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Coffee and Enlightenment

Updated: Apr 6

In his TED Talk, science writer Steven Johnson attributes the rise of the Enlightenment to the arrival of caffeine in Europe. The idea was, of course, that rather than drinking beverages that slow you down and dull the senses all day, people switched to drinking beverages that were stimulants, and they became both more productive and marginally smarter. The rise of coffee and tea was also accompanied by the rise of coffee houses, which were places for people to exchange ideas (this, of course, also happens at the pub, but we all know that ideas from the pub never sound quite as good the next day and that plans made after several drinks tend to fall through).

Before caffeine it was a different world, especially in Western cultures, it was a different level of consciousness. People were drunk or buzzed a lot because wine was safer than water. Water was contaminated with viruses and diseases. 

There’s a lot of evidence to back this up – coffee and tea both require the heating or boiling of water before they can be served, which means that they would kill the same pathogens as alcoholic beverages would. The Enlightenment started around 1685, which was the exact time that both tea and coffee were introduced to the European upper classes. 

Supposedly it was discovered in the 9th century by a herd when they noticed that their goats ate a specific kind of berry and would stay up all night. So he started experimenting and made a drink out of it.

Coffee was originally grown in what is now Ethiopia, on the edge of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans, being Muslim, were not drinkers of alcohol, so coffee became one of the Empire’s most popular drinks. During the Middle Ages, the Ottomans were far more advanced than their European neighbors, and this may have had something to do with the fact that the Europeans were three sheets to the wind, while the Ottomans were energized and firing on all cylinders.

One theory is Arab world had coffee first and had a tremendous golden age after it. A historian of psychoactive Wolfgang Schivelbusch in his book “Taste of Paradise” says that coffee was a perfect drug for a culture that invented mathematics. So basically boiling water for tea or coffee made it safer and boosted public health. And basically, this drug caffeine fosters a more linear and rational-focused way of thinking. So there is a lot of evidence linking coffee and tea consumption with enlightenment in France, the Age of Reason in England, and so on. People started writing about it in the 1600s & it was very popular. People drank more caffeine and less alcohol.

On a final note, I want to give you a brief history of the term “coffee break” to sum it all up.

There are two places in time that we can point to that laid the groundwork for us coffee lovers for starters.  The first was in 1902 in Buffalo New York.  A company by the name of Barcolo Manufacturing, started offering two coffee breaks a day for their employees as a special benefit.  The idea was that if you gave workers a chance to relax over a cup of joe for a few minutes they would in turn be more productive.  Not to mention the caffeine boost was a great benefit.

The second instance took place in Denver Colorado in the 1940s.  Wigwam Weavers made neckties and thanks to the outbreak of WWII the company lost their best young workers.  To combat the issue Wigwam hired older men who were not drafted to do the job.  It did not work as well as they had hoped. So, they ended up hiring older women who could do a good job making the ties. However, at a certain point in the day, the production rate slowed a bit.  What to do here?

Well, the women suggested giving them two points in the day when they could take a break to enjoy a cup of coffee or tea.  Once Wigwam allowed this to happen productivity went up. Pretty fast too. It only took a couple of 10-minute breaks and some caffeine to get the ball rolling.


Pura Vida



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