[In Our Time] Coffee


12/12/2019 by BBC Radio 4

Web player: https://podplayer.net/?id=89713717
Episode: http://open.live.bbc.co.uk/mediaselector/6/redir/version/2.0/mediaset/audio-nondrm-download/proto/http/vpid/p07xlvly.mp3

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the history and social impact of coffee. From its origins in Ethiopia, coffea arabica spread through the Ottoman Empire before reaching Western Europe where, in the 17th century, coffee houses were becoming established. There, caffeinated customers stayed awake for longer and were more animated, and this helped to spread ideas and influence culture. Coffee became a colonial product, grown by slaves or indentured labour, with coffea robusta replacing arabica where disease had struck, and was traded extensively by the Dutch and French empires; by the 19th century, Brazil had developed into a major coffee producer, meeting demand in the USA that had grown on the waggon trails.


Judith Hawley
Professor of 18th Century Literature at Royal Holloway, University of London

Markman Ellis
Professor of 18th Century Studies at Queen Mary University of London


Jonathan Morris
Professor in Modern History at the University of Hertfordshire

Producer: Simon Tillotson

Listen Date: 2020-02-11


  • While I was listening to this, I was thinking ‘Hey, this is repeating a lot of the stuff that I read in this book back in the day and refreshing my memory on that.’ Then I checked the episode page and realised that it’s because the panelist, Markman Ellis, was the guy who wrote the book. Well of course.
  • The episode has the lovely line ‘The dervishes whirled because of coffee.’
  • And also a bit about how the coffee house led to the birth of a newspaper – which would have news written up and then pinned to the wall of the coffee house – but which also called for tempered writing, so it also invented politeness. Which of course has a Discworld connect:
    • “Do you know where ‘policeman’ comes from, sir? … ‘Polis’ used to mean ‘city’, said Carrot. That’s what policeman means: ‘a man for the city’. Not many people knew that. The word ‘polite’ comes from ‘polis’, too. It used to mean the proper behaviour from someone living in a city.”

  • Though the lspace page warns that this is rubbish, and that ‘politeness’ comes from the Latin word for polishing. Still a lovely sentiment though; and ties up with the point made later on that coffee is a drink that can’t flourish outside the cities.
  • The biggest insight from this episode was that coffee houses were a weird mix of form and function. They started as meeting places for people who wanted to discuss work, and so didn’t want to get drunk; or at least be around drunks. Then they became open to the public for anybody to come in, drink coffee, and chat with strangers (the function of a city, again). And that made them tremendously useful, so much so that they reincorporated as private clubs so that that useful information wouldn’t leak out beyond the members. For example: Lloyds of London.
  • Another way to think about it is that the coffee house is the material form of the right to form associations.
  • I had read about this before, possibly in The Coffee House itself, but got reminded – Italy has a price cap (or differential taxation?) on coffee served to go / drunk at a bar versus what you sit down at a table for. This changed the coffee culture there to drinking a shot of espresso standing up and then moving on. So much so that Starbucks has trouble spreading in Italy both for price reasons and cultural reasons.
  • Obvious when you think of it but I didn’t until it was pointed out: coffee is a drink of the city because making it is so complex that there aren’t enough people in the countryside to do it at scale. It has to be roasted, ground, and then brewed; and a large population allows for division of labour, while if you have to do all that yourself, it’s simpler to just brew tea – especially and ironically if you’re a coffee plantation worker. But what about instant coffee?
  • And being an urban drink explains to some extent why Starbucks is much more prevalent in American Democratic states than Republican ones.
  • Also interesting in the episode, and completely new to me: the tragic story of Haitian coffee. Haiti used to be the largest coffee producer in the world, and slaves were working the coffee plantations. When the slaves had a revolution, they first destroyed the plantations in anger or in war. When they tried to set up the plantations themselves, the rest of the world refused to buy from a black republic.
  • Made me giggle: Judith Hawley talking about how Starbucks takeaway cups are infantilising drinks – mostly milk if they’re lattes, and with the protective cap, they look like sippy cups.


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