Do you know what ‘Wine of Apollo’ is? At one point of time in history, this phrase was used to describe a strong black beverage that created sufficient stimulation to keep a human being awake through the wee hours of the night. Thus began the age-old tradition of drinking coffee as also the culture of serving it at specific outfits that became popular as coffeehouses.
Believed to have been born in 1000 A.D. in the dry and sandy lap that constituted ancient Arabia, coffeehouse culture has evolved to the extent that today it forms one of the mainstays of contemporary lifestyle wherein a day without a cuppa of coffee is simply unimaginable. The story began with Arab farmers roasting and brewing some beans and spending their evenings sipping the strong broth so as to enjoy and benefit from its invigorating after-effects. Inadvertently, this was how the first coffeehouse in the world came into being, a culture that soon acquired an identity and flavor of its own.
From the sands of Arabia the contagion of coffeehouse culture and its mainstay beverage ‘qahuwa’, meaning coffee, traveled to Mecca where it assumed the form of ‘kaveh kanes’ – a gathering place for people to play chess, hold discussions and dance while sipping this aromatic beverage. Given its viral nature, within no time it had spread to neighboring Turkey wherein the first coffeehouse named Kiva Han was established in erstwhile Constantinople, now known as Istanbul, in 1475. Given its aromatic magnetism, it immediately conquered Cairo, Egypt, and wafted into Europe during the 17th century.
Coffeehouse culture took on a totally new flavor in the European continent which echoed an identity distinct enough to have endured through centuries. What could be a better proof of its efficacy than the fact that some coffeehouses which were established at that time enjoy loyalty and patronage even today? A particularly noteworthy example is that of Jamaica Wine House which opened its doors to London’s eclectic inhabitants in 1660 and now operates as a pub, fondly referred to as ‘The Jampot’ by its clientele.
Prominent names that were responsible for proliferation of the coffeehouse culture were Café Le Procope in Paris which was introduced in 1686 and several first generation coffeehouses in London. Lloyds, the world renowned insurance firm started as a coffeehouse and so did Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Coffee itself was known by several versions of the word ‘café’ in different parts of Europe, its etymology a reflection of the country’s traditions.
In England, coffeehouse establishments earned the nickname of ‘penny universities’ as any individual could gain entry and spend his entire evening sipping a cup of coffee and reading newspaper both of which cost two pennies. However, conversation was very much on same lines as the ancient Arabs and coffeehouses soon became popular haunts for political discussions, creative expressions and exposure.
An interesting fact pertaining to coffeehouse culture in that era was that this venue was solely a domain of men. Other than the lady responsible for pouring coffee in cups, no women were permitted to enter as a part of accepted social norms. But this mindset underwent a revolutionary change over the years and as the coffeehouse culture grew and expanded, it encompassed within its fold all segments of population irrespective of age, gender or any other factor.
Then came the era when coffeehouse began to be used as a showcase of local culture and a platform for myriad social activities ranging from music and dancing to hosting auctions and point of convergence for stock traders, both aspiring and experienced. The present era is witness to the coming of age of this tradition with international chains like Starbucks ruling the ‘roast’.