THE FEATURE – The coffee enlightenment

Learn how the drink changed the world and how Des Moines’ coffee culture thrived by being ignored

By Jim Duncan

Coffee twice changed the world dramatically. The seeds of the berries of the coffee plant rested inconspicuously for hundreds, maybe thousands, of years in their native habitats in the Horn of Africa and Arabia. There are two main legends about their discovery for human consumption in the 15th century. One tells how a goatherd in Ethiopia noticed that his flock showed increased energy after feasting on the raw seeds. He told his iman who devised a way to make a beverage fit for humans. The other story tells of a man named Omar who had been banned from Mocha in southern Yemen and condemned to starve to death in the desert outside town. He ate enough coffee berries to make his way back to Mocha where authorities assumed that Allah wanted him saved.

The invention of the drink in Mocha was attributed to the mystic scholar Muhammad al-Dhabani. Coffee drinking became associated with Sufi ceremonies. The beverage caught on quickly in the Arab world. The first coffeehouses in the world opened in Mocha in the 1460s and spread to Mecca and Cairo soon afterwards. By 1510, conservative leaders banned coffee in Mecca.

A great coffee debate then went to trial. Opponents insisted the bean was an intoxicating beverage and that The Prophet had banned all intoxicating beverages. Proponents argued that it did not have any basic traits of an intoxicant: It did not make one absent-minded or confused, nor transport one into foolishness, nor turn one’s comprehension into complete oblivion. Mecca authorities were overruled by their Ottoman Empire superiors in Cairo. The latter found coffee to be fine but banned chess and backgammon from coffeehouses.

That scenario would play out again 95 years later in Christian Europe when Pope Clement VIII ruled that coffee was not immoral. Timing was everything. Religious wars had weakened the power of the Catholic Church. Early scholars of The Enlightenment had rejected strict adherence to classical and religious authority in favor of experiment and observation. Alcohol abuse was out of control in large part because it was safer to drink than water, particularly in filthy large cities. Because it was made with boiled water, coffee was a safe, sane alternative. Coffeehouses were usually elegant places with libraries and nice furniture, at a time when taverns earned the nickname dens of iniquity.

Europe was changing in other ways, too, with coffee and coffeehouses playing a big role. An Age of Information was developing as businessmen realized that science and math could be employed to increase profits and reduce risk in navigation, banking, insurance and news reporting.

England’s first coffeehouse, Garraway’s, opened in Oxford in 1650. Among its regular customers were architect-scientist Christopher Wren, astronomer Edmund Hally, writer-politician Samuel Pepys and scientist Robert Hooke. Hooke challenged his friends one day to mathematically prove a theory of his regarding gravity and the elliptical movement of planets. He offered 40 shillings, but no one took up his challenge.

Soon afterward, Hooke moved to Cambridge where he became coffeehouse friends with Isaac Newton. Newton accepted the challenge. That led him to publish his “Principia,” which would be voted the greatest discovery of the second millennium in 2000. Hooke would try to take credit for the idea, but a court of the Royal Society found that having an idea was not the same thing as proving it. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg would not do as well in similar litigation some 350 years later.

Coffeehouses in London became incubators for thinkers and businessmen. They would specialize in specific fields of information, publishing every kind of paper, journal or pamphlet available in the arts, banking, accounting, insurance and investments. They would spawn some of the most famous inventions of the Enlightenment.

When Parliament taxed the number of stock brokers in half, the most enterprising moved to a coffeehouse called Jonathan’s. Because they had so much good information (and some bad information like the South Sea Bubble), they moved into a larger building and named it New Jonathan’s. They later changed the name of the coffeehouse to The Stock Exchange. That would become today’s London Stock Exchange.

Insurance brokers favored coffeehouses owned by Edward Lloyd. They so dominated the place that in 1771 Lloyd went condo, by today’s lingo, selling permanent seats and tables to insurance brokers. His place would become Lloyd’s of London without which there would have been no British Empire.

Like most Scottish scholars in London, Adam Smith favored the British Coffee House. He would write most of his masterpiece, “The Wealth of Nations,” there. He even used the coffeehouse as his mailing address.

Politics were also hot subjects in early coffeehouses. England’s first such establishments flourished under the Puritan regime of Oliver Cromwell. He supported them as a sober alternative to taverns. When he was replaced by the Restoration of Charles II, opponents came out with coffee attacks. Knowing how his supporters had used coffeehouses to plot against Cromwell, Charles badly wanted to ban them. The powerful lobby of big business, which by then found them essential, talked him down.

In France, coffeehouses were hotbeds of dissent. Ben Franklin frequented them, as did most of the leaders of French Revolution. In 1789, discussions to reconvene the Estates General crumbled, and King Louis XVI called out the army. A firebrand lawyer named Camille Desmoulins then set the French Revolution in motion at the coffeehouse Café de Foy by jumping on a table and yelling, “To arms citizens, to arms.” The Bastille would fall in two days.

Raw green beans are roasted daily, on site, in Des Moines’ top coffeehouses.

Raw green beans are roasted daily, on site, in Des Moines’ top coffeehouses.

France’s other historic role in coffee history was equally subversive. The Ottoman Empire aggressively protected its monopoly on the bean. It only allowed sterile, processed bean seeds to be exported and never permitted foreigners to observe coffee plantations. The only live coffee plant in France was the property of the king. A scientist named Gabriel Mathieu de Cleu conspired with a lady friend to fake a doctor’s prescription to get a cutting from the king’s plant to take to the West Indies.

The Dutch, who along with Great Britain had chased the Portuguese out of the East Indies, had successfully grown a pilfered coffee cutting in Java. So de Cleu reasoned that tropical climes were as good for breeding as the deserts of Arabia. He was right, and the plant moved south to Venezuela, Colombia and Brazil. Ironically, Portugal would get its revenge on other European colonialists by dominating the world coffee market from Brazil.

Coffee did not catch on as quickly with early Americans who preferred booze, which could be made without paying taxes to the King. After Great Britain conquered India, cheaper tea replaced coffee as a preferred beverage in England. By 1920, the U.S. consumed half the coffee in the world without ever becoming the top per capita coffee consumer (usually Holland).

House-roasted coffee beans, like these at Zanzibar, are not uncommon in Des Moines

House-roasted coffee beans, like these at Zanzibar, are not uncommon in Des Moines

After the modern espresso machine was invented in Milan in 1945, Italy introduced a new, modern style of coffee culture. Peet’s, the first American chain geared toward high end coffee and espresso drinks, opened in the San Francisco Bay area in the late 1960s. Starbucks debuted in Seattle a decade later. Since those two areas have led America in high tech engineering and code writing, it’s not a stretch to say that coffeehouses are as significant to the new Age of Information as to the earlier one called The Enlightenment.

While coffee has never caught on elsewhere in Asia, South Korea is suddenly the biggest coffee boom country ever. The number of coffeehouses there grew by a thousand percent in the last eight years. Seoul now has the highest concentration of coffeehouses in the world with more than 10,000.

Des Moines’ coffee culture thrived by being ignored. As chains like Starbuck’s conquered larger cities, Iowa’s capitol city lacked the demographics such companies required. As a result, a fascinating independent coffeehouse scene developed. Java Joes was the city’s first place to roast beans daily and the first Internet café. It was also one of the first downtown entertainment stages, hosting several national performers before larger venues opened, and still host poetry slams, literary nights, Irish jams and jazz, plus some local and regional acts. It is the heart of downtown’s farmers market.

Coffee beans from around the world are now sold in Des Moines.

Coffee beans from around the world are now sold in Des Moines.

Zanzibar’s Coffee Adventure and Mars Café became alternative art venues when those were far and few between. They also have specialized from day one in freshly roasted beans and Internet access. Like the old European coffeehouses, they keep a good library of periodicals.

Grounds for Celebration parlayed its coffee adventure into its own coffee plantation in Panama. Its stores are famous for freshly roasted beans, a full lunch menu and homemade Italian style gelato.

Smokey Joe’s packs fans in with house roasted coffee and the most extensive menu of any coffeehouse around. It actually has a burger menu that includes loose meat beef burgers.

Iowa Coffee Company is a small batch roaster one sees at the Downtown Farmers Market. The company makes a huge number of flavored coffees. Corazon Coffee roasts small batches of Free Trade and organic beans. U.S. Coffee is a local roaster that works with chefs and restaurants on special blends. Capes Kafe matches specialty coffee with comic books. RELISH

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