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Coffee Houses, Now and Then

What can we learn from the Enlightenment? A question with many obvious answers, perhaps, looking back to a time ‘when Mankind grew out of its self-inflicted immaturity’, in Kant’s sweeping summary. However, perhaps one less obvious answer is coffee; or, more specifically, coffee houses. While our post-modern civilization can claim the ethical high-ground in the massive leaps made towards, for example, equal rights for marginalised or minority groups since those days, not to mention the welcome norm-adopting of fair-trade coffee in most modern chains, have our coffee houses- dominated of course by monopolizing brands- moved, in other ways, backwards? Arguably, the era of growing Western ‘Enlightenment’ during the late 17th and 18th centuries can provide an alternative model for communal coffee we could learn from.

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The recent revelations of how Starbucks- that 21st Century synonym for corporate monopoly and sprawl- paid just £8.6million in UK corporation tax in the last 14 years and NONE in the last four years (until this summer, thanks UK Uncut et al), serves to underline how the modern turbo-capitalism of the major coffee chains has corrupted their wares’ historic legacy of altogether more noble pursuits. Theirs is a rich history, whose golden age in the UK began in 17th century Oxford, where a heady mix of gifted scholars and a sociable community encouraged their growth as centres of discussion, debate and knowledge. Following their spread across the country, they were dubbed ‘Penny Universities’ in verse, an acknowledgement of the cheap, alternative forum of learning they provided to the ultra-exclusive universities of the age.

Coffee houses during the Enlightenment not only hosted the era’s profound shift in zeitgeist, its world-changing discussions and fermenting of ideas, they actively encouraged these by providing an alternative to alcohol as a communal drink (water was so unsafe back then, most average Joes boozed all day to keep hydrated before the coffee insurgency developed!) This little clip from intellectual hipster Steven Johnson’s discussion on old-skool dissident Joseph Priestly highlights some key elements of Enlightenment Coffee and its sobered reason:

It is in this tradition, then, that the dominant coffee chains (whose most sublime achievements in fuelling cerebral discussions seem to be providing complementary editions of the Murdoch Press) would do well to learn from. They might take a leaf out of the many indie coffee shops that have move closer to the good old days, such as my old watering hole Coffee Revolution in the University of Sheffield’s SU, an exclusively fair-trade house, which hosted (still hosts, no doubt) informative, interesting weekly debates, open to all. Promoting this kind of coffee, Enlightenment-style, would be a way for the bloated profiteers of Starbucks and co. to rediscover a significance that transcends money, an antidote of reform from our dissenting, coffee sipping ancestors who realized another reality was possible.

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