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Social Benefits of Coffee

Throughout the country there are thousands of Americans meeting up with each other over a cup of coffee.  It could be during a coffee break from work or a date, but coffee is now a social institution.  The respected filmmaker Jim Jarmusch made a critically acclaimed movie, Coffee and Cigarettes, devoted to little stories of people meeting up over a cup of coffee for some interesting dialogue.  For this reason, one of the most underrated aspects of coffee has been the social benefits of drinking coffee.  Going to a nice coffeeshop or cafe is an excellent alternative to going to a bar for those times when you just want to meet up with friends and relax.  However, did you know that the social traditions of coffee date back centuries ago?

The coffeehouse first made its appearance in Persia during the 16th century.  Known as the qahveh-khaneh, the coffeehouse served as a social gathering place.  Only open to males at the time, the early coffeehouse was a place where you could go to drink coffee or tea while listening to music or playing games like chess or backgammon.  Often these early coffee shop dwellers went to the coffeehouse to listen to a recitation from the Shahnameh.

The next century, the coffeehouse began to be popularized in Europe.  The first London coffeehouse opened in 1652 and these European establishments served the same social role as the coffeehouses in the Middle East.  The coffeehouse was a place where people would go to meet, business was conducted, and newspapers were read.  King Charles II criticized coffeehouses as 'places where the disaffected met, and spread scandalous reports concerning the conduct of His Majesty and his Ministers,' and there is something to be said about his criticisms.  Coffeehouses throughout Europe became great centers of political activity.  They became one of the freest places for regular people to discuss politics and exchange ideas.  In fact this tradition continues.

To highlight how quickly coffeehouses became popular in Europe, by 1739 there were 551 coffeehouses in London, less than one hundred years after the first coffeehouse opened.  Additionally, many great institutions of our time had their origins in a coffeehouse.  The British institution Lloyds of London started in a coffeehouse and coffeehouses were popular throughout the European continent.

It was from the espresso and pastry styled Italian coffeehouses that the current form of American coffeeshops has tried to emulate.  In major American cities with large Italian-American immigrant communities there have always been European styled coffeehouses.  Its influence on American history is palpable as coffee shops in New York's Greenwich Village and San Francisco's North Beach were major centers of counterculture activity of the 1950s.  The Beats are highly identified with these establishments and one can imagine hearing Allen Ginsberg passionately recite Howl or Jack Kerouac read a portion of On the Road when visiting these early establishments.  The Beat movement was highly influential on the early 1960s folk music scene where such legends-in-the-making like Joan Baez and Bob Dylan played their early material within these coffeehouses.

Currently coffee shops in America continue to have a large social resonance.  Considering that anybody under the age of 21 is restricted from entering bars, coffee shops are now primary social meeting places for America's youth.  Often coffeeshops will feature live music and commonly plays the latest in indie music or jazz classics.  In addition to independent coffee stores that mirror Italian styled coffee houses, there has been a rise of sophisticated coffee chains like Starbucks that have copied these early American coffeehouse but cleaned up its countercultural element to create the sophisticated mainstream cafe.

Another recent establishment in the coffeehouse has been the introduction of cannabis coffee shops where sales of soft drugs like marijuana or hash is tolerated by local authorities.  Particularly prominent in Amsterdam, the cannabis coffee shop is an interesting twist on the social coffeshop ideal and can produce a new evolution of the social benefits of coffee.