The Gourmet Coffee House: A Brief History

The world has had a love affair with coffee for two thousand years or more, and that passion only continues to grow. The coffee house, bastion for gourmet coffee and heady conversation, is such a staple of modern culture that we sometimes overlook its past influence on society, politics and even religion.

The First Gourmet Coffee Houses

Coffee took hold as a drink of choice in the fertile sands of Ethiopia and Egypt. A popular home-brewed drink, it gained popularity in a social setting as early as the 6th century AD. The historic cities of Cairo and Mecca both show some evidence of coffee houses used as social gathering spots, and its importance in Islamic culture is well-documented.

As coffee’s popularity spread throughout the known world, so did the public market concept. The first verified public record of a public coffee house was found in Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey) in the 1400s. In fact, coffee was considered such a staple of daily life that a woman could divorce her husband if he failed to keep her larder sufficiently stocked with beans!
War brought the beans to Europe, after the Turkish army fled Vienna, leaving behind bags of gourmet coffee beans as the spoils of war. A local entrepreneur claimed the goods and opened the first European coffee house.

Gourmet Coffee Causes Social Upheaval

By the mid 17th century, coffee houses were becoming more popular in Britain. Known as “Penny Universities” because the price of coffee was one cent per cup, they soon became a hub for social discourse, political debate, scientific lectures and literary criticism.

The idea of “tips” started in the penny universities as well; some say the first tip jar was placed on a counter with a note “To Insure Prompt Service.” A tradition was born.

Not everyone loved the coffee house. Women of the time were enraged at their husbands spending so much time in the gourmet coffee houses, and a public outcry ensued. The “Women’s Petition Against Coffee” was circulated in the late 1600s, claiming that excess coffee consumption lowered their men’s sex drive and made them impotent

Gourmet Coffee Movement in America

While the Boston Tea Party made the news of the day, much of the business of the time was debated in American coffee houses. In fact, the New York Stock Exchange was originally located in a coffee house in the city.

The phenomenon continued, and the 1960s’ coffee house culture in San Francisco and other liberal-minded cities changed the course of society yet again. Today, with a coffee house on every corner in any large city, have we reached saturation? Or is the gourmet coffee house in for yet another transformation? Either way, gourmet coffee and the establishments that serve it will somehow survive, in one form or another.

Lili Rousso is a coffee aficionada who reviews gourmet coffees and accessories from all around the world. This month she features gourmet coffee brands from

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