in large part led to the birth of democracies and the fomentation of revolutionary activity. Coffee houses sprung up all over Europe. The Dutch and the English were the first to be carried away by the movement; by the early 18th century, there were nearly 2,000 such establishments in London alone. Each coffee house served as a gathering place for discourse and catered to a wide array of clientele that included writers, philosophers, physicians, and political minds.

In America, the thirteen colonies adopted coffee as their patriotic drink of choice over tea, which was heavily imported and imposed by Britain on America’s colonists. Coffee would remain America’s favorite drink, and the U.S. would become the world’s largest importer of coffee. In Paris, the cabaret was quickly replaced by the fashionable café, and coffee houses soon became the staging grounds for the French revolution. Imperialism contributed to the total diffusion of the coffee plant throughout the subtropical belt, but it was another revolution, the Industrial Revolution, that led to the rise of the factory system and enabled people from all walks of life to affordably acquire roasted coffee.

Revolutions have often started in coffee houses, and it is universally accepted that caffeine gets people talking and thinking. This is just one more thing to ponder the next time you grab a cup of coffee or order a shot of espresso at your local café. As you’re standing at the counter waiting to place your order, take a look over your shoulder at all those people, furiously tapping away on their laptops and smart phones. Perhaps they are unwittingly participating in the next revolution.

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