The Social Life of Coffee by Brian Cowan – review

by PD Smith

Coffee drinking was unknown before the middle of the 15th century, but it became "one of the great success stories of the changing consumer habits that reshaped the early modern world". In 1610, an Englishman described the Turkish beverage as "blacke as soote, and tasting not much unlike it". But, as Cowan shows, this exotic drink became a popular alternative to alcohol thanks to trend-setting "virtuosi" such as John Evelyn and Robert Hooke. When Britain's first coffeehouse opened in Oxford in 1650, it was frequented by those "who esteem'd themselves either virtuosi or wits", including the young Christopher Wren. Coffeehouses soon opened in London, where they were known as "penny universities", places where "an inquisitive man . . . may get more in an evening than he shall by books in a month". By the 18th century, the coffeehouse had become an integral part of British urban life. Cowan's scholarly yet very readable study offers a fascinating insight into how changes in British society gave us our taste for this "hot black broth".


PD Smith

The GuardianTramp

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