Coffee Houses

In one fowl swoop today’s blog will whisk you on a journey of discovery, from the lands of the Middle East to the Middle Ages of Europe and a time in England long before the Industrial Revolution. So grab a coffee and kick off your loafers while I tell you about how a simple sentence led to this blog.
I was talking the other day in terms of the law and offered in the conversation an opinion ending it with; “think about it, where would we be without coffee houses?” The phrase I think went unnoticed and certainly didn’t result in the question I expected. “What have coffee houses got to do about anything?” Actually a couple of things one good and one that started good but really in today’s world a place not so good. The following may well inform you, you may already be aware of them and maybe if I’m lucky they will amuse you, at the very least.


Most people are aware that beer became the standard drink once someone somewhere discovered leaving barley or some cereal in a bucket of water led to some kind of fermentation and beer was unleashed on the world. some thinking has the first going back as far as 7,000BC. Certainly during the Middle Ages it was the most common drink found especially in parts of Europe where it was more difficult to cultivate grapes but barley was easy. In fact all cereals have some sugar in them add the water and the air borne “wild yeast” you have the process operating naturally. Weak though it maybe it was certainly the staple and no doubt numbed the mind of many an anglo saxon farmer subscripted to bash up the Vikings who incidentally were also awash with beer. “Skol!”

However, after some arabs in the early part of the 11th century invented the process of distilling many people started using all sorts of wine concoctions often as remedies and other reasons and this process made it’s way into Europe via the usual monks keen on science and invention. In fact the early invention of the printing press aided this spread of distillation rapidly although the alcohol was pretty poor quality and full of impurities. It is maybe an educated guess but the first malt wine mixed with juniper (berry) distillate could have been 12th century monks from Salerno. The Dutch though are credited with upping the ante and producing clear quality “medicines” for in fact that was their market. The juniper/wine mix was called “genever” the Dutch word for juniper and from the 1500’s juniper flavoured wine spread throughout Holland, Belgium and the lowlands of the Flemish and Northern France. The first written evidence of a drink called “genievre”is from 1552.


In 1572 Professor Silvius de Bouve from Leiden University added juniper oil to grain spirit as a stimulant, diuretic and to help with lumbago. The cap was literally off the bottle and from that genievre the english word “gin” came. Along with many a man using the phrase “I’m off to see the doctor darling!”  It wasn’t long before it crossed the channel. Between 1728-1794, long before people were drug crazed they were gin crazed. This was London. It was a downward spiral with such distinguished men as Daniel Defoe lauding it initially (probably for cash) but three years later rueing the ruin of society. The poor used gin to forget their woes, it apparently lowered the fertility rate and 75% of children under 5 died due to the now called Mother’s Ruin leading to mothers neglecting their children even trying to quiet them using gin. It was a disaster of enormous proportions. There was such a history of destruction there were no less than 8 Gin Acts to restrict and decrease sales often economically by increasing the price beyond the pockets of the poor. It still was loved by the rich and by the late 1840s there were 5000 gin houses in the London area alone.


While the poor ladies were left to their ruin the men also had their institutions. The working man had his Ale Houses, rough and ready beer of questionable taste but also their gin and ruin. The fashionable thing in the 18 & 19th century were Coffee Houses. At one point London had over 300 such establishments and they sold not just coffee but chocolate too. Lloyd’s of London and the Royal Exchange were both linked to coffee houses. Stocks and Shares were trading in the coffee house connected to the Royal Exchange. Others were meeting places for insurance brokers, literary groups, poets, newspaper or diarists, wits, writer, scientists, politicians and of course lawyers. Lawyers like others would meet their clients at a time when renting an office was too expensive or perhaps they couldn’t afford to stay at one of the Inns of Court and make use of their facilities. Burgeoning lawyers first need to gather before they can nest. In coffee houses they could find lodging much like the inns and taverns as well as quiet areas within which to play their trade and deliver their advice. Like other businessmen they too held court here in a corner not far from the Inns of Court in either the Grecian, the Rainbow or Nandos and no they didn’t serve chicken!

Finally a small tidbit. The well known American coffee chain Starbucks was named after the First Mate aboard the ship in the well known novel “Moby Dick” they actually were a family of Whalers in Nantucket. However the complete story is that the family came from a small town near Harrogate in Yorkshire which was raided over 1000 years ago by Vikings. They named the town after a stream which had “sedge” growing alongside it and sedge-stream in Viking is “starbeck” and often families were named after the town they were from. All this family did was change a vowel.