Stamp issued in Brazil, 1938, celebrating the country’s position at the world’s largest coffee producer. It depicts a branch of a coffee tree with ripe red coffee fruit in the foreground, a sack spilling green (processed) coffee in the background, and of course the “Cafe do Brasil” on another sack. Ironically, perhaps, at the moment this stamp was issued Brazilian coffee production was a problem. It was producing more coffee than the world markets could absorb, and so in the 1930s the country began burning surplus production in order to keep prices up.
While most of my work is on the history of coffee cultivation, I’m finding that this is inevitably drawing me into questions of coffee consumption. Two issues that keeps coming up are taste and quality. While a lot of current writing on coffee (especially specialty coffee) treats taste and quality as if they are essentially innate, almost physiological properties, a look to the past suggests that they are much more complicated than that.
Let’s look back to the moment when Europeans first encountered coffee. What interested them about it? What, if anything, did they have to say about coffee’s taste? Given our contemporary obsession with taste and quality, we might assume that early Europeans would do the same. We would be wrong.
One typical seventeenth-century description of coffee, a coffee ad from 1652 has recently been circulating on the blogosphere. This is one of the earliest print ads for coffee in the English language. The text reads:
It supresseth Fumes exceedingly, and therefore good against the Head-ach, and will very much stop any Defluxion of Rheumas, that distil from the Head upon the Stomach, and so prevent and help Consumptions and the Cough of the Lungs.
It is excellent to prevent and cure the Dropsy, Gout, and Scurvy.
It is known by experience to be better then any other Drying Drink for People in years, or Children that have any running humors upon them, as the Kings Evil. &c.
It is very good to prevent Mis-carryings in Child-bearing Women.
It is a most excellent Remedy against the Spleen, Hypocondriack Winds, or the like.
It will prevent Drowsiness, and make one fit for Busines, if one have occasion to Watch, and therefore you are not to drink of it after Supper, unless you intend to be watchful, for it will hinder sleep for 3 or 4 hours.
This document is at least as interesting for what it does not say as for what it does say. Like many early documents on coffee, speaks extensively about coffee’s medicinal properties, and says nothing about its taste. It reads more like a modern ad for Red Bull than it does for Starbucks or Peets.
Other seventeenth-century writings on coffee also have little to say about taste. Sylvestre Dufour’s The Manner of Making Coffee, Tea, and Chocolate, (1685) which has an extensive overview of coffee, makes just two brief mentions of taste, quoting other travellers:
For the taste, in drinking thereof once or twice, one may easily accustom oneself to it, and it will no longer seem unpleasant; there be some that mix therewith Cloves and a few grains of Cardamome… others put thereto sugar, but this mixture which makes it more pleasant renders it less wholesome and profitable…
In short, coffee tastes unpleasant, but you can get used to it if you drink it often and if you mix it with other things. Another of the travellers Dufour quoted concurred:
Though this liquor (coffee) has not an agreeable taste, but rather bitter, yet it is much esteemed of by those people for the good effects they find therein.
Again, it doesn’t taste good, but it makes you feel good.
Another 1674, the classic Women’s Petition Against Coffee had much to say about coffee and sex, but little to say about taste. What it did say was not complimentary, describing coffee as “base, black, thick, nasty, bitter, stinking nauseous Puddle-Watter.” This satirical political pamphlet is a political tract rather than a dispassionate food critique, but even so the pamphleteers referred to coffee as “bitter,” echoing the traveller’s opinions quoted by Dufour.
Taste, it would seem, ranked fairly low on the list of reasons Europeans became addicted to coffee. In fact, if these and other documents are to be believed, they seem to have become addicted to coffee almost in spite of its taste. They were more attracted by coffee’s many purported health benefits – medical, sexual, and otherwise. They were also attracted by the social space offered by the coffeehouse – a new institution imported along with the drink. Over the coming years and decades, Europeans did – both individually and collectively – develop a taste for coffee. But this taste was learned, not innate.