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How to make coffee, 1699
(Plus: Where to find love, 1695)
As a devoted tea drinker myself, I’ve never really understood the fuss that people make about coffee and all the elaborate ways to brew it, especially among the hipsters of Hoxton and the baristas of Brooklyn. But inevitably, the close study of this beverage is not new to our age. Today I offer an espresso shot from an early attempt to assess the coffee phenomenon, less than 50 years after the drink first came to Britain.
On 14th June 1699, our subject stood before the Royal Society (members of which we’ve met a number of times before, such as John Evelyn, Isaac Newton, Thomas Young and Charles Babbage) to deliver ‘A Discourse of Coffee’.He was John Houghton (1645–1705), an apothecary and author who grew up in Hertfordshire, studied in Cambridge and set up business in the City of London. As well as selling medicine, he imported the 17th century novelties of coffee, chocolate and various spices to sell in his shop.
A pamphlet he wrote in 1677 advocating free trade (‘England’s Great Happiness’) brought him to the attention of the scientist Robert Hooke, who invited him into the Royal Society. Aside from his shopkeeping, Houghton embarked on various journalistic projects, mostly writing about agriculture and trade in his own periodicals such as A Collection for the Improvement of Husbandry and Trade. He was something of a pioneer in various ways: aside from being the first person to write about the cultivation of potatoes (another new import, of course) as a commercial crop, he also developed (arguably created) classified advertising, promoting his own chocolate in 1693 but then widening the scope as an agent for other advertisers.
As a consequence of this, he also printed the world’s first lonely hearts ads! That was on 19th July 1695 (only eight weeks earlier, the Licensing of the Press Act had expired, bringing an end to censorship of the press), and they read:
A Gentleman about 30 Years of Age, that says he had a Very Good Estate, would willingly Match himself to some Good Young Gentlewoman that has a Fortune of £3000 or thereabouts, and he will make Settlement to Content.
A Young Man about 25 Years of Age, in a very good Trade, and whose Father will make him worth £1000 would willingly embrace a suitable Match. He has been brought up a Dissenter, with his Parents, and is a sober Man.
The format took off quickly, and only a month later another ad from a young bachelor noted how he was looking for “comeliness” and “prudence” in a potential spouse (as well as, er, five or six hundred pounds in money or land). The next year Houghton could write “their own Parents shall not manage it more to their Satisfaction, and the more comes to me the better, I shall be able to serve them”.Swipe right?
Houghton was also an early adopter of another format in his journals which persists to this day: the book review (“I find by several of my Correspondents that more Books would be bought if well recommended”). But let’s get back to coffee…
Houghton began his Discourse with a brief description of the coffee plant and its known history as a drink “among the Arabians and Turks”, then discusses how it was brought to Britain by Daniel Edwards, a merchant in Smyrna (now Izmir in Turkey),
… who brought with him, Anno 1652, a Greek Servant, named Pasqua, who made his Coffee, which he drank two or three Dishes at a time, twice or thrice a Day.
Pasqua Rosée came with Edwards to London and the latter set him up as the proprietor of the city’s first ever coffee house – the Victorian premises of the Jamaica Wine House still thrives on the site today.
Houghton then proceeds to describe how coffee is prepared and its “virtues”…
The common way of preparing the berries for the coffee drink is roasting them in a tin cylindrical box, full of holes, through the middle of which runs a spit, under this is a semicircular hearth, wherein is made a large charcoal-fire: by the help of a jack, the spit turns swift, and so it roasts, being now and then taken up to be shaken. When the oil rises, and the berries are grown of a dark brown colour, they are emptied into two receivers, made with large hoops, whose bottoms are iron-plates, that shut into them, and there the coffee is well shaken, and left till almost cold; and if it looks bright, oily, and shining, it is a sign it is well done.
Of this, when fresh, if an ounce be ground, and boiled in something more than a quart of Water, till it be fully impregnated with the fine particles of the coffee, and the rest is grown so ponderous, as it will subside and leave the Liquor clear, and of a reddish colour, it will make about a quart of very good coffee.
The best way of keeping the berries when roasted, is in some warm place, where it may not be suffered to imbibe any moisture, which will pall it, and take away its flavour: it is best to grind it as used, except it be rammed into a tin pot, well covered and kept dry, and then I believe it will keep good a month.
There swims on the coffee an oil, which the great coffee-drinkers among the Turks will take in great plenty, if they can get it. When the coffee has stood some time to cool, the gross parts subside, the briskness is gone, and it grows flat and almost clear again…
… being diluted, as it usually is, I question whether it does any more good than hot tea, hot broth, or any thing else that is actually hot; for I believe that actual and potential heats are much of the same operation.
Coffee has generally been reckoned an antihypnotic, or preventer of sleep, according to the opinion of Dr. Willis and others; but now it is come into frequent use, the contrary is often observed, although perhaps custom, as it does with opium, alters its natural qualities.
As to the political uses of coffee; I am told, that our three kingdoms consume about 100 ton a year, whereof England consumes about 70 ton, which at £14 a ton (a middle price now) will amount to £20,580 sterling, and if it were to be all sold in coffee-houses, it would reach treble that sum, or £61,740, which at £10 a head will find employment for 6,174 persons, although I believe all the people of England one with another do not consume 5 pounds each…
Furthermore, coffee has greatly increased the trade of tobacco and pipes, earthen dishes, tin wares, newspapers, coals, candles, sugar, tea, chocolate and what not? Coffee-houses make all sorts of people sociable, they improve arts, and merchandise, and all other knowledge; and a worthy member of this Society (now departed) has thought that coffee-houses have improved useful knowledge very much.
The story of Houghton’s lonely hearts ads (and the whole subsequent genre) is told in Francesca Beauman’s 2012 book Shapely Ankle Preferr'd: A History of the Lonely Hearts Advertisement (Vintage).