Black Coffee in the Factory: How Coffee Created the Modern World

Coffee EnlightenmentLike a lot of people, you probably don’t think your day has started until you have your first cup of coffee. For us, playing with our French presses every morning is as certain as the sunrise. Sipping our coffee before heading off to work for 8 or 9 hours is so routine few of us even reflect on why we do this, let alone blame the coffee for our plight.

But life was different before coffee. Very different. In many ways, the modern world as we know it would not exist without an unlimited source of coffee. Look at it from an elemental view.

Today, we take for granted having a convenient tap of clean running water, but 500 years ago, many people weren’t so lucky, especially those poor souls living in medieval cities.

An obscure Catholic belief from this period describes the 5 Juices of Mortal Glory— the 5 essential fluids of life. Water was not on the list. The water in those days could kill you.

People didn’t know exactly why that was—something to do with bad air or Satan—but they knew avoiding most water sources was just common sense. They also knew that fermented beverages like beer and wine were much more reliable and only made you sick if you had 3 too many.

Sloshed by Noon Was the Norm on His Barstool

So it’s Tuesday morning in Paris, 1513, and you’ve just been awakened by the usual smell wafting from the streets into your flea-infested hovel. Thirsty from your restless sleep, you reach for the only safe drink you have, that bottle of vin de table from the night before.

Although it does give you a whole new way of looking at the day, your vintage breakfast doesn’t exactly motivate you to get to work on time. You’re also not likely to reinvent anything in particular, either.

While it’s a myth that the Middle Ages were a desert of human culture and technology, it’s probably no accident that all that beer and wine did something to dizzy the snail’s trail of science.

Voltaire Was a Dark Roast

It’s also no accident that the beginning of modern science corresponded with the discovery and popularity of coffee. People went wild for this new sensation. It perked the imagination and got everyone’s tongues dancing instead of slurring, and within a hundred years, the European coffeehouse was the ivy-covered tower of the Age of Enlightenment. Voltaire drank 70 cups per day just to prove the point.

Coffee sparked the ideas that frothed the steam engine and gave the workers a nice, government-sanctioned bump to keep them awake during the endless new shifts and gears. Instead of a half-drunk workforce, a tightly wired and heavily caffeinated workforce was needed for all those dark, satanic mills.

Need another innovation? Pour some coffee and get to work. Today, every industrialized society has a sanctioned coffee break to keep the lights burning. So in many ways, we can blame the bean for everything we see around us.

Is coffee a god? Let’s talk about that next time. Right now, we need another cup.

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