The Enlightenment and Starbucks: Why Dr. Jason Ward says the two are linked
Whenever a millennial plans out their day, there is one element so vital that it has been the subject of almost every Monday meme in history: coffee. The fountain of youth and productivity, coffee has become our first priority, making it not just a drink, but a lifestyle. Dr. Jason Ward, Lee University history professor and historian of commodities sat down to talk with Lee Clarion about his take on coffee's effect in the past and present.
Kaitlyn Carter: Coffee is a household necessity known as the fuel of college students, the fuel of America and essentially the fuel of the world as we know it. Has it always been so?
JW: Actually, no, for a variety reasons. In fact, coffee couldn’t have been fuel for anyone before European empires connected the source of the beans with the consumers that could afford them, as it was a luxury good. That’s not to say that people who lived where coffee beans grow naturally didn’t use them, but they didn’t necessarily brew them into a hot drink.
KC: Didn’t they chew them?
JW: Yes they did! Coffee is one of several psychoactive substances that people in East Africa—where we think coffee was probably first used—had access to as a stimulant. They eventually figure out that adding hot water to the grounds of the beans is a good idea. From there we see coffee used as a feature of hospitality. You always serve coffee to your guests.
KC: Does coffee have an origin story?
JW: In fact it does. There’s a story that gets told about the discovery of coffee—I suspect it’s not true, but it’s a good story—about a goat herder who discovered his goats jumping around crazily after eating the fruit of a particular bush. He eventually tried out the beans, and it turns out that it’s coffee! And every coffee shop owner who is serious about their coffee will tell you about the goats. In any case, coffee certainly wasn’t available to many people in the beginning, and the places where coffee could be found were not interacted with before the 1500s by European traders. So coffee has only been out in the world for about 500 years.
KC: In my research, I stumbled upon the idea that coffee shops actually began in the Enlightenment Era. Is that true?
JW: That is true! In fact, there is a now famous author named Jurgen Habermans—and we all still read him—[who] first sort of introduced that theory. Basically, as historians we accept that he was right-on that the idea of coffeehouses—the first of which that is remembered is a place in London, England called Lloyd’s of London. It was a shipping insurance place that they started to serve coffee at, and it became a coffeehouse. It’s still a coffeehouse today, but it’s also a big insurance company. People would meet here who were merchants in the shipping district, the part of London where businessmen would meet and talk about the news of the day, current prices for commodities, etc. They would discuss Enlightenment ideas that they had all been reading in different places. They would read newspapers—which are also associated with the rise of coffeehouses because suddenly there was a market open for daily printed news of the world that could be discussed. And so they would drink coffee and have conversation. Coffee was associated with clearness of mind, so the very nature of coffee was recognized as beneficial to talking intellect or business.
KC: It’s funny how we still see coffee that way today.
JW: Absolutely. In fact, what’s the mega, sort of McDonald’s, of coffee? Starbucks. It is modeled upon that same notion. And the original Starbucks, before Howard Schultz got ahold of it, was a very cool coffeehouse to go hang out at, much like the non-Starbucks coffeehouses hipsters can be found at today. Schultz, who is CEO of Starbucks, while traveling in Italy was struck by the baristas there and thought, “You know, we could do this.” So he transformed what was a local Seattle coffeehouse into what Starbucks is now.
KC: Aren’t you from Seattle?
JW: I am! So I’ve been to the first Starbucks. I remember when there were street baristas that were with Starbucks, but they just had little carts. Now if you go to Seattle, you’ll see Starbucks everywhere, but there are also hundreds of other choices. Locals prefer to go through little drive-thru kiosks that are not chains.
KC: So all of this being said, would you consider yourself somewhat of a coffee connoisseur?
JW: Well, I’m certainly a coffee snob. So I buy beans and grind them myself at home. Currently, the freshly-roasted Bonlife espresso beans are my drink of choice.
KC: Could you put together your top 5 coffee shops around this area?
JW: Well, I never really take anyone anywhere but Bonlife, but I’ve heard good things about Lasaters and the new Old Woolen Mill place, and Rembrandt’s in Chattanooga is great just for the atmosphere alone.
KC: So Starbucks finds itself at the bottom of the list?
JW: Well, the merit of Starbucks is that, as a national chain, every store is identical. So you get consistent quality of coffee; it’s always clean. For a chain they have replicated the original idea of a coffeehouse very well, with comfortable places to sit and chat.
KC: In another life do you think you could have been a barista?
JW: I could probably be a barista if I weren’t so darn clumsy!
KC: Well, if you weren’t clumsy, do you think you would enjoy it?
JW: Probably. It does sound like a great deal of work though. On the other hand, a cool coffee shop with a relaxed vibe. Maybe that would balance it out a bit.
KC: Finally, combining your knowledge of coffee’s history, your upbringing in Seattle and your own personal style, if you were to own a coffee shop what would it be like?
JW: Ah. Comfortable places to sit, cool music, lots of books. I would play all kinds of music. Anything from classical to rock. That sounds hipster and cool, right?