Exotic Beverages

Excerpted from an article by Emma L. Powers
Lou is an historian in the Department of Historical Research.
(The article “English Coffeehouses” originally appeared in the Vol. 29, No. 3, Winter 2008/2009 issue of the Colonial Williamsburg Interpreter)


Coffee, tea, and chocolate all have long histories. Coffee beans are native to Ethiopia, where some local tribes used them as an energy food-not a beverage. The Arabs brought coffee from Ethiopia and began brewing it to drink. The Maya of Central America cultivated cacao beans as early as 600 A.D. Tea goes back even further, dating back 5,000 according to Chinese legend. However, none of these beverages were known in England or her colonies until the mid-seventeenth century.

English's first coffeehouse opened in Oxford in 1650, and London had her first one within two years. By 1700 there were over 2,000 coffeehouses operating in London alone!

Although we particularly associate England with tea-drinking, both tea and coffee were introduced to Britons at about the same time. Tea became popular with the English after 1652, only shortly after the coffee craze first arrived, and for most of the seventeenth century coffee was the more popular beverage. While coffee and coffeehouses had masculine connotations, tea was associated with women and the domestic realm.

Spaniards brought chocolate to Europe from the New World in 1528 and kept its source and preparation a secret for nearly 90 years. In 1615, the daughter of Spain's King Philip II married Louis XIII and took the custom of drinking chocolate to the French court. Chocolate's popularity spread across Europe more slowly than the fashion for coffee and tea, probably because chocolate was more expensive and more difficult to prepare. And granulated sugar made from cane grown in the West Indies also arrived in England in the mid-seventeenth century, so the taster could sweeten the cup of his or her preferred drink. The raw materials for these beverages, as well as sugar and numerous spices were among the precious imported grocery items that all became popular in England and her colonies during the mid-seventeenth century. What the three hot drinks have in common is that they were all sobering, rather than intoxicating. With that characteristic in common, it is easy to see why temperate men of business took to them and to the coffeehouses that served them.

Before coffee, tea, and chocolate, most Englishmen, women, and children drank “small beer” (low alcohol fermented grain and water) or hard cider. In those days before water purification, city people knew that their water was foul and dangerous to drink; however, boiled water was much safer. Beer, having undergone both boil and fermentation, was consumed at all times of the day-with breakfast, dinner, and supper.