From their origins as "Penny Universities" to their current roll as central social gathering spaces, coffeehouses are critically important to their communities.
Coffee is a beverage of community and conversation, and while things are a bit different today than they were when the coffee first jolted the Western world in the 1600s, the drink continues to be a critical lubricant for work, first dates, and all other sorts of social interactions. The beverage’s familiar social aspects are deeply rooted in coffee culture dating all the way back to its roots.
Coffee’s amazing power as a stimulant was immediately deployed as the ideal drink for the Age of Reason. As people started to spend time considering revolutionary ideas in science, business, politics, and philosophy, the drink that makes you think was at the center of it all. Originating from the Arabian Peninsula, coffee was first received in Europe as a oddity. It had an immense popularity in the Arab world, with coffeehouses acting as central gathering spaces similar to taverns (which were prohibited in Muslim territories). By the mid-1600s, Europeans began waking from their decades-long love affair with alcohol, and coffeehouses began opening all over, across all borders.
They were drastically different from what patrons were accustomed to seeing in their favorite taverns. In contrast, they were well lit, furnished with bookcases, and adorned with clean, comfortable seating. They became hubs for business meetings and respectable social gatherings. Men would gather to discuss the goings on of politics and science, religion and commerce. Tradesmen, gentry, landholders, and poor—all were welcome at the table, and a seat only cost you one penny (the price of a cup at the time). As anyone could join in the conversation, coffeehouses were affectionately referred to as penny universities—institutions in their communities that fueled men’s thoughts during a period of a great intellectual change.
Today, “grabbing a coffee” is similarly social. It is around coffeehouse tables that organizers plan marches, inventors pitch ideas to potential partners, suitors endeavor to impress the girl, and students discuss cellular structure and metabolic eccentricities within their study groups. A small bean at the heart of the brew, fuels so much more, and a community’s coffee culture tells you much about its people. Our #PennyUniversities may look a bit different at the time we are writing this. Their tables are spaced apart. Serves are partitioned away. Patrons are masked. And yet, history tells us that plagues and revolutions, change and upheaval all comes and goes while coffee remains a constant partner in the pursuit of better tomorrows. When humanity closes this chapter, coffeehouses will be waiting to resume their useful service in future times of sunny optimism.