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Quid Novi? and A Refill, Please
September 10, 2013 10:30 PM   Subscribe

London’s coffee craze began in 1652 when Pasqua Rosée, the Greek servant of a coffee-loving British Levant merchant, opened London’s first coffeehouse (or rather, coffee shack) against the stone wall of St Michael’s churchyard in a labyrinth of alleys off Cornhill. Coffee was a smash hit; within a couple of years, Pasqua was selling over 600 dishes of coffee a day to the horror of the local tavern keepers. For anyone who’s ever tried seventeenth-century style coffee, this can come as something of a shock — unless, that is, you like your brew “black as hell, strong as death, sweet as love”, as an old Turkish proverb recommends, and shot through with grit.
posted by barnacles (66 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite

 
For anyone who’s ever tried seventeenth-century style coffee, this can come as something of a shock — unless, that is, you like your brew “black as hell, strong as death, sweet as love”, as an old Turkish proverb recommends, and shot through with grit.

That sounds amazing, so much better than Nescafé. In the land of the drunks (aka the 18th century), the caffeinated man is king.
posted by betweenthebars at 10:42 PM on September 10, 2013 [10 favorites]


I'm tempted to order from Starbucks using that phrase now: "I'd like a venti americano, black as hell, strong as death, sweet as love, please".
posted by Grimgrin at 10:50 PM on September 10, 2013 [20 favorites]


How did that Turkish proverb never become a catchphrase for a Blaxploitation film? Too obvious?

betweenthebars: In Turkey at least, you can get instant Turkish coffee for the best/worst of both worlds.
posted by grajohnt at 10:55 PM on September 10, 2013 [7 favorites]


"Remember — until the mid-seventeenth century, most people in England were either slightly — or very — drunk all of the time."

This explains a lot.
posted by Kevin Street at 11:22 PM on September 10, 2013 [10 favorites]


Sorry about commenting twice so quickly, but...

"...the establishments in the West End and Exchange Alley excepted, coffeehouses were generally spartan, wooden and no-nonsense.

As the image shows, customers sat around long communal tables strewn with every type of media imaginable listening in to each other’s conversations, interjecting whenever they pleased, and reflecting upon the newspapers. Talking to strangers, an alien concept in most coffee shops today, was actively encouraged.
"

That sounds like a caffeinated version of Metafilter.
posted by Kevin Street at 11:39 PM on September 10, 2013 [15 favorites]


instant Turkish coffee

THE HORROR!
posted by Dr Dracator at 11:57 PM on September 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


Dr Dracator - prepare to be horrified.

Is today's coffee shop in London any different, really? People go in and get coffee, and are usually conducing discourse with their friends and strangers, just not out loud - they're doing it over the internet. I am currently drinking coffee myself... Anyone care to contribute to this conversation from a coffee shop? Perhaps one in London? Maybe from the Starbucks that lies where Button's once did?
posted by grajohnt at 12:15 AM on September 11, 2013


I'm tempted to order from Starbucks using that phrase now: "I'd like a venti americano, black as hell, strong as death, sweet as love, please".

The phrase you used to hear twenty years ago was "I like my coffee rich and dark, like the Aga Khan."

I hope one day London's coffee scene properly emerges from under the influence of Friends. Starbucks-type hot milkshakes are not coffee any more than a pitcher of iced tea is like a pot of Earl Grey. London's emerging coffee scene is gradually starting to put more focus on the coffee, and less on the tall cup it comes in. /Hipster Barista

Insofar as 17th century coffee houses were hotbeds of gossip and political rumours: rien ne change. Discussions are just as robust and scurrilous, still conducted over coffee, and still attract the attention of government spies. They're just on the internet now.
posted by MuffinMan at 12:51 AM on September 11, 2013 [5 favorites]


I love the article's implication that the triumph of Britain as a nation came because everyone stopped having watered down beer and started drinking coffee
posted by Cannon Fodder at 1:21 AM on September 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


Fortunately there are still plenty of places in the City where you can get a decent cup of coffee, rather than the coffee flavoured milk that Starbucks sells.

Everyone knows that the insurance industry started in a coffee shop in London. Not so well known is that the Stock Exchange was also founded in a London coffee shop, Jonathan's.
posted by Major Tom at 1:42 AM on September 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


black as hell, strong as death, sweet as love”, as an old Turkish proverb recommends, and shot through with grit.

Sounds good, a lot better than Starbucks/Costa pishwater.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 1:58 AM on September 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


If you're in London you can do a tour.
posted by Segundus at 2:07 AM on September 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


I hope one day London's coffee scene properly emerges from under the influence of Friends. Starbucks-type hot milkshakes are not coffee any more than a pitcher of iced tea is like a pot of Earl Grey. London's emerging coffee scene is gradually starting to put more focus on the coffee, and less on the tall cup it comes in. /Hipster Barista

Luckily, Aussies in the Old Country aren't just good at pulling beers behind the bar.
posted by Hello, I'm David McGahan at 2:22 AM on September 11, 2013


I got some good answers a while back on how to make this type of coffee.
posted by dhoe at 2:28 AM on September 11, 2013 [7 favorites]


For anyone who’s ever tried seventeenth-century style coffee, this can come as something of a shock — unless, that is, you like your brew “black as hell, strong as death, sweet as love”, as an old Turkish proverb recommends, and shot through with grit.

Grit is a bit OTT, but how else would you like your coffee? Possibly bitter as love, but a rose is a rose.
posted by ersatz at 2:29 AM on September 11, 2013


“black as hell, strong as death, sweet as love”, as an old Turkish proverb recommends, and shot through with grit.

Kind of like Turkish - or Greek - coffee today then surely?
posted by glasseyes at 2:33 AM on September 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


I am currently drinking coffee myself... Anyone care to contribute to this conversation from a coffee shop? Perhaps one in London? Maybe from the Starbucks that lies where Button's once did?

I'm writing a blockbuster right now.
I'm two seats behind you.
I've got a MacAir.
I just winked.
posted by qinn at 3:03 AM on September 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Black as the Devil's weskit, if you want to be precise.
posted by Segundus at 3:07 AM on September 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


Black as the sky on a moonless night...
posted by professor plum with a rope at 3:24 AM on September 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


at White’s on St James’s Street, famously depicted by Hogarth, rakes would gamble away entire estates and place bets on how long customers had to live, a practice that would eventually grow into the life insurance industry

!
posted by Omnomnom at 3:31 AM on September 11, 2013 [6 favorites]


I'd like to know when and why the coffee houses died out.

When I first visited the US there seemed to be plenty of independent diners and cafes serving great coffee. But in the UK, before Starbucks I don't remember there being a load of great independent coffee places, just a few greasy-spoon cafes serving Nescafe and fry-ups. The British tea shop chains seem to have gradually died out in the mid-Twentieth century, maybe they killed the independents first?
posted by TheophileEscargot at 4:01 AM on September 11, 2013


It was likely the Ceylon coffee blight of 1869, which caused most of the farms in what is now Sri Lanka to switch over to tea, and also led to tea being actively promoted as a drink by the British government (before this time, it had been strongly lobbied against by brewers, who feared it would replace ale as a breakfast drink).
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 4:39 AM on September 11, 2013 [10 favorites]


before this time, it had been strongly lobbied against by brewers, who feared it would replace ale as a breakfast drink

this is literally the best fact about a nice cuppa that I have ever learned
posted by jetlagaddict at 4:56 AM on September 11, 2013 [7 favorites]


I don't think coffee houses have ever died out. I have worked in the City of London for 25 years; there have always been coffee houses here. When I first started working here as a clerk they were mostly run by Italian families, and so you could get pasta and panini, and a cappucino to go with it. Sadly a lot of them were driven out by the Starbuck type chains, where you can buy cofee and "coffee accessories". But the traditional, independent coffee shops survive all over the City.
posted by Major Tom at 4:56 AM on September 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm not in a coffee shop, but as I'm in London I'm three minutes' walk from about 13 Prets. Sadly no longer Seattle Coffee Company.

I was on a bus to work and chatting to a couple from Seattle. They pointed out a Starbucks and told me that they too have those in the States.
posted by mippy at 5:04 AM on September 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


But propagandist apologias and wondrous claims of travel-writers aside, more compelling evidence suggests that far from co-existing in perfect harmony on the fireside bench, people in coffeehouses sat in relentless judgement of one another.

On the other hand, it's nice to know that nothing ever really changes. I wonder how much the rising availability of sugar throughout impacted the price point and availability of coffee? I also love The Vertue of the Coffee Drink for its insistence that coffee can cure scurvy and also prevent miscarriages and clear up your skin, gout, dropsie, and other fun ailments!
posted by jetlagaddict at 5:05 AM on September 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


Tea shops/tea rooms were a product of the Temperance movement, and they declined with it. In the days of the single breadwinner nuclear family, tea rooming was a big social thing for women. As a wee lad, I remember "going to town" with my gran to a tea room up on Sauchiehall St in Glasgow. There she met with friends, all similarly bedecked in fur hats and posh coats, and took tea, all the while cooing over bored, over-dressed and slightly sticky grandchildren and complaining about how slow and common the waitresses were. It had been a weekly thing their whole lives.

Every department store had a tea room, and some of them were very lavishly appointed. Almost all of them are gone, and even the stalwart chain Bradfords is out of business. Man, where will I go for my Sumatra and fern cake fix now when I'm visiting Glasgow?
posted by scruss at 5:25 AM on September 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


“black as hell, strong as death, sweet as love”, as an old Turkish proverb recommends, and shot through with grit.

yep, sounds delicious. Turkish/Greek coffee is the only kind I drink black & with sugar. Otherwise it's unsweetened and with milk/cream. The grit counts as lunch.

As for whether Starbucks ruined British coffee: I don't know about London, but in the wilds of East Anglia, Starbucks is the only decent non-espresso coffee available. Your only other choices are cafeteria coffee (wasn't bad at the local court house, only okay at the uni library - generally watery and uninspiring, though the tea was excellent), or Costa/Cafe Nero espresso. Since I'm not an espresso fan (prefer blond/medium roasts on a French press), Starbucks was my best option when I needed to rent a table for a few hours. That said, the cost was high enough that I started carrying a flask of my own brew most of the time I lived in the UK - dropped the habit when I got back to the US and could get a decent cup for $1.25 instead of £1.85

I remember when Starbucks came to Toronto: we were all shocked at the price. Then the local chains raised their prices in response - and improved their quality considerably, because their coffee had been much worse than Starbucks. Now it is more comparable, though not the same quality as the new Clover machines (fast French Press filled with too many beans - yum).
posted by jb at 5:39 AM on September 11, 2013


When I was in London last I found the nearest Costa (in the shadow of St. Paul's) to be quite good. Better than a Starbucks, at least to me. I was surprised to discover them to be a chain.
posted by tommasz at 5:43 AM on September 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Nice post; I knew something about the history of coffeehouses, but learned a lot from the linked piece. Don't miss the little joke at the end of the pictured handbill:
Made and Sold in St. Michael's Alley in Cornhill, by Pasqua Rosee, at the Signe of his own Head.
posted by languagehat at 5:48 AM on September 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


It is known by experience to be better than any other Drying Drink for People in years, or Children that have any running humors upon them, as the King's Evil, &c.

Imagine giving your child boiling caffeinated sugar-tar, "taken as hot as possibly can be endured". It would cure the King's Evil, that's for sure.
posted by blob at 5:53 AM on September 11, 2013


tommasz: can you get non-espresso coffee at Costa? There was a good independent near me, which everyone loved, but they only did espresso and an americano really isn't the same as good drip/press coffee (too watery). I remember Cafe Nero being all espresso and I thought Costa as well, but maybe I remember wrong.
posted by jb at 5:54 AM on September 11, 2013


Turkish coffee doesn't have to be sweet; in a proper setting you can request sweet ("şekerli"), semi-sweet ("az şekerli", literal translation "with a tiny bit of sugar") and dark ("acı," literal translation "bitter") coffee. There's even a short story from the 50s, in which a young man muses about how he needs to be considered an adult by the elderly owner of a coffeehouse first before he would be taken seriously, as opposed to being perceived as pretentious, if he were to ask for an az şekerli coffee. (Author's Wikipedia page.)
posted by seyirci at 6:36 AM on September 11, 2013 [7 favorites]


Intersting stuff. I noted the passing reference to the insurance industry, Lloyds I recall has coffee house roots. I recall one or two building societies also owe their existence to them.
posted by BenPens at 6:43 AM on September 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


David Liss' book The Coffee Trader is a nice journey through the intro of coffee to Amsterdam about the same era.
posted by yoga at 6:43 AM on September 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


When I was in London last I found the nearest Costa (in the shadow of St. Paul's) to be quite good. Better than a Starbucks, at least to me. I was surprised to discover them to be a chain.

There's, I think, more Costas than Starbucks here. In a nice bit of capitalist partnership, many Tescos have them in-store now.
posted by mippy at 6:45 AM on September 11, 2013


this is a great topic. neil stephenson's "baroque cycle" covered it as well.
posted by rebent at 6:46 AM on September 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


Thus is such a cool topic, but this:

The arrival of coffee, then, triggered a dawn of sobriety that laid the foundations for truly spectacular economic growth in the decades that followed as people thought clearly for the first time.

is giving this historian hives.
posted by oinopaponton at 6:50 AM on September 11, 2013 [7 favorites]


Coffee, harmless drink to wake one up of a morning or a devil's juice that fueled one of the most brutal empires to ever hold the globe in its iron fist?
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 6:57 AM on September 11, 2013 [8 favorites]


"black as hell, strong as death, sweet as love”

That is such a great line that I'll have to start putting sugar in my coffee just so I can say it.
posted by math at 7:07 AM on September 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


Roasted with care, certain varietals have an inherent sweetness.

And that is the most Pacific-Northwest sentence I have ever written.
posted by sandettie light vessel automatic at 7:10 AM on September 11, 2013 [7 favorites]


instant Turkish coffee

So...dirt, then?

I always thought of Turkish coffee as being a lot like cowboy coffee, or the stuff we made on Scout camp-outs (where the texture of grounds and "fire herb" made it toothy), only the Turkish stuff had much-finer stuff floating in it. Am I very wrong?
posted by wenestvedt at 7:12 AM on September 11, 2013


wenestvedt: Floating in it, no. There at the bottom of the cup if properly poured, yes. You'll get some in your mouth if you try to upend the cup; it'll change consistency as you drink and it's probably time to stop drinking when you can feel it getting thicker.
posted by seyirci at 7:19 AM on September 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


This article gives a good insight to the changing flavour of coffee. Coffee, at the time it was introduced, was a startling new flavour - as it had to be, shipped on the surface, in non-airtight containers. Recent periods have allowed us to have mostly fresh coffee, ground within (at most) a month of consumption.

Now we're starting to see the freshest, oily beans being used on the high street. This gives a really punchy flavour to espresso and pour-over coffee, sometimes slightly sweet, and it's very strong. It's an evolution from the espresso drinks at a chain store, but it's something along the same line.

Perhaps this is one reason that the coffee shops of the past didn't make it into the 1980s. An older method of serving coffee can give a very weak cup - which an older person might prefer, but wouldn't bring in a lot of customers.
posted by The River Ivel at 7:21 AM on September 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


" if this be the devil's drink, then we should cheat the devil by baptizing it."
posted by The Whelk at 7:22 AM on September 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


Oh dang, I was going to post this a while back!

Metafilter: a parcel of muddling muck-worms…some going, some coming, some scribbling, some talking, some drinking, others jangling, and the whole room stinking of tobacco.
posted by Mooseli at 7:28 AM on September 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


the coffee flavoured milk that Starbucks sells

When I first visited the US there seemed to be plenty of independent diners and cafes serving great coffee.
Sentences like these make me think I live in a different world from some of you. Like it or hate it, Starbucks is anything but weak. And as others have commented, diner coffee used to be terrible. Oh, sure, maybe there was that one place, but it stood out because there wasn't any other good coffee around.
posted by MrMoonPie at 7:34 AM on September 11, 2013 [6 favorites]


If you kids think Starbucks is bad, you should have tried being a coffee drinker in a non-major city or non-university town before the coffee craze of the 90s. Hope you like Denny's!
posted by entropicamericana at 7:43 AM on September 11, 2013 [6 favorites]


Rudy the Kip echoed that proverb as "hot as hell, black as night and sweet as sin." And black guys of a certain age used to say they liked their women like they liked their coffee, light and sweet. I believe it was Dick Gregory who responded that he too liked his women like he liked his coffee -- black and bitter.
posted by tspae at 7:52 AM on September 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


David Liss' book The Coffee Trader is a nice journey through the intro of coffee to Amsterdam about the same era.

His historical-financial-mysteries/class-drama novels set in London regularly feature the London coffee houses, especially the first which is about early stock trading ('stock-jobbing').

A Conspiracy of Paper, which plays on the South Sea Bubble

A Spectacle of Corruption, treating the politics of the time

The Devil's Company, exploring the emergence of corporatism and globalization through the East India Company.
posted by snuffleupagus at 7:53 AM on September 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


My town of ~20,000 supports: three drive-up coffee booths; three srs-bzns, temple-of-coffee cafes, two slightly less self-serious coffee shops, and then 2.5 Starbucks (.5 nestled in a supermarket). These have all been going concerns for years now, and it still astonishes me. Bunch of addicts.
posted by sandettie light vessel automatic at 8:02 AM on September 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


I've always wanted an excuse to use the Polish version that goes "black as the devil, sweet as a stolen kiss,"* but...I don't actually like my coffee that way.

* Yeah, I did first come across it in Watchmen, but a buddy of mine verified that at least people of his grandmother's generation in Poland still use it.
posted by invitapriore at 8:20 AM on September 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


As soon as I saw this post, I thought of David Liss as well. I can't recommend his books strongly enough. They are great.
posted by bove at 8:36 AM on September 11, 2013


There is something fine about reading this thread while sipping my second cup of coffee, which is black as hell, strong as death, smooth as fine leather, and unsugared as truth.
posted by bearwife at 9:00 AM on September 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


This Is Coffee!
posted by The Whelk at 9:30 AM on September 11, 2013


I like my coffee like I like my women, pale and bitter.
posted by misterpatrick at 9:34 AM on September 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


It never ceases to amaze me that Starbucks gets so much defensive praise when it's criticized for its product (and I'm talking about this separately from its business practices). The praise I can see to give is that their products are consistent, and for that reason they are popular. That's not to say that it's a subjectively great product, but it works really well for a market that sees people traveling over great distances with a kind of regularity that might have been odd outside of certain slices of the business class during the heydey of the local diner. Tastes haven't always required international consistency, and so memories of diner coffee might be unfairly judged for a variability that was once appreciated, or at least more appreciated.

I grew up in rural Arkansas and will never forget the absolutely amazing coffee that was always simmering in a huge percolator vat at the bait shop (which was where every kid biked for candy and magazines and, yes, sweet coffee). The guy who ran the place would drop in a little chunk of cinnamon stick and kids would come in and buy little dixie cup servings to load up with sugar. I'm sure it was just Folger's or something, but good god was it delicious when doctored up, and it was such a far cry from the chicory stuff that parents made on the stove that it seemed like a delicacy.

Those memories remind me that standards of quality change--much as they have from long-ago London--and quality coffee hasn't always been related to the esoterics of its provenance and production and preparation. And a huge cup of Starbucks coffee gets me by at the airport, and reliably so, but I still doctor it up with cinnamon and sugar like the good stuff at the bait shop.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 10:35 AM on September 11, 2013


"Remember — until the mid-seventeenth century, most people in England were either slightly — or very — drunk all of the time. Drink London’s fetid river water at your own peril; most people wisely favoured watered-down ale or beer (“small beer”)."

Bull.
Shit.

The author is completely out of their water. Small beer is not watered-down, in the first place: it's the final wash of the mash; it is lower in sugar ciontent than the first two, but no water is added. Because it has less sugar, it ferments much less (lower ABV). Today, that portion is mixed with the first two washes.

Small beer is barely alcoholic. I took a gallon of it with me to a hot event; the temp was in the 90s (34ish C). I was covered head to toe in medieval garb, and sweating buckets. I restricted myself to drinking small beer, and guess what? Never got remotely drunk.

Anytime someone informs you that "in the past, people were X!!!", where "X" is something ridiculously shocking... you can bet you are being lied to by a lazy historian.
posted by IAmBroom at 3:35 PM on September 11, 2013 [8 favorites]


In the past, John Doe and Exene Cervenka were X.
posted by sandettie light vessel automatic at 4:57 PM on September 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


The praise I can see to give is that their products are consistent, and for that reason they are popular.

in my city, they also have a better brew than the other chain coffee shops, and as good as many independents. I will drink Second Cup because I get a good discount for having my travel mug ($1.64 for a medium), and the ladies at the one where I worked last year were lovely, but I've had better coffee at Starbucks. Also, west end Toronto coffee snobs may hate me, but I prefer Starbucks to Sam James, which was not terribly impressive for the price. (Sam James was weird - boring tasting coffee that left me extremely wired for hours. Is it a really light roast?)
posted by jb at 8:03 PM on September 11, 2013


Light roasts can often have more caffeine in them. People think darker=more potent but that's not really true.
posted by The Whelk at 8:06 PM on September 11, 2013


> It never ceases to amaze me that Starbucks gets so much defensive praise when it's criticized for its product (and I'm talking about this separately from its business practices). The praise I can see to give is that their products are consistent, and for that reason they are popular.

It never ceases to amaze me that people keep making this claim, stubbornly refusing to recognize that a lot of people like Starbucks coffee because they like Starbucks coffee. It's just plain insulting to claim that they only like it because it's popular. How do you think it got popular in the first place? I myself was resistant to it because of the trendiness/advertising factor, but my brother forced me to actually try a cup, and by George, it was damn good. (And then, when I walked out and immediately spilled it in the parking lot and went in to buy a replacement, the barista insisted on not charging me for it, which didn't exactly make me want to never go back.)

Look, I understand that a lot of people genuinely don't like Starbucks coffee; they find it overroasted or whatever. That's fine! I defend to the death your right not to like Starbucks coffee! But don't fucking tell me that if I like it I have no taste buds or am a sucker for trendy popularity. Extend to me the same respect I extend to you. Thanks!

Oh, and:

> memories of diner coffee might be unfairly judged for a variability that was once appreciated, or at least more appreciated.

Horseshit. I was born in 1951, I remember diner coffee very well, and it sucked. Often it was so pale and weak you wouldn't have guessed it was coffee in a blind test. Don't romanticize the past.
posted by languagehat at 9:09 AM on September 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


languagehat: do any of the Starbucks near you have clover machines? basically fast French presses, and they do a better cup than the drip. A good roast on there is brilliant. (Clover, the maker of the machine, is actually another company - and places other than Starbucks have them).

another thing to know, told to me by a friend who has worked 10 years for SBux: if you think your drink is wrong or just badly made, complain (nicely). Company policy is that they fix it, no questions asked.
posted by jb at 7:44 PM on September 12, 2013


at White’s on St James’s Street, famously depicted by Hogarth, rakes would gamble away entire estates and place bets on how long customers had to live, a practice that would eventually grow into the life insurance industry

I'd love to know more about that -- anyone know a book or article that explains how gambling turned into life insurance?
posted by Margalo Epps at 9:45 AM on September 13, 2013


Clover, the maker of the machine, is actually another company

Was; Starbucks acquired Clover in 2008.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 1:30 PM on September 14, 2013


Didn't know they had been bought by Starbucks - but the machines are also at independent coffee shops.
posted by jb at 8:09 PM on September 14, 2013


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