Coffee Talk: Spaces

(C) Ami VitaleBy Danny Pinnell, SCAA

This week, our coffee talk focused on the space where coffee is consumed, the context in which we enjoy this beverage. Peter Giuliano led the talk, setting the scene in Ethiopia, the birthplace of the coffee industry. According to him, “All coffee conversations should start in Ethiopia because that’s where coffee started.” Coffee is native to Southwestern Ethiopia, and not only does the plant come from that section of the world, our coffee-drinking culture was born there as well.

(C) Ami Vitale

In Ethiopia, traditionally a woman will light incense, wash some coffee with water, and roast it while people from both her family and the community gather around her, then prepares the beverage for them to enjoy. This is called an Ethiopian coffee ceremony. As the woman prepares the coffee (which is a position of honor), people talk and catch up with one another. As she pours the coffee for each guest, conversations become more structured. People talk about certain things over certain cups of coffee. If you ask any Ethiopian about what the coffee ceremony means, they will talk about connecting with each other and catching up with stories about people in the community.

Over the course of history, coffee eventually expanded across the Red Sea into what is now Yemen, formerly Arabia Felix, and moved from the Ethiopian culture to the Arabic culture. The format of the Ethiopian coffee ceremony changed, but they retained a lot of the same elements, such as information-sharing. The coffee context in Arabia was often in a marketplace, where the Europeans first discovered the delicacy.

Lloyd's Coffee House | London, England
Subscription Room, Lloyd’s Coffee House | London, England

The Europeans would typically buy items such as silks from the East and spices from India in these Arabian marketplaces, and when they finally stumbled upon coffee, they brought it back to Europe through trading ports like Venice and Vienna. Coffee entered the European culture, taking on attributes of places such as pubs–serving counters, tables, and chairs, rather than sitting on the ground or carpet as they did in the traditional Ethiopian ceremony. Although the setting changed, the meaning of the coffee space continued to be about interaction and the exchanging of information and ideas.

Coffee spaces were so popular in Europe at this time that scholars of today refer to the European coffee house as the “Internet of the Enlightened era.” You went to a coffee house if you wanted news, gossip, or just to hang out for a while.

“It was totally their Facebook,” said Peter. “If you look at a map of London in the 17th century there are coffee shops all over the place–three, four, five to a block. That’s where people went to get tapped into their community.”

This tradition continued through the European colonization of what was to become the United States of America. When colonists came over to North America, they founded coffee houses, which were often the center for the political discourse that started our country.

Green Dragon Tavern | Boston, MA
Green Dragon Tavern | Boston, MA: Known as the headquarters for the American Revolution.

“Our Declaration of Independence, our Constitution were developed in coffee houses,” said Peter. “That political ideology, that enlightenment sort of sphere where we invented ideas like democracy and equal rights, were invented in coffee houses because those were the places where people met and discussed things.”

If you go backwards from that point, back all the way to Ethiopia, you can see this tradition with coffee spaces being about interaction. All throughout these intervening years and expansion of the geographical exposure to coffee and its surrounding contexts, the ritual has never lost this meaning. There’s something special and essential about this in terms of the coffee space.

Peter delivered a talk at Symposium 2013 in Boston going into detail on coffee spaces, below.

Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony photos by Ami Vitale