Sperm, skulls and scandal… the hidden history of coffee | BBC Ideas

Sperm, skulls and scandal… the hidden history of coffee | BBC Ideas


Globally, over two billion cups
of coffee are consumed every day. In Britain alone,
we need around 95 million cups to keep us going from dawn ’til dusk. But 450 years ago, Western Europe
had barely even heard of it. Coffee’s roots lie in Ethiopia,
where the wild plant grew. People slowly started
to realise that the dried fruit, when roasted and ground, could be used to produce a beverage
which was curiously addictive, and gave its drinker a bit of a buzz. Coffee is, let’s face it,
an acquired taste. Early Western drinkers
were fascinated by it, recognising its potential as a drink
which was ideal for business. Wine and beer were great, but they weren’t always
conducive to delicate negotiations which required a clear head. When Westerners brought
the drink back to Britain, reactions were polarised, including one description of it as, “Pluto’s diet-drink, that witches
tipple out of dead men’s skulls.” The first coffee house in the UK
opened in Oxford in 1651, followed by London, and they quickly
became sort of proto-clubs. There were coffee houses
for all sorts – from bankers to merchants,
literati to men about town, and they were often
heavily politicised. Charles II tried to ban them
for encouraging sedition. Many subscribed to journals and
newspapers for their clientele and, since a dish of coffee
cost only a penny, they became known
as the ‘penny universities’. They were, however, only for men, and coffee quickly
became seen as a masculine drink. Even today, men drink
more coffee than women. It wasn’t uncontroversial, however. Like anything new, and foreign,
there were those who feared it, and one blistering attack in 1674
claimed it caused impotence… Others claimed it had exactly the
opposite effect, answering that it, “Makes the erection more vigorous,
the ejaculation more full, and adds a spiritualescency
to the Sperme.” The taste still put many people off, but the British habit of drinking
it with milk and sugar, like their tea, helped. By the 18th Century it was established
as a part of British life, emerging out of coffee houses and into its place
as an after-dinner drink. In the 19th Century coffee
was still pretty bad, until the Italian invention
of the espresso machine which forced pressurised water through a small amount
of ground beans – a huge step forward from simply
steeping coffee and filtering it, and then keeping it warm
for hours until needed. Italian coffee culture, with its futuristic
and gleaming coffee machines and aura of effortless cool,
spread across the Western world. Their rules, well… ruled – including tenets such as never
drink a cappuccino after lunch. The last 20 years have seen the rise
of new types of coffee – long, flavoured American drinks, along with the Antipodean
flat whites. We’ve also adopted
a new way of drinking it. Wandering down the
street coffee cup in hand is such a ubiquitous sight now that it’s hard to remember
this is a recent fad. It’s a fundamental
part of hipster identity – along with beards and vintage cardis, knowing your cold brew
from your nitro is vital. Society – and coffee –
have moved on a lot in 450 years. But some things haven’t changed. So, here’s to coffee, with a side of sedition,
sociability and amazing cool. Thanks for watching. Don’t forget to subscribe and click the bell to receive notifications fo new videos. See you again soon!

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