Coffee, Cultures & Connections

People who know me will not be surprised to read about coffee & culture on my leadership blog. Besides my pronounced love for having coffee, coffeehouses play a considerable role in my work life as social meeting places. They also offer contemplation as well as inspiration for creative knowledge work. Coffee has become the second most valuable commodity after oil (Tucker, 2011). The National Geographic recently reported coffee consumption at the West Coast had even caffeinated the sea. Even countries like China, a traditional country of tea drinkers, are catching up on coffee consumption.

coffee love (c) Soraya-Kandan

Coffee is becoming a global drink.  Have you ever wondered why?

Our increasing love for coffee does not only relate to the stuff the drink is made of, but to the social contexts of its consumption: the coffee cultures. Without consideration of the cultural aspects of drinking coffee, the rise of global coffee cultures remains incomprehensible. Exploring the following topics will lead you to understand some connections between old and new coffee cultures, between local and global developments, and even between coffee consumption and the growth of the internet.

  • East meets West
  • Coffee Houses as New Public Spheres
  • Colonization and European Cultural Changes
  • Coffee & Industrial Work: Body Discipline
  • Coffee & the Internet

East meets West A bit of Coffee History

Today’s coffee culture emerged from commercial encounters between East and West. The history of this very particular communication is extremely interesting, for the establishment of European coffeehouses had a considerable influence on the European cultural and political history. We owe today’s coffee culture to the discovery of coffee in the Middle East. Various myths, like the one of Kaldi, rank around dancing goats (or camels) at night which brought a herder to discover the stimulating effect of the bright red coffee berries. The true origin of coffee remains however still unclear (Wild, 2012). Avicenna (Ibn Sina) was the first to mention the coffee seed as a drug in his medical publications.But it took a couple of hundred years until the Arab world discovered it as an ingredient for a daily beverage (Weinberg & Bealer, 2000 quoted in Tucker, 2011). The first coffeehouse in Europe was founded in Constantinople in 1554 (Ellis, 2011). The Turks reigned over the coffee producing areas in the Middle East under the Ottoman Empire. They were greatly responsible for spreading and trading the first coffee to other parts of Europe, although they could not keep a monopoly on growing the plant.


Merchants who had lived in Smyrna (today Izmir) in the 16th century missed their daily dose of coffee upon returning to Britain. So the first coffeehouse was opened in London in 1652  “by a Greek Orthodox servant called Pasqua Rosee, in St Michael’s Alley, Cornhill, in the centre of the financial district of the City of London. …  sponsored by merchants from the Levant Company” (Ellis, 2008). The initial reaction of the British was strongly negative, also because it rarely tastes well when you first drink it. They did not “recognise that coffee was a habit-forming drug that changed its customers’ taste to suit itself.” (Ellis, 2004). Within ten more years, there were 82 (!) coffeehouse in London. By the 17th century coffee had become one of the first global commodities (Tucker, 2011, p. 4). One of the reasons for this impressive spreading of coffeehouses in 17th century in Britain was the social impact of the English Civil War.

[It] had … unleashed a tsunami of political thought and talk: these talkers needed somewhere to do their talking.coffeehouses became places for men (never women) to sit around and talk about anything ….

The rise of coffeehouses was perceived as a threat to the British Monarchy. Already one hundred years before, under the Ottoman Empire, the coffeehouse was perceived to be an “anti-palace” (Sajdi, 2008). The respective attempts of political suppression, however, did not last long. After all, the coffee trade was economically very attractive. The political changes called for new public spheres.

Coffee Houses as a Public Sphere

Taking a communication perspective on the culture of the coffeehouses one can identify them as a new public sphere “associated with a certain kind of social interaction[:]…egalitarianism, congeniality and conversation” (Ellis, 2008, p. 4). This distinctive sociability was an intriguing similarity in spite of other important differences between the coffeehouses of Istanbul, London, or other European cities. The egalitarian rules of seating in the coffeehouse

allowed men who did not know each other to sit together amicably and expected them to converse. In the anonymous context of the city … this social habit was astonishing. … the seating arrangements recommended equality and openness as the principle of conversation (Ellis, 2011, position 1314).

Yet, the early coffeehouses were not an unequivocal cultural achievement of equality as some sociologists or philosophers praised the early coffee houses. There were also exclusionary mechanisms involved: e.g. women had been excluded as customers both in Constantinople (Istanbul), in most of Britain as well as in France. Germany seems to have been an exception.

Similarly, the coffeehouse sociability habitually disregarded submerged costs of their beverage: such as the slaves and agricultural labourers who harvested the coffee beans and sugar in the colonies and Arabia. In this way, even a space that considered itself radical precisely because it was egalitarian, nonetheless established a space which surreptitiously re-encoded forms of hierarchy and prejudice … (Ellis, 2008, p. 5).

Colonization and European Cultural Changes

The coffee trade was profitable from its beginning in the Middle East. Later, Holland and Britain became the most important seafaring powers. “Coffee went hand in hand with colonization” (Tucker, 2011, p. 38); a majority of the coffee-consuming nations lie north of the equator, and those coffee-producing countries south of it. One exception is Brazil, “which is the world’s largest producer of coffee and the second-greatest consumer“. The colonial side of the coffee equation is often cancelled out, as it is invisible in our daily cups. Maybe the Fair Trade movement may have slightly changed our awareness.We tend to see mostly see the economic dependencies on the colonial expansion. But “growth of dependency was multifaceted, … the societies of Europe and North America became dependent in another way: they became dependent on coffee.” (Tucker, 2011, p. 42). In spite of the many similarities you can see across across different coffeehouse cultures, we can observe both local and global developments of coffee cultures. Even the very homogenous coffee shops show some trend towards blending their offers with local specialities. After all, “[d]rinking coffee has taken on meanings and values that fit specific locales, while resonating broadly with globalized understandings.” (Tucker, 2011, p. 9). We have come a long way with our appreciation of coffee cultures since the ethnocentric and disparaging German children’s rhyme by Carl Gottlieb Hering at the beginning of the 19th century.

“C-a-f-f-e-e, trink nicht so viel Kaffee! Nichts für Kinder ist der Türkentrank, schwächt die Nerven, macht dich blass und krank. Sei doch kein Muselman, der ihn nicht lassen kann!“ Beginnend mit den sechs Anfangstönen C-A-F-F-E-E. “C-a-f-f-e-e, do not drink so much coffee! Not for children, the Turks potion weakens the nerves, makes you pale and sick. Do not be a Moslem, who cannot leave it! ” Beginning with the six tones C-A-F-F-E-E.

So, with courtesy of the artists, enjoy the modern mock on it by the Berlin music theatre group schindelkilliusdutschke:

Coffee & Industrial Work: Body Discipline

If you are still on this page reading… this may well be accompanied by a cup of coffee. My reading and writing for this post definitely was supported with many cups. With this observation we come to one of the most interesting connections: the relationship between the growth of coffee consumption and growing industrialization. As water was not a safe drink in Europe at the time, and hot drinks were only known for the ill, wine and beer were the usual beverages. But

[f]actory work demanded an alert minds and nimble hands to operate machinery … The average adult in England … started with beer soup … for breakfast. …[and] evidently passed the day in an semi-stupified state from the steady intake of alcohol. Coffee provided a novel alternative (Tucker, 2011, p. 44).

iStock_000000665933_ExtraSmall With the formation of an urban working class, people’s daily and annual schedules changed. They no longer related to day and night or seasonal cycles as in farming. Industrial production changed our relationship to time. Laborers, but also managers had to maintain concentration and ignore the consequent physical aches and stresses that resulted from repetitive or limited movement respectively. “Such large segments of the population had never before been required to keep such rigid, physically constraining schedules.” (Tucker, 2011, p. 45). [They] became subjected to what Michel Foucault called “body discipline”. And coffee became the aid to successful body discipline. This connection helped coffee to make a career from an exotic drink in the coffeehouses to a beverage for the masses (Weinberg & Bealer, 2000 quoted in Tucker, 2011). The modern coffee shop sometimes still takes an influence on the social order, as the example of Starbucks call for unity to ward off  the fiscal cliff 2012/13 nicely shows:

Coffee and the Internet

Demanding physical work is not dominant in the Western states any more, emerging countries are catching up, this maybe also be one reason for its rising global popularity. We have moved into services, knowledge work, and the creative industries (in spite of some recently observed trends towards re-industrialization in the USA or in Germany). So the reasons we grab a cup of coffee might not quite be the same than during industrialization. But industrialization had a lasting cultural effect on our relationship to leisure and spending time efficiently. Working in shifts may have affected only small groups of the population. But now we have other trends. The Internet with its 24/7 availability of information, entertainment and social interaction provokes new cycles of day and night. This affects our global collaborations as much as our private (distant) relationships. The demand of being awake and alert any time we need to or want to has become part of modern digital life. Another development that indicates clearly that moving away from traditional industrialization will not bring us back to rural agricultural day and night and seasonal cycles, is the growing trend towards urbanity:

For the first time ever, the majority of the world’s population lives in a city, and this proportion continues to grow. One hundred years ago, 2 out of every 10 people lived in an urban area. By 1990, less than 40% of the global population lived in a city, but as of 2010, more than half of all people live in an urban area (Global Health Observatory by the WHO, 2012).

The requirements of the “new world of work” are very different to working conditions of industrial times. They are influenced by the new digital infrastructure and by the younger generations that grew up with the Internet. These generations are more educated and highly connected. The demographic changes in industrialized countries (they are already beginning to show also in emerging markets), seem to change the power relations between employers and employees, customers and producers. We can find striking parallels between the old world of the first coffeehouses and their contribution to a more connected urban society, fast flowing information and social exchange at the time and the new world of the “synergistic convergence between caffeine and Internet access in coffeehouses and cyber cafés” (Tucker, 2011, p. 3). Ellis’ “Twelve principles of coffee house conversation” were written with a wink, but they illustrate

how the coffee-house established an unstated set of relational group dynamics which allowed it to establish and confirm what it did best, which was to create a distinct sociability. In the absence of explicit rules, it was able to define a fluid group management process, and use it to encourage participation in the congenial and conversational world of the coffee-house sociability. This is a lesson that we might apply also to other and similar open-context discussions and the sites or institutions that support them (2008, p. 4).

4485273_thumbnail These principles resemble strongly the kind of sociability many netiquettes want to cultivate. Ellis (2008) draws parallels to Usenet or email discussion lists on the Internet:

the techniques of group management of the coffee-house or usenet discussion group thus do not have an explicit set of regulations, but rather an un-codified and implicit set of responses, a ‘cooperative anarchy’ as it is sometimes referred to. Users — whether conversational drinkers in the coffee-house or contributors to internet discussion lists or discussants in a symposium — acquire the knowledge of how the group manages itself by an almost organic or life-like process (a sociology or anthropology of relational community identities) (p. 5-6)

Today we can relate this to chat rooms and social networks. A network like twitter may actually be seen as an epiphany of the digital coffee house. It goes without saying that a number of twitter users followed my research findings and contributed to the writing of this post:  @amirkassaei, @carobertazzo, @imtunnel@martinschiele@salhir@syamant, @teraeuro. In his article “The Invisible Internet”, Dirk Baecker postulates as his first thesis:

The Internet reaches so deeply into the structure and culture of human societies previously only met with the introduction of language, writing and book printing. With language people learned to lie, with writing they learned to plan, and with book printing they learned to criticize. With the Internet, they learn to connect.” (translation Semira Soraya-Kandan)

The „digital revolution“ with its changing conditions of work may let us find a new emphasis on the reflective and (re)creational aspect of having coffee.

To drink a beverage is to carry out a small ritual, an act that momentarily constructs a slightly more bearable, intelligible world from the chaos that threatens at all times“ (Jamieson, 2001, pp. 279-280 quoted in Tucker, 2011, p. 42).

Besides all body discipline, drinking coffee also allows as intellectual discipline, by sitting back and reflect on your work. Maybe our new work requires more „2nd order coffee drinking“? Knowing diverse worlds and times allows us to live with the best of both – old and new, local and global – and thrive with the connections.

Happy New Year 2013!


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