The Philosophy of Coffee

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In a classic episode of Seinfeld, the programme’s resident oddball Kramer finds a fleeting dash of fame by publishing a coffee table book about coffee tables. It even had fold-out legs if you didn’t have a coffee table yourself. The Philosophy of Coffee by Brian Williams needs no such bells and whistles — but as a coffee table book about coffee it manages to be both quaint and genuinely informative.

The first thing to say about this 95-page volume is the name is somewhat misleading. It is, mercifully, not the Kant of Kaffee or the Satre of Sumatra. A more fitting title would be ‘A Short History of Coffee’, but it seems the British Library are sticking to a brand here; they also have a book titled The Philosophy of Beards.

As a former barista and avid drinker of the nigrum nectare, I was struck while reading the book by how little I actually knew about it. I knew the Chinese had been drinking tea for something like 5,000 years, but was surprised to read that people have only been drinking coffee for about a thousand, at best. Also that its Ethiopian origin story involves dancing goats and an Islamic mystic. Read the book!

In fact, Williams writes, us coffee drinkers owe something of a debt of gratitude to Islam for popularising the drink. In societies which forbade the drinking of alcohol, the coffee house filled a pub-shaped hole for socialising outside the home. They were also naturally men-only, as were the London coffee houses, which became more like Clubland as time went on. This so alarmed wives in 1674 that they published The Women’s Petition Against Coffee, arguing the “Heathenish Liquor” caused their men to “tattle” and “gossip” and would “soon learn to exceed us in Talkativeness”. Quelle horreur.

Another surprising fact relevant to our times is that, until a Dutchman risked the death penalty by smuggling coffee trees out of the country in 1616, coffee was only commercially grown in Yemen. By 1699 the Dutch were establishing coffee plantations on Java and, within 40 years, the once-prosperous Yemeni economy collapsed. The rest is, as they say, a particularly unedifying history.

There are plenty more coffee facts in this eminently digestible volume to percolate over, including just how bloody difficult coffee was to make before the twentieth century, and it deserves to become the pocket bible for coffee lovers everywhere.

The Philosophy of Coffee is published by the British Library and available from bookshops through the UK and abroad, and from the British Library Shop; www.bl.uk/shop