Thursday, 18 August 2016

Coffee increases life’s quality



This little graph above correlating rising coffee consumption with rising quality of life [hat tip Karl Sharro] prompts me to repost a little piece I researched and posted some years ago:

'Making the Genius Quicker':
A Complete Hiftory of Man According
to Hif Divers Delightf (Part Two)

Strong is a king who destroys all,
stronger still is a woman who obtains all,
but strongest is wine, which drowns reason.
Stronger still, however, is Truth and I who speak it.
Umberto Eco, from his novel The Island of the Day Before

So, to summarise (from Part One): in the beginning all that existed was savagery and raw steak.  With beer and bread was ushered in civilisation. (Bread and circuses were to come much later.)

Then, with the brief exceptions of Classical Greece and Julius Caesar (there go the bread and circuses), for the next several thousands of years human beings would celebrate the arrival of beer by being variously bladdered, blotto, blathered and blagged (to use just four of the over one-thousand English words for being bevvied). Talk about overdoing a good thing. For centuries, beer was the main source of nutritional value; as a ‘beer soup1 it was drunk by men and women and children at every meal including breakfast – indeed, in most cases it was the meal’ -- and the world looked like you’d expect it to look after several thousand years of a serious session.

[New scene]: The siege of Vienna2. Plague stalks the land.
We are inside a small shit-laden hovel with a filthy leprous woman in foreground. A dead horse crawling with maggots and flung by a Turkish catapult crashes through the roof.

Women (turns to camera): I can’t wait for the Renaissance!

Two things happened to bring on the Renaissance: after a millennia-and-a-half of drinking, a few scholars sobered up long enough to begin reading what those Classical Greeks had been banging on about. “Hey, this is good stuff!” they instantly hallelujahed. Artists and popes agreed, and celebrated by producing and commissioning (and -- in the case of the popes -- enacting) some of the finest erotica the world has ever seen. But the world didn’t see it: it still took several centuries and the invention of Gutenberg for the art and thought of the Renaissance to make a general impact.

It took one more thing – it needed the rest of the population to sober up for a moment to read and savour what the printing presses produced. What it took, in a word, was coffee.

From out of Islam came the great redeemer (where for centuries the consumption had encouraged a golden age now gone off). When the Turks in 1529 left behind after besieging Vienna a few bags of their coffee (Hallelujah!) we suddenly knew what to consume when in the grip of a thousand-year-old hangover, and our fuzzy brains finally began working as they should. Naturally, men began writing eulogies to the arrival of this exotic new intoxicant:

When the sweet poison of the Treacherous Grape3
Had acted on the world a general rape; …
Coffee arrives, that grave and wholesome Liquor
That heals the stomach and makes the genius quicker.
Coffee was the Great Redeemer:
It is a panacea…It dries the cold humours, dispels wind, strengthens the liver, it is the sovereign cure for hydropsy and scabies, it restores the heart, relives bellyache. Its steam in fact is recommended for fluxions of the eyes, buzzing in the ears, catarrh, rheum or heaviness of the nose, as you will.4
Coffee was great; coffee was everywhere; coffee was suddenly it. Coffee produced a new kind of man, Homo coffea, and with it a new society opposed to the excesses of the past, one in which reason was no longer drowned:
The massive, heavy body types of seventeenth-century paintings had their physiological explanation in high beer and beer-soup consumption… The insertion of coffee achieved chemically what the Protestants sought to fulfil spiritually [by] ‘drying’ up the beer-soaked bums and replacing them with ‘rationalistic, forward-looking bodies’ typical of the lean cynics of the nineteenth-century.5

People became sober and serious; thought and wit and rationality became valued; and business picked up as people stopped going around shooting each other and started talking seriously instead.

The popular pastime of besieging each other’s cities stopped -- the Thirty Years War came to an end -- and the population began instead desperately seeking overseas supplies of this new and wonderful drug. With coffee addiction came the immediate necessity of large scale foreign trade to keep the addiction fed: such was the beginning of the noble tradition of globalisation that Starbucks celebrates to this day (or tries to). Coffee at once energised the brains of entrepreneur’s and gave them a goal: more coffee!

As Ayn Rand observed, animals survive by adapting themselves to their environment, while humans flourish by adapting their environment to themselves. For too long people had concluded that all foods aside from beer quickly ‘go off’ so best just sup up and stay stoated. Although coffee itself didn’t replace the nutritional value that beer then provided, what it did do was sober people up enough to begin inventing ways of preserving foods, producing packaging and so making of food (and life) the man-made delight it had never been before. We today are the hearty beneficiaries of those sober and serious producers.

Western civilisation rightly fell in love with coffee and the enlightenment it literally ushered in. Historians were so excited they capitalised the era: coffee ushered in The Age of Enlightenment. Western civilisation was again transformed, and in the coffee-houses of Europe two revolutions were being planned, and executed.

To be continued ...

[1] The beer soups cooked by today's wusses with today's equipment with today's beer is mostly alcohol-free, since people now want it alcohol-free, use lesser-strength beer and boil it accordingly. But in those squalid times getting bladdered at breakfast was considered the best way to endure the woeful world in which they lived. They heated their beer, they didn't cook it, because too much heat would kill the preservative, ie., the alcohol (today's preservative, hops, didn't arrive in England until the fifteenth century). Preserving the preservative was necessary, as the soup often needed to last in-house for several weeks. And remember they made their beer at home so the soup was the last thing to be made after the beer had sat for a time fermenting.

Even Queen Elizabeth I indulged at breakfast, supping her beer soup and washing it down with a quart of the warm flat stuff - 'an excellent wash' she called it. I don't expect she wanted the life boiled out of it since that was the only way the Virgin Queen saw any life at all. And she craved it: "When she visited Hatfield House the Earl of Leicester hastily wrote to Lord Burleigh, ‘There is not one drop of good drink or here there. We were fain to send to London and Kenilworth and divers other places where ale was: her own beer was so strong as there was no man able to drink it.’ [Man Walks Into a Pub, Pete Brown (MacMillan, 2003) ]

The Scots (or Picts as they then called themselves) were even more serious about getting gewgawed: they made their beer soup one part malt to two parts heather. The heather, it turns out, contains a natural hallucinogen called fogg, which explains something about the Scottish enthusiasm for their beer - including the Tennents Super of today - and much about their tactics in battle.

Here, for your interest, is an eighteenth-century German 'recipe' for beer soup if you want to try a simulacrum of the real thing:

Heat the beer in a saucepan; in a separate small pot beat a couple of eggs. Add a chunk of butter to the hot beer. Stir in some cool beer to cool it, then pour over the eggs. Add a bit of salt, and finally mix all the ingredients together, whisking it well to keep it from curdling. [The World of Caffeine: The Science and Culture of the World's Most Popular Drug, Bennett Alan Weinberg and Bonnie K. Bealer (Routledge, 2001) ]

And here's how they made beer for several centuries in Dark Ages England if you really want to give it a truly authentic try. It's a subsistence process, not an awfully sophisticated one. Try it some time:

Boil barley grain to get your fermentable sugars, then strain out the barley husks. Add your yeast (kept like a sourdough) and keep warm, and wait until it's 'gone off.' Drink, or add an egg or two and have it as soup. Or just tip it out and head down the road for a kebab.

The book Man Walks Into a Pub suggests this process was done daily, just like baking, and was the responsibility of the 'ale-wife' - so called apparently because of "ancient societies [whose] mythologies state that beer was a gift specifically to women from a goddess (never a male god) and women remained bonded in complex religious relationships with feminine deities, who blessed their brewing vessels."  Fellows allowed out today to sink a few quiets can often be found blessing similarly-favoured feminine deities, and for somewhat similar reasons.

[2] Yes, I know, the dates don’t exactly match. Don’t interrupt. But if you can remember from where this scene originates I’d love to be reminded.

[3] Our anonymous author clearly couldn’t find a word to rhyme with ‘hops’ so chose wine as his target. The point remains the same. And stop interrupting.

[4] The Island of the Day Before, Umberto Eco

[5] Tastes of Paradise : A Social History of Spices, Stimulants, and Intoxicants, Wolfgang Schivelbusch [I swear I did not make that name up!]



  1. Yes. A tale of casual associations. Women,including Queens, should be kept from ale, and any positions of authority. I know this because the alt-right says so.

  2. As a coffee drinker, I love this! :D I'm showing that graph to the next person who says I drink too much of it!

    As a beer drinker, I have to point out that beer 1) brought about the industrial revolution (machine production of beer bottles helped end child labor and spur further automization of manufacturing), 2) brought about artificial refrigeration (Americans like lagers, and that yeast needs to be kept cold), 3) kept people alive back when sanitation was poor (brewing kills pathogens and alcohol preserves the nutrients in beer), and a few other things I'm forgetting. There's nothing wrong with a Bavarian breakfast every now and then, though I still maintain that mustard on pretzels is just weird.


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