A History of the World in Six Glasses

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Coffee Symbol Analysis

Coffee Symbol Icon

As Standage argues, coffee has long symbolized intellect, creativity, and “just a streak of revolution.” During the Enlightenment, coffee—and the coffeehouses where it was served—represented a form of free, open discourse in which new ideas could be discussed without prejudice. Even today, it might not entirely be a coincidence that Seattle, a center of Internet development, is also the birthplace of Starbucks, the most popular coffee chain in America. Coffee continues to symbolize the thrill of creativity and entrepreneurship.

Coffee Quotes in A History of the World in Six Glasses

The A History of the World in Six Glasses quotes below all refer to the symbol of Coffee. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Walker Publishing Company edition of A History of the World in Six Glasses published in 2006.
Introduction Quotes

In some European nations, and particularly in Britain, coffee was challenged by tea imported from China. Its popularity in Europe helped to open lucrative trade routes with the East and underpinned imperialism and industrialization on an unprecedented scale, enabling Britain to become the first global superpower.

Related Symbols: Coffee, Tea
Page Number: 5
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Standage gives an example of how we can learn about history by studying a specific beverage. The cultural and military competition between Britain and China during the 18th and 19th centuries was mirrored in the gastronomical competition between coffee and tea. This makes a certain kind of sense: a civilization that's powerful and wealthy will have the resources to spread its cultural artifacts around the world. In this way, one could say that tea and coffee are "cultural markers—-i.e., every cup of tea or coffee consumed is a cultural victory for China or Britain, respectively.

Standage is also making the stronger claim that Britain became an imperialist superpower in part because of the popularity of tea: Britain traded heavily with China because British people enjoyed the taste of that particular drink. Throughout the book, Standage will study beverages from both of these perspectives. At times he'll argue that beverages reflect world history; elsewhere, he argues that beverages can themselves change world history.

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Chapter 7 Quotes

The diffusion of this new rationalism throughout Europe was mirrored by the spread of a new drink, coffee, that promoted sharpness and clarity of thought. It became the preferred drink of scientists, intellectuals, merchants, and clerks—today we would call them “information workers.”

Related Symbols: Coffee
Page Number: 134-35
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, Standage discusses the influence of coffee on the Age of Enlightenment—the period of European history in the 17th and 18th century when European intellectuals came to celebrate the importance of rationality, deep thought, and experimentation. As Standage sees it, coffee contributed to rationalism in the most literal of ways: it stimulated the brain, allowing people to think, talk, and focus for longer periods of time.

The popularity of coffee in Europe, Standage further points out, marked changes in the structure of European society, too. While many kinds of people enjoyed coffee, the drink was especially popular among information workers. The popularity of coffee among these kinds of people shows that Europe was transitioning from an economy founded on manual labor, military valor, and other physical endeavors, to an economy based on intelligence, quick thinking, and other intellectual endeavors. In short, coffee set the Western world on its current path.

But of even greater significance than [coffee] was the novel way in which it was consumed: in coffeehouses, which dispensed conversation as much as coffee. In doing so, coffeehouses provided an entirely new environment for social, intellectual, commercial, and political exchange.

Related Symbols: Coffee
Page Number: 150
Explanation and Analysis:

Having already argued that coffee literally stimulated the mind and the imagination, Standage makes the additional argument that the coffeehouse stimulated innovation, too. By this point in the book, the idea that social spaces promote longstanding social relationships is nothing new: we've already seen how bars promote friendship and equality; the symposium promoted philosophy and self-control, etc. The coffeehouse, then, was the successor to a long line of drinking spaces.

What kind of drinking space was the coffeehouse? The role of coffeehouses in 18th century Europe points to the importance of collaboration, competition, and group work in European history. Arguably the key word in the quotation is "exchange"—after all, the 18th century was the time when the modern capitalist economy was on the rise. In coffeehouses, businessmen exchanged money and credit, just as scientists and writers exchanged ideas. Furthermore, the groups that passed time in coffeehouses formed rivalries with one another, like businesses competing to make the best product. As a whole, coffeehouses were places for businesslike competition and achievement: the intimacy and energy of the coffeehouse encouraged it.

Chapter 8 Quotes

French coffeehouses highlighted the paradox that despite the intellectual advances of the Enlightenment, progress in the social and political spheres had been hindered by the dead hand of the ancien regime. The wealthy aristocracy and clergy, a mere 2 percent of the population, were exempt from taxes, so the burden of taxation fell on everyone else: the rural poor and the wealthier members of the bourgeoisie, who resented the aristocracy’s firm grip on power and privilege. In coffeehouses the contrast between radical new ideas about how the world might be and how it actually was became most apparent.

Related Symbols: Coffee
Page Number: 169
Explanation and Analysis:

The quote describes how the coffeehouses of 18th century France inspired the intellectual middle classes of the country to rise up against their social and political superiors. As Standage says, France in the 18th century was an incredibly unequal society, in which a tiny fraction of the country enjoyed the vast bulk of the country's wealth and power (something that hasn't changed much in today's society). The inequality of French society as a whole contrasted markedly with the atmosphere of equality and open exchange within a French coffeehouse. In short, Standage is suggesting (a little playfully) that French coffee drinkers wanted their entire country to be as open and equal as the coffeehouses where they spent their time.

The quote offers an interesting variation on the familiar theme of drinking spaces. Earlier in the book, Standage offered examples of drinking spaces that were intended to be separate from the outside world—refuges from the troubles of life. In the case of coffeehouses, however, Standage offers an example of a drinking space that inspires its patrons to go out and change the outside world. As Standage shows later in the chapter, French coffeehouse patrons were instrumental in the beginning of the French Revolution—the popular uprising against the wealthy elite of France. Coffeehouses offered a "utopia" for their patrons, and these patrons then tried to establish such a utopia throughout the country.

Is it any surprise that the current center of coffee culture, the city of Seattle, home to Starbucks coffeehouse chain, is also where some of the world’s largest software and Internet firms are based? Coffee’s association with innovation, reason, and networking—plus a dash of revolutionary fervor—has a long pedigree.

Related Symbols: Coffee
Page Number: 172
Explanation and Analysis:

It's a mark of coffee's continued relevance to information work, the quote suggests, that Seattle is the home of Internet innovation and Starbucks. In other words, the suggestion seems to be that coffee continues to inspire good ideas and creative thinking. More specifically, though, coffee appears to be particularly good at inspiring the exchange of new information and new ideas. Just as coffee encouraged French philosophers and English scientists to collaborate on new projects, it may be encouraging 21st-century engineers to improve the Internet—the ultimate medium for the free exchange of information.

It's important to recognize that Standage phrases this quotation as a rhetorical question. To be frank, Standage has no way of proving that Starbucks and Microsoft are linked in any literal way; the best he can do is to describe the general trends relating to coffee and innovation. Because there isn't much specific information on the history of beverages, Standage is often forced to make assumptions and educated guesses about the role of a drink in world history.

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Coffee Symbol Timeline in A History of the World in Six Glasses

The timeline below shows where the symbol Coffee appears in A History of the World in Six Glasses. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Introduction: Vital Fluids
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
Imperialism Theme Icon
Equality and Elitism Theme Icon
Drinking Spaces and Community Theme Icon
...can understand important things about human culture. He singles out six drinks: beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and Coca-Cola. Each one was “the defining drink during a pivotal historical period.” (full context)
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
Imperialism Theme Icon
Freedom and Self-Control Theme Icon
Equality and Elitism Theme Icon
Drinking Spaces and Community Theme Icon
Another milestone beverage was coffee. Coffee became popular throughout Europe in the late Middle Ages, when Europeans began trading and... (full context)
Chapter 7: The Great Soberer
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
Freedom and Self-Control Theme Icon
Equality and Elitism Theme Icon
Drinking Spaces and Community Theme Icon
...argues that the rise of the European Enlightenment was closely paralleled by the rise of coffee in Europe among middle-class workers and intellectuals around the same time. (full context)
Imperialism Theme Icon
Freedom and Self-Control Theme Icon
Equality and Elitism Theme Icon
...Standage argues, “Europe began to emerge from an alcoholic haze that had lasted for centuries.” Coffee, a drink that became popular in Europe in the middle of the 17th century, was... (full context)
Imperialism Theme Icon
Freedom and Self-Control Theme Icon
Equality and Elitism Theme Icon
Europe borrowed coffee from the Arab world. Coffee was probably invented in North Africa, or possibly Yemen. According... (full context)
Imperialism Theme Icon
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At first, the Christian world rejected coffee and viewed it as a pagan, Muslim drink. But in the early 1600s, Pope Clement... (full context)
Freedom and Self-Control Theme Icon
Drinking Spaces and Community Theme Icon
Coffeehouses first appeared in England during the time of Oliver Cromwell, the Puritan dictator of England.... (full context)
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Within less than a century, coffeehouses had become a central part of social and political life in England. While some disapproved... (full context)
Imperialism Theme Icon
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Through the 17th and 18th centuries, Arabia was the only supplier of coffee beans for England. This changed as England, along with Holland and France, became an imperial... (full context)
Chapter 8: The Coffeehouse Internet
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
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Drinking Spaces and Community Theme Icon
In the 17th century, educated and wealthy men would go to coffeehouses to learn about business news, politics, gossip, and literature. Businessmen often negotiated new deals over... (full context)
Drinking Spaces and Community Theme Icon
Coffeehouses were public places, except that they excluded women and the poor. Gentlemen and tradesmen (people... (full context)
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
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The first coffeehouse in Western Europe was established at the University of Oxford—a sure sign of the relationship... (full context)
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Perhaps the greatest book of the Age of Enlightenment was published because of coffeehouse conversation. Robert Hooke, the noted physicist, was drinking coffee with Halley, Wren, and Newton. Hooke... (full context)
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
Freedom and Self-Control Theme Icon
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Standage argues that science and commerce became heavily intertwined in coffeehouses. Many coffeehouses were patronized primarily by explorers and sailors, and sometimes these patrons would hatch... (full context)
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
Freedom and Self-Control Theme Icon
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...aristocracy. Voltaire’s books were banned for their supposedly immoral content, yet Voltaire continued to frequent coffeehouses, spending time with such French luminaries as Rousseau and Montesquieu, whose political writings Voltaire influenced. (full context)
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
Freedom and Self-Control Theme Icon
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Drinking Spaces and Community Theme Icon
French coffeehouses were similar to their English counterparts in many ways: they welcomed wealthy and middle-class men... (full context)
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
Freedom and Self-Control Theme Icon
Equality and Elitism Theme Icon
Drinking Spaces and Community Theme Icon
In contemporary times, coffeehouses remain popular, though they’re far tamer than their ancestors. Coffee is still the drink of... (full context)
Chapter 9: Empires of Tea
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
Imperialism Theme Icon
Equality and Elitism Theme Icon
Drinking Spaces and Community Theme Icon
...garden was popular with women in part because it provided a gender-equitable alternative to the coffeehouse. Tea consumption trickled down through English society, to the point where, by the late 18th... (full context)
Chapter 10: Tea Power
Imperialism Theme Icon
Freedom and Self-Control Theme Icon
Drinking Spaces and Community Theme Icon
...the U.S. drinks relatively little tea. While tea was fairly popular in the 19th century, coffee has been far more popular ever since lowered tariffs in the 1830s made it cheaper... (full context)
Epilogue: Back to the Source
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
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...reiterating that ordinary drinks like beer and Coke “tell stories” about history. Although drinking a coffee or a glass of wine is an ordinary act, this act was made possible by... (full context)