A tasty treat from our historian-essayist-in residence, Fjordman. Nothing like a little historical accuracy to whet the palate.
Alcohol-based hospitality has played a key role in the cultural fabric of Europe. As the English archaeologist Andrew Sherratt puts it, “Wine if the life-blood of the Mediterranean, and its proscription by a conquering Islam is eloquent testimony to its deep symbolic significance, both secular and religious.”
In his book The Story of Wine, Hugh Johnson calls Muhammad, the founder of Islam, “The man who was to have the most profound effect of any individual on the history of wine.” The Islamic ban on alcoholic drinks was not universally enforced; the ruling classes in particular took many liberties. Yet it discouraged the development of beer and wine witnessed in European monasteries. The Ottoman Empire finally chased wine out of some of its oldest-established strongholds in the Middle East. As the Ottomans swept through the Levant it almost ceased to be a useful source of wine for export, as it had been for many centuries.
One exception was Santorini. The only value of this windswept rock to its Turkish masters was for any taxes they could extract from it, and the only possible crop on its raw volcanic rock was the vine. The island’s wine became the staple Eucharistic wine of Turkey’s great Christian foe, Russia. Wines from Crete were bought by Venetian merchants and traded north over the Alps. The wine traditions of southeastern Europe were greatly disrupted, though not totally destroyed, by Turkish Muslims, often at least as much by heavy taxation as through outright bans. Recurring Turkish slave raids in the region constituted another problem.
The Hungarian leader and general János (John) Hunyadi (ca. 1407-1456) is today virtually unknown outside of Hungary and the Balkans, but he probably did more than any other individual in stemming the Turkish Muslim invasion in the fifteenth century. His actions spanned all the countries of southeastern Europe, leading international armies, negotiating with kings and popes. He died of plague after having destroyed an Ottoman fleet outside of Belgrade in 1456, three years after the fall of Constantinople. His work slowed the Muslim advance into Europe, and his son Matthias Corvinus (1443-1490) became a prominent monarch. Hungary is especially famous for its sweet Tokaji wine, often spelled Tokay in English. It is doubtful whether at any time since contacts with the ancient Greek settlements in the Black Sea that the valley of the Danube has been without wine. Hugh Johnson explains:
“Neither Attila and his Huns, nor the Avars who succeeded them (to be crushed in due course by Charlemagne), nor the Magyars who founded the Hungarian nation had any motive to destroy the amenity of vineyards. The Church played its usual role in the Middle Ages in propagating and stabilizing winegrowing, encouraged by such enlightened monarchs as Bela IV, who imported Italians and Flemings skilled in wine, and the famous wine-lover King Matthias Corvinus, whose realm stretched (briefly) from Bohemia to the Carpathians….Tokaji was much the finest wine of the Habsburg Empire, which stretched from Dalmatia to Poland, so the Emperors appropriated its best vineyards, and used it, as the Dukes of Burgundy had used their Beaune, for impressing and ingratiating themselves with foreign monarchs. Peter the Great of Russia and Frederick I of Prussia both rapidly became addicts. The Tsars established a Commission for Hungarian Wines at St Petersburg to ensure regular supplies, leased vineyards (but banned foreigners from buying them), and took vines to the Crimea to try making their own. What did not go to Vienna, Moscow, St Petersburg, Warsaw, Berlin, or Prague was snapped up by the grandees of Britain, The Netherlands and France.”
The House of Habsburg was a prominent royal house in Europe from the Renaissance until the early twentieth century. It supplied almost all of the elected Holy Roman Emperors between 1452 and 1740 as well as rulers of the Austrian and Spanish Empires. The defense of Christian Europe from Islamic Jihadist aggression was the mission of the Habsburgs. The Turks ruled much of Hungary in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries until the area was conquered by the Austrians. The development of the Austrian Empire was intimately linked to that of the Ottoman Empire. Both states were formally dissolved after the First World War, which was triggered by the national aspirations of their former subject peoples in the Balkans. Here is a quote from the book Civilizations of the World by Richard L. Greaves:
“After the division of the Habsburg crown in 1555 between
its Spanish and Austrian branches, the Austrian monarchy consisted of three
major units, the hereditary provinces of Austria itself; the so-called crown of
St. Wenceslas, comprising Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia; and the crown of St.
Stephen, including Hungary, Transylvania, and Croatia. Bohemia and Hungary had
become part of the Habsburg dominions in 1527 after the Battle of Mohács, though
much of Hungary was still contested. Indeed, only the continuing threat of the
Turks in southeastern Europe could have united so disparate a group of peoples –
Germans, Czechs, Magyars, Croats, Slovaks, Slovenes, Italians, Romanians,
Ruthenians – under a single head. Turkey may in this sense be said to have
engendered the Austrian monarchy; nor was it a coincidence that the final
expulsion of Turkey from Europe in the early twentieth century should have been
followed shortly after by the collapse and dismemberment of the Habsburg empire.
The histories of Turkey and Austria rose and fell together.”
The knowledge and use of coffee beans spread from its original homeland in Ethiopia in East Africa to nearby Yemen at some point during medieval times. It was probably here in the Arabian Peninsula that coffee beans were first roasted and brewed. The drinking of coffee was initially associated with members of the mystic Sufi orders, who used it to stay awake and pray, but it eventually slipped into everyday use despite several attempts by the authorities and religious scholars to ban it as un-Islamic. The drink spread via the Arabian Peninsula and the Read Sea to Egypt in the early sixteenth century and was introduced to Constantinople and the rest of the Middle East in the mid-1500s. From there it was carried to Italy and beyond.
The Middle Eastern coffeehouse was and is primarily an institution for the only full members of an Islamic society, Muslim men. Women did not have access to it. The discriminated non-Muslim dhimmi populations were generally not welcome, either. Ralph S. Hattox explains in his book Coffee and Coffeehouses:
“All this is not to suggest that Christians and Jews did not frequent coffeehouses. On the contrary, if only from the fact that Greeks and Armenians are constantly cited as having done much to introduce coffee to Europe, we know that they were quite familiar with it. But would they have been regular habitués of a coffeehouse with a predominantly Muslim clientele? It is, at best, unlikely. Coffee and the coffeehouse had developed very strong ties to the greater part of Muslim society….Muslim society had taken it as its own institution, one in which the participation of non-Muslims was not essential and in which, in certain circumstances, their presence might be considered offensive. We must assume that the general tendency in the society toward religious separation applied to the coffeehouse as well.”
The coffeehouse as it developed in Europe reflected European culture, which meant greater freedom and freedom of movement for women. Author Mark Pendergrast elaborates in Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World:
“It wasn’t until 1689 when François Procope, an Italian immigrant, opened his Café de Procope directly opposite the Comédie Française, that the famous French coffeehouse took root. Soon French actors, authors, dramatists, and musicians were meeting there for coffee and literary conversations. In the next century the café attracted notables such as Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, and a visiting Benjamin Franklin....Certainly coffee lessened the intake of alcohol while the cafés provided a wonderful intellectual stew that ultimately spawned the French Revolution. The coffeehouses of continental Europe were egalitarian meeting places where, as the food writer Margaret Visser notes, ‘men and women could, without impropriety, consort as they had never done before. They could meet in public places and talk.’ Increasingly they did so over coffee that was not nearly so harsh a brew as the Turks made. In 1710, rather than boiling coffee, the French first made it by the infusion method, with powdered coffee suspended in a cloth bag over which boiling water was poured. Soon they also discovered the joys of sweetened ‘coffied milk’ or ‘milky coffee.’”
Many French citizens took to café au lait, particularly for breakfast. In the early seventeenth century, coffee was still an exotic and expensive beverage in Europe used as a medicine, just as cacao was in the beginning, but its use was spreading. John III Sobieski (1629-1696), King of Poland, routed the Ottoman armies during the 1683 Battle of Vienna. Leading a combined force of Polish, Austrian and German troops, he attacked a numerically superior Turkish army until their lines were broken and the invaders ended the siege and fled in confusion.
According to legend, the fleeing Turks left behind hundreds of sacks filled with coffee beans, which were used by the locals. In the early 1700s, Vienna was certainly filled with coffeehouses where people ate cake and read newspapers, another innovation which rapidly increased in popularity at the time. Coffee was known throughout German-speaking Central Europe by the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Mark Pendergrast writes:
“Coffee and coffeehouses reached Germany in the 1670s. By 1721 there were coffeehouses in most major German cities. For quite a while the coffee habit remained the province of the upper classes. Many physicians warned that it caused sterility or stillbirths. In 1732 the drink had become controversial (and popular) enough to inspire Johann Sebastian Bach to write his humorous Coffee Cantata, in which a daughter begs her stern father to allow her this favorite vice….Later in the century, coffee-obsessed Ludwig van Beethoven ground precisely sixty beans to brew a cup. By 1777 the hot beverage had become entirely too popular for Frederick the Great, who issued a manifesto in favor of Germany’s more traditional drink: ‘It is disgusting to notice the increase in the quantity of coffee used by my subjects, and the like amount of money that goes out of the country in consequence. My people must drink beer. His Majesty was brought up on beer, and so were his ancestors.’ Four years later the king forbade coffee’s roasting except in official government establishments, forcing the poor to resort to coffee substitutes.”
These restrictions on coffee making failed, of course. Coffeehouses took London by storm in the late 1600s and early 1700s, although the British would soon develop a famous taste for tea. Edward Lloyd’s establishment Lloyd's Coffee House eventually evolved into a major insurance company, mirroring the rise of England and Britain as the dominating seafaring nation of the world. Gregory Dicum and Nina Luttinger elaborate in The Coffee Book:
“Lloyd’s of London also evolved from a coffeehouse, one that primarily served seafarers and merchants. In his late-seventeenth-century coffeehouse, Edward Lloyd established a list detailing what ships were carrying, their schedules, and their insurance needs. Underwriters came to his coffeehouse to sell shipping insurance and merchants came to keep track of the ships. From this tradition emerged Lloyd’s of London, today one of the largest insurance firms in the world. Attendants at this institution are still called ‘waiters,’ as they were in the former coffeehouse three centuries ago. Another echo of this era in today’s society is the tip. Tipping is thought to have originated (at least in name) from a tradition that began in seventeenth-century English coffeehouses and taverns. These establishments often hung a small brass-bound box, inscribed ‘To Insure Promptness’ (TIP), into which patrons dropped extra coins to encourage speedy service.”
The coffee beans were exported from the Yemeni port of Mocha. Beans were gradually smuggled out and planted elsewhere in the world by the Dutch and others, in Java and Southeast Asia, in South America etc. As of 2007, in Africa only Ethiopia from which the coffee shrub originally spread ranks among the ten largest producers of coffee, the others being non-African nations such as Brazil, Vietnam, Colombia, Indonesia, India, Mexico, Peru and Central American countries Guatemala and Honduras. Ironically, West African states like Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon are among the largest producers of cacao beans, an American plant, in the world. This is the result of the globalization of ideas and goods as well as plants and animals conducted by Western Europeans in the modern era, an event which affected virtually every corner of this planet for good or bad.
While it is indisputable that the very concept of coffee drinking was introduced to Europe via the Middle East, many of the ways in which global consumers now prepare the beverage, modified by Western tastes and technological ingenuity, differ considerably from traditional Arabic and Turkish coffee. Satori Kato, a Japanese American chemist, is credited with the invention of instant coffee in 1901. Melitta Bentz, a German housewife, invented the paper coffee filter in 1908, commonly used for drip brew all over the world. In 1901 an Italian named Luigi Bezzera in Milan sought a way to shorten the coffee breaks of his employees. He introduced pressure to the coffee brewing process, thereby reducing the time needed to brew. The new coffee drink, caffè espresso or just espresso (espresso means “fast” in Italian), became popular and is also the base for many other drinks such as lattes, cappuccino and macchiato. In 1961 Italian Faema created a machine with an electric pump that forced water through the coffee. This machine marks the beginning of the pump-driven machines from which almost all espresso machines in use in the early twenty-first century are derived.
There were so many technological improvements in farming in the seventeenth century, with new crops and methods, that historians have dubbed it an agricultural revolution. The Netherlands and England were the leaders in implementing these changes. The dynamic middle-class society of republican Holland was the most advanced nation in Europe in agriculture, in shipbuilding and navigation as well as in commerce and banking. The Dutch provided models for others to emulate and Amsterdam grew rapidly in size and importance.
The Dutch made a successful grab for present-day Indonesia and the lucrative trade with the Spice Islands. In the East they encountered the Chinese habit of tea drinking, which the Dutch and later English East India Companies brought back go Europe. The Dutch were the leading commercial power of their time and by 1650 had the greatest merchant fleet the world had ever seen with some 10,000 ships, despite the fact that they had been at war with Spain more or less continuously for generations. Hugh Johnson writes in The Story of Wine:
“With ruthless vigour the United Provinces established colonies in the East and West Indies, in North America, in Ceylon, and at the Cape of Good Hope, discovered Tasmania and New Zealand, fought in the Thirty Years’ War in Germany, and twice against England, and repelled an invasion by Louis XIV, all within the space of one lifetime. Dutch commercial enterprise introduced so many new stimulants and narcotics to Europe, in the form of brandy, beer – so much stronger than the mild-flavoured ale drunk in most northern countries – tea, and coffee, that wine almost fell by the wayside. But as the dominant trading nation, with far more ships than any other, the Dutch also called the tune in the growing and distribution of wine. The Netherlands, like Venice, made its fortune importing and exporting the same goods. Transit trade was the livelihood of Amsterdam, which grew rich by linking the Baltic with the Mediterranean and the Indies (despite such formidable obstacles as a harbour approach so shallow that big freighters had to be piggybacked over the shoals by pumped-out lighters lashed alongside).”
After having enjoyed a production boom in the Renaissance period due to the rise of urban brewing and the use of hops, by the seventeenth century beer met with new challenges. Rising incomes meant that more people could buy beer, but some chose to buy wine, which enjoyed greater prestige but had traditionally been too expensive for many consumers, at least in the north. Rising commerce in wine made the drink more available, and the greater use of bottles and the development of the corkscrew around 1700 made it easier to get, keep and drink wine. However, the introduction of entirely new drinks posed a challenge to both wine and beer, first with the tropical non-alcoholic beverages cacao, coffee and tea and then with the near-simultaneous rise of distilled alcoholic beverages.
The production of distilled gin, first in the form of genever or Geneva gin with its distinctive juniper flavoring, rose rapidly in the seventeenth century in Holland and England. With much stronger drinks followed more serious social problems related to the excessive drinking of alcohol. The sometimes unattractive spectacle of public drunkenness, which was and is more common among northern Europeans than among southern Europeans, increased greatly. The changes were expressed graphically in the English painter William Hogarth’s (1697-1764) prints of Gin Lane (1751) as a place of debauchery and the destruction of the family and public order compared to Beer Street, where all is peaceful and people appear healthy.
Through natural processes of fermentation the maximum alcohol content of a wine rarely exceeds 15%. To create beverages with 20% or more you need the aid of distillation. Distillation is a method for increasing the alcohol content of a liquid already containing ethyl alcohol by utilizing the different boiling points of water (100 °C) and alcohol (78 °C). The distillation process separates the alcohol from other parts of the solution by heating the liquid to 78° Celsius, a temperature sufficient to boil alcohol but not water. The resulting steam (vaporized alcohol) is collected and condensed, returning it to liquid form – but a liquid with a much higher proportion of alcohol than before. The resultant distillate is matured, often for years, before it is sold. Distilled spirits include aquavit, brandy, gin, rum, vodka and whiskey.
Some crude form of distillation was employed in the Near East and the Eastern Mediterranean in the production of perfumes. In 2007 a team of archaeologists in Cyprus discovered one of the world's oldest perfume “factories.” Dozens of distilling stills, mixing bowls, funnels and bottles were found preserved at the site, dating from about 1850 BC. Cyprus in ancient Greece had the mythological status as the birthplace of Aphrodite, the goddess of love and the Greek equivalent of the Roman Venus. An early and crude form of distillation did exist in China and Egypt and was practiced by Greek alchemists in Alexandria. Nevertheless, I have found no convincing references to the existence of anything resembling beverages such as whiskey or brandy in either ancient Europe or Asia. Hugh Johnson, normally a well-informed man, is quite explicit in stating that distilled beverages were not known by Roman times:
“It was the mark of fine wine with the Romans, as it is with us, that it improved with age. Horace, in one poem contemplating his end, seems more concerned about parting from his cellar of wonderful old wine than from his wife. Very sweet wines will usually keep well without turning to vinegar, but the Romans had no means of increasing their alcoholic strength to preserve them. No yeast will continue to ferment when the alcohol level reaches fifteen or sixteen per cent of the wine. Distillation was unknown. This, then, was the strongest drink they knew.”
Distillation of nearly pure alcohol (ethanol) appears to have been a development of medieval times. Ironically, it is possible that alchemists in the Islamic-ruled Middle East contributed to its development. Middle Easterners in the Early Middle Ages employed a method that could produce a distilled beverage from wine. Jabir ibn Hayyan (Geber in Latin) around AD 800 developed new methods in alchemy and made experiments with heating wine, which were followed up by al-Razi (Rhazes) and other scholars whose work was later known in Europe.
In the Cambridge World History of Food, James Comer writes about distilled beverages. Several European alchemists, searching for the “elixir of life,” experimented with distillation. They believed that they had extracted the “essence” or “spirit” of wine and that repeated distillations resulted in aqua vitae – Latin for “water of life.” This substance was initially primarily used as a medicine. According to Comer, “both the Irish and the Scots claim to have produced liquor from grain (in contrast to brandy from wine) since the beginning of the last millennium; the Scots called it uisge beatha (pronounced wisky-baw) and the Irish called it uisce beatha. Both meant 'water of life,' and the English term 'whiskey' derived from them.”
The first real brandy that was not thought of as medicine is said to have been distilled around 1300 by Arnaldus de Villa Nova (ca. 1235-1311), a Catalan alchemist presumably familiar from Spain with writings in Arabic about distillation, who became professor at the medical school of Montpellier in France. During the fifteenth century, better methods for cooling the still's head developed. This led to increased production of distilled beverages, which spread rapidly across Europe. France became an important center of the brandy industry. Vodka originated in Russia in the fourteenth century, its name deriving from Russian voda (“water”).
The first definitive proof we have of whiskey making comes from the fifteenth century in both Ireland and Scotland, although there are persistent yet still-unproven claims that production in this area dates further back in time. Whiskey is always aged in wooden containers, usually of white oak. In addition to Irish and Scotch whiskey, the United States and Canada are now large producers and consumers of whiskey. Whisky or whiskey (both spellings are used) is a distilled liquor made from cereal grains and could be called a distilled beer, whereas brandies such as cognac are made from grapes and could thus be labeled distilled wines. Cognac is named for the town of Cognac north of Bordeaux, France, one of three officially demarcated brandy regions in Europe; the others are the towns of Armagnac in France and Jerez in Spain.
A constant theme in the discussion of brandy was fire, because beverages are “burnt” or distilled over the flame of a still, because distilled alcohol is capable of combustion, and because of the “burning” sensation experienced by those who drink it. Comer again: “First called 'brandy wine' (from the Dutch brandewijn), brandy means 'to burn' or 'burnt' in Dutch as well as in other languages, such as the German Brand and the Middle English 'brand.' Brandy is more expensive to make than grain spirits because it must be distilled from fruit and, in the case of cognac, from wine (Ray 1974). As noted, brandy first emerged as medicine in the eleventh century and only later became popular as a beverage.”
According to James Comer, in the sixteenth century the
prominent Swiss alchemist and physician Paracelsus “had employed the Arabic term
alcool vini to describe spirits. But it was not until 1730, when the
Dutch physician Herman Boerhaave
used the word alcohol to mean distilled spirits, that it became commonly
understood that ale, wine and distilled beverages all owed their mood-altering
capabilities to this chemical.”