The evil bean

The Viennese would have you believe that coffee was introduced to Europeans when the forces of the Turkish Grand Vizier Mustafa were driven from the gates of Vienna on 12 September 1683. The story goes that the Turks withdrew so quickly they left behind a lot valuables, including large bags of coffee beans, which the Viennese soon learned to brew.

From what I’ve been able to sort out, it appears that the British got there ahead of the Viennese. Queen Elizabeth I, always on the look-out for a way to turn a profit, had cultivated trade with the Ottoman Turks. Thus, coffee was known in England rather early, although it took a while to take off.

In 1652, the first coffee-house in London, later known as The Turks Head was opened by a guy named Pasqua Rosee, an immigrant from Ottoman Smyrna. His first customers were merchants connected with the Levant Company who had picked up the coffee habit – okay, addiction – from their business partners, the Turks.

At first coffee-houses were strictly all-male affairs because they were seen largely as places to conduct business, something off-limits to ladies in the seventeenth century. Lloyd’s Coffee House in London – founded in 1688 by Edward Lloyd – was popular with merchants and sea captains. Yes, the massive global insurance firm Lloyd’s of London started as a coffee-house. There is a delightful account of this in Adam Smith’s (not THE Adam Smith) book Paper Money.

Modern insurance began in Lloyd’s Coffee house as straightforward gambling.

Essentially it was like making bar bets, except that everybody was jazzed on caffeine instead of being groggy on alcohol. A sea captain would make a bet that his ship would sink. He would offer odds. People would take his bet. If his ship sank – and he survived, hardly a certainty even today — he could recover some of his losses. If his ship made it home safely with its cargo, he would have calculated his odds such that paying off his bets wouldn’t hurt him too much.

Eventually, Lloyd’s decided, “to hell with this coffee nonsense, we can make a lot more money with gambling, uh, insurance!”

Coffee houses remained controversial places where shady deals took place, where women were generally excluded, with some exceptions such as the sitzkassiererin (seated cashier) in some Viennese coffee houses. Usually the only woman in the place, her job was to sell the coffee and use her charms to lure customers back to her coffee house instead of the competition’s.

Where am I going with all this, gentle reader? It all leads, of course, to Johann Sebastian Bach. You see, for a very long time time, there was an active anti-coffee movement. Coffee, for one thing, made you sterile. Also, Muslims drank it so there must have been something sinister about it.

When Bach wasn’t writing church music and complaining bitterly that his neighbors were too healthy (a significant portion of his income came from playing music at funerals), he performed at the Leipzig Musical Society. The concerts were held at, yes, a coffee house.

To make the proprietor happy, J. S. Bach, arguably the greatest musical genius of all time, wrote what is essentially a commercial jingle celebrating the wonders of coffee by showing how much someone loves it.

If you would like to hear it or read the lyrics translated into English:


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