By the end of the 15th century references to coffee could be found in European literature. For example in Alpin’s Book of Egyptian plants (1592) there is reference to the use of berries to make “drinke”. The Dutch physician Paludanas also made reference to the beans in his Itinero (1596). The capital of the Ottoman Empire was Constantinople, at this time. In Constantinople Coffee, spelled “Coffa” was the most famous drink of the city. It was said to be “black as soote and not tasting much unlike it.” In 1652 the first coffee house opened in London. After only ten years it was estimated that there were over 100 coffee shops in London as well as shops opening in Oxford and Cambridge, as well. By the beginning of the 18th century it was estimated that there were over 1000 shops in England. In the 17th century beer was the drink of choice amongst most Europeans, an obvious effect of consuming beer in the morning was lethargy and drowsiness. Contrasted with this new drink, coffee, which according to Tristan Stephenson “stimulated the mind, provoked discussion, ritualized debate, and encouraged rational enquiry on all manner of topics between like-minded people.” An anonymous English poem from 1674 put it this way:
The 17th and 18th centuries in England were highly political times and coffee shops were the epicenter of political discourses. Charles the II placed spies in London coffee shops and even attempted to have them banned. Fortunately, the law was never passed due to steep opposition from both coffee house owners and legislators.
Coffee shops in England were so intertwined with the intellectual elite that they became known as “penny universities” Some houses even had specialties in academic fields or businesses. Notable people such as Christopher Wren, Robert Hooke, and James Hodgson did much of their work in these shops while they drank their coffee and interacted with other patrons. Some speculate that Isaac Newton’s most notable work, Principia was thought out and written in a local Cambridge coffee house, and it is almost certain that Adam Smith wrote his most important contribution to economics and finance, Wealth of Nations while inhabiting London Coffee shops. Not only did coffee shops of the time serve as a hub for intellectuals to drink and think, but they also were used as a networking locale as well. For example, many stock traders would meet up to here the news of the day’s speculations. Runners and curriers could assemble at a shop and then disperse all throughout the city to relay the information to brokers and shareholders. One such example was Jonathan’s coffee shop, which became famous after the King began to highly regulate the Royal Exchange. 100 years later, a group of traders established a new coffee shop called New Jonathan’s. That name was short lived and quickly changed to the Stock Exchange, now known as the London Stock Exchange. That’s right, the London Stock Exchange started out as a coffee shop! Several publications such as The Spectator, The Guardian, and Tatler were either directly birthed from, or heavily inspired by the coffee shops in their areas. Information that had previously been reserved for the oligarchy was now able to be widely disseminated among the populace via the coffee shop, so it makes sense that many publications would get their start there as well.
Today coffee shops focus on providing excellent coffee within a hospitable atmosphere. During the early years of coffee consumption drinking coffee was considered to be medicinal rather than enjoyable. The drink was not especially palatable initially, but over the years roasters and brewers began to experiment with different ways to reduce the acidity of the drink and to make a smoother and more enjoyable cup. The Tools of the Trade page discusses some of these techniques and innovations over the years. Even though Europe has had a rich tradition of enjoying coffee in a public shop for centuries the concept is much newer to the United States. Americans did not develop a massive obsession with Coffee until soldiers began drinking coffee in WW1. Even with a new interest in coffee shops it wasn’t until the mid-20th century that coffee shops gained a following in the US. This movement was due in large part to the ambition of Starbucks. Starbucks was very instrumental in bringing sit down coffee shops in to the main stream. Starbucks realized that even more important than selling coffee was creating an atmosphere. The public response to these shops was overwhelmingly positive. Thanks to Starbucks there has been a renewed interest in creating shops that create artisanal drinks while providing a culture where people can meet to discuss book in book clubs, study together, and meet for good conversation. This pairing of coffee with a sit down, warm atmosphere allows for artists to have a place to perform or display their work to patrons who don’t mind. Events like poetry nights, live music and lectures from subject matter experts are not uncommon experiences for patrons of a local coffee shop to experience.