The Tim Ferriss Show Transcripts: Dr. Mark Plotkin on Coffee, the World’s Favorite Stimulant — Chemistry, History, and More (#698)

Please enjoy this transcript of a very special edition of The Tim Ferriss Show, featuring Dr. Mark Plotkin

Mark takes over my duties as host and shares an episode of the Plants of the Gods podcast. Mark (@DocMarkPlotkin) is an ethnobotanist who serves as president of the Amazon Conservation Team, which has partnered with ~80 tribes to map and improve management and protection of ~100 million acres of ancestral rainforests. He is best known to the general public as the author of the book Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice, one of the most popular books ever written about the rainforest. His most recent book is The Amazon: What Everyone Needs to Know. You can find my interview with Mark at

This tightly-packed episode explores all things coffee—the most widely consumed mind-altering plant product in the world.

Transcripts may contain a few typos. With many episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors. Enjoy!

Listen to the episode on Apple PodcastsSpotifyOvercastPodcast AddictPocket CastsCastboxGoogle PodcastsAmazon Musicor on your favorite podcast platform. 

#698: Dr. Mark Plotkin on Coffee, The World’s Favorite Stimulant — Chemistry, History, and More

Mark Plotkin: Hello, everyone. I’m Mark Plotkin, Dr. Mark Plotkin of the Amazon Conservation Team and host of the podcast Plants of the Gods: Hallucinogens, Healing, Culture, and Conservation.

Kicking off this new season, we’re going to talk about the ethnobotany of coffee. Over the course of our four seasons, we’ve talked a lot about how plants and fungi are woven through our history and our pre-history in surprising and often unexpected ways. We discussed how the battle over tall timbers to build tall ships led directly to the American Revolution. We looked into how ethnobotanist Richard Schultes’ quest for the magic mushrooms of Mexico led to the development of blockbuster beta-blocker heart drugs. We examined how absinthe inspired both the greatest writer and the greatest painter of the 20th century. 

Today, however, we’re going to talk about coffee. Truly, a plant of the gods.

Coffee is the most widely consumed mind-altering plant in the world, and it has a rich and intriguing history. But first, let me pose a question. The history of coffee features adultery, larceny, spies, smugglers, and slave revolts. If Hollywood can make hit movies based on an amusement park ride like Pirates of the Caribbean and based on a plastic doll like Barbie, why have they never made a film about the history of coffee?

On a personal note, I’ve had the opportunity to drink a lot of great coffee in a wide variety of different settings. I’ve enjoyed superb caffè in such nontropical places as Holland and Japan. I’ve attended coffee ceremonies in East Africa, the original home of the coffee plant. I’ve drunk the famous Blue Mountain coffee in Eastern Jamaica, and have downed many a cup in Latin America, from Mexico to Argentina. 

But the best coffee I’ve ever had and continue to have on an almost daily basis is the coffee we drink in my hometown of New Orleans, and this is coffee with chicory.

Why do we drink coffee with chicory? During the Napoleonic Wars, after the defeat at Trafalgar of the French fleet by Admiral Horatio Nelson and his navy in 1805, the British imposed a naval blockade to prevent foreign products from entering France. The French, therefore, lacked two tropical plant products that they craved, sugar from sugarcane and coffee. Napoleon, however, launched an innovative approach to attempt to solve this problem. He challenged his countrymen to produce sugar and coffee, or a coffee-like drink, from local plants since neither sugarcane nor coffee could be grown outside of the tropics and in France, and France was cut off from her tropical colonies.

The success was that of the sugar beet, which grows well in temperate regions. The French developed a strain of beet, which yielded sufficient sugar to meet local demand. However, they were never able to find a coffee substitute, which had all the benefits and taste of coffee. One of the most popular species with which they experimented was the chicory plant, which thrives in temperate regions. Despite Napoleon claiming that chicory was an excellent substitute for coffee and subsidizing its cultivation, it is not. But it is an excellent adulterant. In other words, it can be mixed with coffee, so a little coffee would go a long way. Furthermore, coffee mixed with chicory is exceptionally flavorful. So even after the Napoleonic Wars had long ended, people had developed a preference for the taste of coffee mixed with chicory, which is why today, in parts of the world that were influenced by French colonialism like New Orleans or Vietnam, many people still prefer to drink their coffee with chicory.

Perhaps the greatest irony of the coffee story is that it’s unquestionably an acquired taste. Brian Cowan in The Social Life of Coffee quotes behavioral psychologist Robert Bolles, an authority on motivation, who said, quote, “Coffee is one of the great, marvelous flavors. Who could deny that? Well, actually, anyone drinking coffee for the first time would deny it. Coffee is bitter and characterless. It simply tastes bad the first time you encounter it. By the time you’ve drunk a few thousand cups, though, you cannot live without it.” End of quote. 

From a broader perspective, note that over the course of the four seasons of the Plants of the Gods podcast, we have heard different theories as to the ethnobiological origins of human consciousness.

Several thousand years ago, the size of our ancestors’ brains increased by about 30 percent. According to the late ethnobotanist Terence McKenna, this was due to these creatures’ discovery and ingestion of hallucinogenic mushrooms, the so-called stoned ape hypothesis. A competing and possibly complimentary explanation for the birth of consciousness is that these primates were feeding on ripe fruits in which the sugars had fermented into alcohol. This theory put forward by the Yale primatologist Ian Tattersall and others is known as the drunk monkey hypothesis.

Meanwhile, the current consensus is that our species evolved in or near the Great Rift Valley of Eastern Africa. The writer Antony Wild has proposed a different ethnobotanical explanation as to why our species may have evolved in the region, why cranial capacity increased here, and the plant native to the region that drove this evolution is coffee. Wild wrote, quote, “It’s tempting to wonder whether the proliferation of wild coffee trees in the same Ethiopian highland forest could also have had a hand in the process. Coffee has always been associated with speed of cognition and expression, and the sudden dawn of self-awareness in the Genesis story of The Bible concerning the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge is something that could have been prompted by a psychoactive substance such as caffeine. Such awareness is also an attribute of language and thought. To place. Coffee center stage in the story of the fall is altogether a more inspired piece of casting than the choice of a lowly golden delicious apple. Imagine coffee berries driving their readers into a caffeine fueled frenzy of quickfire contention and ingenious thinking. Engines of brain evolution.” End of quote.

Keep in mind that The Bible talks about the tree of knowledge, not the mushroom of knowledge, nor the grapevine of knowledge, and in the Ethiopian highland forest where it is native, coffee is a tree that can reach well over 20 feet in height. On a side note, one of the earliest prehuman fossils from Indonesia is known as Java Man. For reasons that will become clear, we can refer to the human ancestor from the coffee forest of Ethiopia as Mocha Java Man.

Now, the origin story of coffee, it was supposedly discovered by a goat herder named Kaldi, who noticed that his goats became frisky and animated after eating the fruits of a local tree. He consumed a few and felt a similar burst of energy, the original precursor to Red Bull. If Kaldi did in fact exist, he was probably a member of the Oromo peoples native to southwestern Ethiopia. The Oromos considered coffee to be the tears of Waaqa, the supreme sky god, and they and the other early Ethiopians devised a variety of means for consuming coffee. Both the beans and the leaves were chewed, and they were said to make a wine out of the fermented pulp.

The fruits were ground and mixed with butter or other animal fat to provide a high-energy snack that could be taken along on travels, meaning that coffee was a key component of the original granola bar. 

There may have been several other reasons for devising so many ways of ingesting the plant, but one reason was undoubtedly the driving force, caffeine. In an ancient world devoid of many, if not any, other stimulants, the discovery of caffeine was a revelation, and we will delve deeper into this later in the program. But let me define what a stimulant is.

A stimulant is a substance which tends to increase activity in the central nervous system, leading to an increased alertness and energy, enhanced focus and performance, and decreased drowsiness. In moderation, a stimulant can produce a sense of comfort and wellbeing, even a subtle sense of euphoria.

Caffeine clearly represents one of the first stimulants discovered by humans, if not by prehuman ancestors. It is an alkaloid found in the coffee plant. Alkaloids, as we’ve heard in previous episodes, are naturally occurring compounds that often have pronounced physiological and sometimes mental effects in humans and other animals. Some of the alkaloids we’ve already discussed in earlier episodes are cocaine, morphine, and nicotine.

Kaldi and the Oromos’ discovery of coffee was somewhere around the ninth century. As word spread of this remarkable plant product, coffee traveled across the Red Sea to the Arabian Peninsula, where the beans were being roasted and coffee was served as a drink. According to Mark Pendergrast and his excellent book Uncommon Grounds, legend has it that Muhammad himself claimed that under the invigorating influence of coffee, he could, quote, “unhorse 40 men and possess 40 women.” So coffee was the first Viagra.

Coffee found particular favor amongst the Sufis in Yemen, members of a mystical and spiritual sect of Islam. Some Sufis are best known to the outside world as whirling dervishes. Look them up on YouTube. Sufis employ chanting, dancing, and meditation to enter a trance-like state to attain union with the divine, and they cherish coffee as an invaluable aid for maintaining concentration and staving off drowsiness during nocturnal prayer ceremonies. To meet this growing demand in Arabia, major plantations were established in the mountains of Yemen in addition to those already created in Ethiopia. The major port from which coffee was exported to the rest of the Islamic world was Mocha on Yemen’s southwest coast.

As a result of this trade, coffee has often been known as Mocha. Yet another explanation is that the chocolatey flavor of this Yemeni coffee has resulted in today’s drink known as Mocha, which usually consists of coffee to which chocolate has been added. 

As demand for coffee grew, coffee houses attracted unanticipated and unwanted attention by the ruling authorities. Alexandre Dumas, best known as the author of The Three Musketeers, wrote that, quote, “The Imams complained their mosques were empty while the coffee houses were always full.” End of quote.

According to botanist Estelle Levetin, quote, “Religious leaders felt that the time spent in the coffee houses should have been spent in the mosque. Political leaders also felt threatened by the political discussions common in coffee houses.” Pendergrast, in his classic Uncommon Grounds, wrote, quote, “Coffee gained its reputation as a troublemaking social brew. Various rulers decided that people were having too much fun in the coffee houses, including gambling, writing satirical poems about political and religious leaders, and, quote, ‘irregular and criminally unorthodox sexual situations.'” End of quote. As a result, coffee and coffee houses were banned in certain locales. In a few extreme cases, some coffee drinkers were beaten while others were drowned, but the custom of coffee consumption persisted.

Why would coffee drinking continue in the face of this persecution? Certainly, the lowering grip of caffeine was part of it. Pendergrast explains, quote, “Coffee provided an intellectual stimulant, a pleasant way to feel increased energy without any apparent ill effects. Coffee houses allowed people to get together for conversation, entertainment, and business-inspiring agreements, poetry, irreverence, and equal measure. So important did the brew become in Turkey that a lack of sufficient coffee provided grounds for a woman to seek a divorce?” End of quote. Coffee became deeply ingrained in Muslim culture, so much so that it became known as, quote, “the wine of Islam.” Remember that Islam prohibits the consumption of alcohol, so coffee was the alternative.

Sometimes a culture will adopt a drink to better differentiate themselves from another society, like we heard in our rum episode, where Americans turned to bourbon and coffee and away from rum and tea to demonstrate they were no longer typical British subjects. As Western infidels drank alcohol, which was forbidden to Muslims, coffee helps stimulate the mind and maintain attention during prayers while reducing the appeal of prohibited items like alcohol and hashish. If coffee was the wine of Islam, coffee houses were the Islamic equivalents of taverns and bars in the West. Coffee houses spring up in Aleppo, Cairo, Damascus, and other cities throughout the Arab world, where they quickly became hubs of social interaction.

In the words of coffee historian Jonathan Morris, quote, “The advent of the coffee house created possibilities for new forms of social interaction. The coffee house’s appeal lay in providing the first legitimate public space for socialization among Muslim men. The layout of these early coffee houses facilitated an egalitarian ambiance as patrons were seated according to the order in which they arrived rather than by their social rank.” Morris posits that some of the attacks on coffee house culture by religious and political conservatives may have been due to their progressive orientation that defied existing social and existing economic hierarchies. As we will hear, this foreshadows similar uncertainties by political conservatives in Europe many years later.

Nonetheless, these lively Arabic and Turkish coffee houses were visited by European travelers who enjoyed their first taste of coffee. So embedded in local culture was coffee by then that these Europeans assumed the plant was native to the Middle East. So much so that Linnaeus, the father of scientific classification, named the plant Coffea arabica, an incorrect appellation for a plant native to Ethiopia.

Much of what we know about the early use of coffee in Ethiopia is derived from the writings of a fascinating but much overlooked British ethnobotanist named James Bruce, one of the most extraordinary characters in the history of exploration. Bruce was also a wine merchant, a linguist, antiquarian, anthropologist, self-taught physician, cartographer, artist, and explorer, best known for helping determine the origin of the Blue Nile. Having taught himself both Arabic and Ge’ez, an ancient and sacred Ethiopian language, Bruce traveled to Ethiopia in 1770 and spent two years exploring local peoples and their uses of medicinal plants and coffee, not just the drink but the ritual preparation and serving ceremony.

Bruce’s writings make gripping reading. Some of the customs he described were so bizarre and Westernized that he was widely disbelieved by many of his contemporaries, though subsequent explorers were able to confirm the accuracy of many of Bruce’s descriptions. Furthermore, his accounts provide ample evidence of the dangers and challenges early plant explorers faced. In one instance, he was heading east through the desert to meet up with a local Muslim dignitary in the belief that joining forces with him would convey some protection from local brigands. Such was not to be. Bruce and his colleagues found only the remains of the caravan and the corpses of the dignitary and his men who had been tacked, robbed, and murdered. Nevertheless, though it was Ethiopians who discovered coffee, it was the Arabs who introduced it to the outside world, and they proved to be shrewd business people, anxious to maintain their monopoly as the popularity of this new drink spread to the West.

Once Venetian traders brought coffee to Europe around 1615 and caffeine exerted its inexorable grip on these new consumers, the European colonial powers recognized the economic potential and realized that coffee could become a valuable cash crop in their tropical colonies.

The first Europeans to break the Arab monopoly were the Dutch, the greatest commercial entrepreneurs in the 17th and 18th century. The so-called Dutch Century was a period of extraordinary economic prosperity, and their powerful navy and vast merchant fleet generated the wealth and artistic innovation manifested in the paintings of Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Frans Hals. Much of this wealth was derived from tropical trade.

Nicolaes Witsen, explorer of Siberia, maritime author, mayor of Amsterdam, and member of the governing board of the Dutch East India Company encouraged the Dutch merchant Van Broecke to obtain live coffee plants from Mocha in 1616. The Dutch planted them in the Dutch East Indies on the island of Seylan, now Sri Lanka, in 1658, and then Java in 1699, and then in their colony in Suriname, which was the first plantation in South America in 1716. Production from the east Indies soon eclipsed that of Yemen, and coffee from these Dutch colonies was soon known as Java, named in honor of the island on which it grew. Hence, the generic name, Mocha Java.

Trees from the Asian plantations were shipped to the Amsterdam Botanical Garden in 1706, but only a single specimen survived the arduous journey. One seedling from this plant was gifted to French King Louis XIV in 1713, and it was planted in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. A cutting from the French tree was taken to the Caribbean island of Martinique, where it eventually gave rise to many of the world’s coffee plantations, particularly in Central and South America, all descended from the single specimen in the Amsterdam Botanical Garden.

Historian Henry Hobhouse wrote, quote, “No other single plant has ever had such an influence on world trade. No other single plant can be identified as the mother and father of a whole way of life. At least half of the huge coffee industry worth over $100 billion a year springs from a single ancestral plant grown in the Amsterdam Botanical Garden. How the lonely plant made it from Paris to the Caribbean is the stuff of legend.”

According to his personal account, a French naval officer named Gabriel-Mathieu de Clieu wanted to bring coffee to the French West Indies, but the king of France had ordered that his coffee plant was not to be touched. De Clieu, however, knew that the royal physician had carte blanche to collect any botanical material he might need for medicinal purposes since most remedies at that time were made from plants. De Clieu bribed the physician for some seedlings and set sail with his botanical booty for the Caribbean. The trip was not a smooth one.

Off the coast of Tunisia, the ship was attacked by Barbary pirates, who were fended off by the onboard cannons. According to de Clieu, on the ship was a spy and an employee of the Dutch who did not want the French to start a coffee industry, which would compete with their own.

Though the Frenchmen was able to keep the Dutch spy away from his precious seedling, another threat arose when the ship was nearly destroyed by a tropical storm, which sharply reduced the onboard supply of potable water. Trapped in the windless doldrums for over a month, the indefatigable Frenchman shared his tiny water ration with his beloved plant, which ultimately survived and thrived when planted in Martinique. Nor was this the only story of intrigue in the coffee saga.

There are three small countries nestled in the northeastern shoulder of South America. Moving west to east, Guyana, formerly British Guiana, Suriname, formerly Dutch Guiana, and French Guiana. As mentioned earlier, Suriname is where the Dutch had made the first South American plantings in 1716, but without much commercial success. Ironically, Suriname was to play an important but indirect role in the creation of the Brazilian coffee industry.

Ever since the first arrival of the Europeans over 500 years ago, there have existed border disputes between the three Guianas, disagreements that have continued to the present day. In an attempt to resolve a problem between Dutch and French Guiana in 1727, colonial officials asked a Portuguese military official named Francisco de Melo Palheta and neighboring Brazil to adjudicate the dispute.

Melo Palheta was not only a soldier and a diplomat, but also a fervent nationalist and a bit of a rake. He was determined to smuggle some coffee plants to Brazil since their export from French territory was expressly forbidden. While casting his wandering eye on French Governor D’Orvilliers’ wife, he decided to combine his two pursuits. In the course of the border negotiations in the capital city of Cayenne, he managed to seduce Madam D’Orvilliers. At the closing banquet, she handed her charming paramore an invaluable parting gift, a bouquet in which was hidden coffee seeds descended from the immortal plant that de Clieu had brought from Paris to Martinique. These smuggled seeds gave birth to the Brazilian coffee industry, today valued at more than $10 billion, or about 35 percent of the world’s coffee.

Melo Palheta’s introduction of coffee into Brazil in the early 18th century was not an immediate success. Whereas he and his colleagues began planting it in the Amazon, coffee production began to skyrocket about a century later when Brazilians began planting it further south, in the states of Minas Gerais, Rio de Janeiro, and Sao Paulo, while destroying vast tracts of the Atlantic rainforest in the process. As coffee is a labor-intensive crop, enormous numbers of Africans were imported and enslaved in appalling conditions. As is so often the case with economies closely tied to a few commodities, booms and busts enriched and impoverished locals.

As power and wealth was concentrated in the hands of a few, a new class of ultra-wealthy coffee barons arose, detailed in the books of Brazilian authors like Jorge Amado and Euclides da Cunha. The [inaudible] and the abolition of slavery, extraordinarily late in 1888 in Brazil, saw former slaves flock to major cities like Rio, creating enormous shanty towns known as favelas that persist to the current day. The abolition of slavery and the resulting demand for cheap labor led to an influx from various parts of the world. Immigrants from Italy, Lebanon, Syria, and Japan, among others. It’s a little-known fact that Brazil harbors the largest population of Japanese people outside Japan.

Ironically, many coffee enthusiasts that visit Brazil find that much of the local coffee, known as Cafezinho, is awful. In my opinion, the world’s best coffee is grown on rich, usually volcanic soils and under shade, which is why Colombian and Costa Rican coffee are so spectacular. However, much, if not most, of Brazilian coffee is grown on pore soils directly exposed to the burning tropical sun, failing to develop the oils and aromas that characterize the best Mocha Java.

I was once in an upscale bar in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and ordered a cup of coffee, which was so dreadful that I expressed my disdain to the bartender. He smiled, reached under the bar, and pulled out a small burlap sack that had printed on the side, “Solo para exportación” — “Only for export.” He made me a delicious espresso, winked, and said, “Brazil makes more money when we send the best stuff abroad.”

Brazil went from exporting 22,000 tons of coffee in 1800 to more than three million tons in 1900, an increase of over 130 times. Today, Brazil is exporting about four million tons, meaning it’s producing about 35 percent of the world’s coffee, as I mentioned earlier.

Worth noting is the inextricable link between coffee and slavery during the early days of the coffee industry, not just in Brazil. The most productive plantations in the French Empire were in Santo Domingo, now known as Haiti. In the late 1700s, it was said to be the most profitable colony in the tropical world, producing not only coffee but sugar, cocoa, and indigo dye. So brutal were the conditions of the enslaved Africans, however, that a series of slave revolts eventually led to the Haitian Revolution. With the remarkable Toussaint L’Ouverture in charge, the slaves overthrew their colonial overlords and established the first independent black republic in the world in the year 1804.

With the loss of Santo Domingo as a major coffee exporter, other Central and South American countries began planting coffee. Ever since, coffee has played a major role in tropical American countries, contributing to economic development, employment, export revenues, and other benefits. However, the flip side of the story is a negative one. Establishment and expansion of coffee plantations has usually been at the expense of tropical rainforest, and the economic yields have typically been concentrated at the very top of the economic pyramid, as is often the case in the capitalist system, the rich got richer and the poor got a lot poorer.

A highly recommended account of this is detailed in the book Coffeeland by Augustine Sedgewick. The author details how a poor but upwardly mobile Englishman makes his way to El Salvador in Central America, becomes a fabulously wealthy coffee baron, controlling enormous amounts of land in a tiny country, and essentially impoverishing his workers, who end up worse off. The pattern repeated itself elsewhere.

According to Pendergrast’s book, in northern Guatemala in the ’30s, Germans owned 80 percent of the arable lands yet paid their primarily indigenous workers as little as three cents a day and many of the coffee barons in Central America in the ’30s were not only German, but also ardent Nazis. According to Pendergrast, quote, “Local Gestapo members brought increasing pressure to bear on non-Nazi Guatemalan Germans, sometimes threatening them if they did not comply. These Nazis compiled a secret list of 40 unpatriotic Germans who were to be executed once Germany won the war and took over Guatemala. The US took an even more active interest in Latin America as a result to keep the Nazis at bay and maintain the flow of coffee to the homeland and to allied soldiers overseas. After the attack on Pearl Harbor and the sinking of Brazilian ships by Nazi submarines, Latin America, particularly numerous political fence sitters, firmly embraced the allied cause.”

The number two major coffee power in South America after Brazil has long been Colombia, whose volcanic soils, mountain slopes, and ample rainfall create optimal conditions for coffee cultivation. Coffee is said to have been introduced in Colombia in the 18th century by Jesuit priests. Supposedly, the Jesuits are said to have helped spread coffee trees by requiring their parishioners to plant them as part of their penance for misdeeds. As in Brazil, the economic importance of coffee led to the construction of infrastructure like roads and railroads to facilitate the transport of the beans to larger cities and to ports for export, and as in Brazil, the concentration of wealth from the business created a powerful class of coffee barons.

A notable exception to the seemingly unavoidable process was Costa Rica. Coffee was introduced in the Central Valley in the 1700s. As in Colombia, volcanic soils and ample rainfall proved ideal, and coffee soon became the major export crop. Costa Rica, however, never developed a coffee culture built on an overconcentration of wealth in the hands of a very few coffee barons. It may be the Ticos, as Costa Ricans are generally known, possess a much more egalitarian nature, or it may be that there was no tradition of autocratic rulers, unlike the Maya in Guatemala, the Chibcha in Colombia, the Incas in Peru, or the Aztecs in Mexico. Whatever the reason, they produce some of the best coffee in the world.

About the same time that coffee was being introduced into South America, the Dutch East India Company began importing large shipments of coffee from Java, then in the Dutch East Indies, now part of Indonesia into Holland in the year 1711. And as it happened in the Muslim Middle East, demand for coffee soared in Christian Europe. Artists, writers and composers began singing the praises of coffee sometimes literally. Johann Sebastian Bach composed the Coffee Cantata, one of his most beloved pieces. As part of the libretto he wrote, “How sweet coffee tastes, lovelier than a thousand kisses, sweeter than muscatel wine.”

Honoré de Balzac, the famous French playwright and author penned an essay entitled “The Pleasures and Pains of Coffee.” I believe Balzac provided the best explanation as why artists fell so deeply in love with Mocha Java. “Once coffee hits your system, ideas quickly march into motion like the battalions of a great army.”

This underscores a point I’ve been emphasizing throughout the Plants of the Gods podcast series that these substances are ideogens, not just hallucinogens, ideogens, they help create new ideas and concepts. To repeat Balzac’s quote, since it is so fundamental, “Once coffee hits your system, ideas quickly march into motion like the battalions of a great army.”

Much of Balzac’s prodigious output was turbocharged by his coffee consumption. According to some reports, the Frenchman was downing 50 cups a day. His death at the age of 51 might in some part be due to his coffee addiction. After all, one must wonder how the poor man ever got to sleep.

Yet his countryman, the philosopher Voltaire, was even more addicted and more prolific. The author of over 20,000 letters, 2,000 books and pamphlets, he was said to have consumed as many as 72 cups of coffee a day.

To understand why coffee had an even more profound impact in Europe than it did in the Middle East, two topics merit a bit of discussion. The first is potable water. As the human species began to relinquish the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, people began to live together in greater numbers and in greater proximity than ever before. With no understanding of hygiene or the germ theory of disease, once-pristine water sources like streams, rivers, and lakes became ever more polluted, if not just outright toxic and poisonous. This at least partially explains why beer was invented at the same time and the same place as agriculture, the Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia about 8,000 years ago in what is now Iraq.

Because the preparation of beer and later coffee involves boiled water, microorganisms were reduced or killed. And because beer and wine were alcoholic, microorganisms were reduced or eliminated. Hence, beer, wine, and coffee were much safer to drink than water.

Prior to the advent of coffee in Europe and given the absence of the Islamic prohibition of alcohol, many Europeans drank the equivalent of near beer all day long. The result was a population which lived and worked in what was essentially a constant state of mild befuddlement.

The advent of coffee proved to be a revelation. Thanks to the caffeine, coffee, in moderation at least, enhances alertness, concentration, cognition, and productivity. In the words of Antony Wild, they “exchanged a state of permanent inebriation for a state of permanent caffeination.” I love that quote.

Not only was coffee safe to drink, but consumers could think more clearly and work better, harder and longer hours. The increasing availability of coffee and the growing number of coffee houses in which it was consumed and new ideas were proposed and debated has been hailed as “a brain explosion” none unlike what most certainly happened when our prehuman ancestors first consumed magic mushrooms, fermented fruits and coffee beans in East Africa.

As had been the case in the Muslim world, coffee houses became wildly popular and proved to be a meeting of the minds and different classes and cultures with endless conversations literally fueled by a botanical stimulant.

Many historians lose sight of the biological irony of this intellectual fervor, but not Antony Wild, who wrote, “Caffeine is nothing more than a natural insecticide, and the high caffeine levels protect the coffee fruit from unwanted attention. Hapless insects who ingest too much find that their nervous systems go into overdrive. By the miracle of international trade, the same symptoms can be observed in office workers the world over.”

And in the ancient coffee houses of Europe, the same symptom could be observed. The first establishments in England were opened in the 1650s by Pasqua Rosée, a Greek trained in Turkey and London, and The Angel in Oxford by a Lebanese gentleman known to history as Jacob the Jew. The Angel is still in operation at 40 High Street in Oxford, although it is now known as Queensland Coffee House and across the street is The Grand Cafe, relative newcomers having been founded two years later after The Angel in 1654.

The Grand was established by a Syrian Jew, meaning that coffee was essentially introduced to England by a Turk, a Lebanese and a Syrian, which demonstrates how coffee was essentially percolated in the Middle East as it made its way from Africa to Midwestern Europe.

Merely 25 years after the first coffee houses opened in England, the total number exceeded 3,000. The connection between coffee, conversation, debate, and learning did not end with the coffee houses in 17th century Europe. When I moved to Cambridge in 1974, the real Cambridge, the one in Massachusetts, not the one in England, Harvard Square was percolating with great coffee houses like the Cafe Pamplona and the Cafe Algiers and bookstores like Schoenhof’s and Grolier’s, and this helps explain why college and university towns almost always feature great coffee shops. The combination between coffee drinking and coffee thinking is a real one.

Let me repeat that. And this explains why coffee and university towns almost always feature great coffee shops. The combination between coffee drinking and coffee thinking is a real one.

In point of fact, one can argue that this coffee drinking played an unquestioned role in moving humanity from the Renaissance all the way forward to the internet age. The Renaissance, the word means rebirth, was a period in Europe in which society emerged from the preceding morass of the Dark Ages into an era with a focus on the classical arts, learning and literature of Ancient Greece and Rome, which in turn fostered the development of new ideas, perspectives, and technologies.

This period then led to the Enlightenment, which, while honoring the wisdom of the ancient Mediterranean, sought new ideas based in reason and empirical observation. 

As we move into this part of the discussion, I want to pay special tribute to Tom Standage’s wonderful book, A History of the World in Six Glasses, which explains this aspect of the coffee story in great detail. It is one of my favorite books on drinks and history along with those of Dr. Patrick McGovern, who we hope to interview in an upcoming episode.

In any case, as we heard in the episode on the ethnobotany of wine, the civilizations of the ancient Greeks and Romans were awash in wine. And as the intellectuals of the Enlightenment sought to move beyond these Mediterranean societies, coffee, a drink unknown to the classical world was seen as one way of doing just that. To a society during the Enlightenment, which prized clear and rational thought in the same way that coffee was the opposite of alcohol, coffee houses were the antithesis of bars and taverns.

Yet as was the case in the Islamic world, all this gathering and blathering in the coffee houses made at least some of the authorities nervous. In this new environment, people of all classes could interact and engage in free and open discussions, challenging traditional beliefs and traditional power structures like the monarchy and the church, which made these traditional power centers very nervous.

According to Standage, Catholic opponents of coffee claim that, “Since Muslims were unable to drink wine, the devil had punished them with coffee instead so that Christians should not be permitted to drink coffee.”

In a possibly apocryphal encounter near the dawn of the 17th century, Pope Clement VIII was asked to rule on the question of whether coffee should be banned. After he sampled a cup, he smacked his lips and announced, “This Satan’s drink is so delicious that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it,” and he approved coffee for Catholics.

In 1675, King Charles II of England proved apprehensive about commoners and nobility gathering in coffee houses and having unfettered and caffeine-fueled discussions and debate about political and social issues. He issued a proclamation aimed at suppressing coffee houses, claiming that these venues were “seminaries for sedition” that were spreading “diverse false reports,” the 17th century equivalent, I suppose, of fake news.

Parallel concerns were expressed by the women of the day who were excluded from British coffee houses. They complained that their husbands were spending so much time in coffee houses that “the whole race was in danger of extinction.” Not dissimilar argument was put forward in a lewd pamphlet from women excluded from these cafes entitled “Humble Petitions and Address of Several Thousands of Buxome Good-Women, Languishing in Extremity of Want” who complained that men were spending so much time in coffee houses and drinking so much coffee that they arrived home with “nothing stiff but their joints.”

What then was the draw in addition to the caffeine that drew these men in whose debates and discussions made the Enlightenment so enlightening? Unlike today, these coffee houses were centers of financial, intellectual, political, and scientific activity. According to Standage, these institutions were “centers of self-education, literary and philosophical speculation, commercial innovation, and in some cases, political fermentation.” Take that, Dr. Seuss.

Europe’s coffee houses functioned, according to Standage, as the internet of the Age of Reason. One underappreciated aspect of the power and purpose of these 17th century cafes was public education. In most of the western world at the time, particularly in class-ridden England, higher education was open to, and affordable by, the extremely wealthy. Yet any man, for the price of a cup of coffee, could enter, rub shoulders, ask questions, or debate ideas with some of the greatest minds of all time.

Mathematician Isaac Newton, economist Adam Smith, satirist Jonathan Swift and architect Christopher Wren were all devoted denizens of the coffee houses of their day, that these venues were so highly regarded as a place where the common man could enter and learn from brilliant thinkers led to the coffee houses to be known as “penny universities” which was the cost of a cup of coffee. Take that, Starbucks.

It’s hard to overestimate the intellectual prowess of some of the polymaths who frequented the coffee houses. Christopher Wren was not only an architect, he was also an astronomer, a physicist, and a co-founder of the Royal Society, Britain’s most prestigious scientific organization of the day. Wren is best known for designing and building some of London’s most iconic edifices after the Great Fire of 1666, including St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Robert Hooke was an astronomer, biologist, physicist, and microscopist and urgent planner. Using the microscope, he is the person who discovered the cell.

Edmond Halley was an astronomer, mathematician, and physicist who described the orbit of the comment, which was eventually named after him.

And perhaps the two most impactful gentlemen who did some of their most creative thinking and arguing in British cafes were Isaac Newton, astronomer, mathematician and physicist, and Adam Smith, Scottish economist and philosopher. Newton’s book, Principia, generated in part by coffee house conversations, detailed his thoughts on the laws of motion and gravitation and served as the basis for modern physics.

Adam Smith authored The Wealth of Nations, which was to capitalist economics what Newton’s book was to physics, and Smith penned much of his masterwork in the British coffee houses in Cockspur Street, a gathering place for Scottish intellectuals.

Note that the scripting of immortal works in British coffee houses did not cease with the conclusion of the Enlightenment in the late 18th century.

While Adam Smith was a Scot who wrote his enduring treatise in England, a British woman penned her timeless books in Scottish coffee houses just a few years back. Slightly more than two centuries after the publication of The Wealth of Nations, a single mother living on welfare began writing fiction in Edinburgh coffee houses. She commented, “It’s no secret that the best place to write in my opinion is in a cafe. You don’t have to make your own coffee. You don’t have to feel like you’re in solitary confinement, and if you have writer’s block, you can just get up and walk to the next cafe while giving your batteries time to recharge and your brain time to think. The best writing cafe is crowded enough to allow you to blend in, but not too crowded that you have to share a table with someone else.”

Sometimes calling herself Joanne Murray, she’s more widely known to the world as J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, which has sold to date over 500 million books in 80 languages.

It’s important to emphasize once again that coffee was much more than a drink. In a wonderful new book by Jacob Mikanowski called Goodbye, Eastern Europe, he points out that coffee was this almost unattainable goal that people would strive for, would lust for, would do just about anything they get ahold of. Let me read a wonderful quote that encapsulates this talking about the role of coffee in communist Romania.

“Coffee, real coffee, had less spiritual significance than some other products, but it was just as valuable. Most of what one could find in stores was a coffee substitute made from burnt chickpea flour called Nechezol. Actually, no one was really certain what it was made of. It might’ve contained barley, chestnuts or chickpeas, probably with a small admixture of coffee to boot. Some people would sieve it before brewing, that is strain it, to get the bits of straw out. Even coffee dregs were a treasure to be used and reused again and again until they lost all their flavor.

Pure, natural coffee was almost too precious to use right away. One Romanian father managed to obtain a few dozen real coffee beans for his son. In those days, it felt as if time had reached a total standstill and socialism would last forever. The father was convinced that authentic coffee would soon disappear from his part of the world for good, so he kept his handful of beans safely hidden in a hermetically sealed container as an inheritance for his little boy. He wanted to be sure that one day when he was a grown man, his beloved son would be able to have a single cup of real coffee and savor, just once, the smell of freedom.”

One particularly noteworthy development and outcome of British coffee houses during the Enlightenment was how they began to specialize and turbocharge developments in certain fields from science to insurance. Standage wrote, “Coffee houses functioned as information exchanges for scientists, businessmen, writers, and politicians. Depending on the interests of their customers, some coffee houses displayed commodity prices, share prices, or shipping lists on their walls. Others subscribed to foreign newsletters filled with news from other countries. Coffee houses became associated with the specific trades, acting as meeting places where actors, musicians, and sailors could go if they were looking for work. Coffee houses catering to a particular clientele or dedicated to a given subject were often clustered together in a single neighborhood.”

This specialization around a topic or a business culminated in the creation of major and enduring institutions. According to Antony Wild, “The shipping interest at Lloyd’s coffee house became Lloyd’s of London, the powerful insurance underwriter. The London Stock Exchange emerged from Jonathan’s coffee house. In Oxford, Tillyard’s was the coffee house in which was founded the Royal Society, which was to become the most illustrious scientific institution of the age.”

Meanwhile, in France, coffee house culture not only led to intellectual advances, but also to violence. As in England, cafes were popular gathering places for discussion and dissemination of new ideas like individual rights and questioning the value of the monarchy. Thinkers and coffee drinkers like Diderot, Rousseau, Voltaire, and even Benjamin Franklin were regular customers. The combination of caffeine, radical ideas and the development of revolutionary fervor proved a combustible one.

Ironically, the French monarchy’s support of Enlightenment ideals in America proved part of their undoing. According to Standage, “As France struggled to deal with a mounting financial crisis largely caused by its support for America in the Revolutionary War, coffee houses became centers of revolutionary ferment.”

Enlightenment ideas and economic hardship made France a tinderbox. As pressure mounted, the French philosopher Montesquieu wrote, “Were I the king, I would close the cafes, for the people who frequent those places heat their brains in a very tiresome manner. I would rather see them get drunk in taverns. Then, at least, they would only harm themselves while the intoxication which coffee arouses in them causes them to endanger the country’s future.”

Montesquieu’s analysis proved prescient. The leaders of the French Revolution, men like Desmoulins, Danton, Marat, and Robespierre fomented their insurrectionary plans at Parisian coffee houses like Procope’s, which still stands in the heart of Saint Germain. In fact a speech by Desmoulins at the Café de Foy in Paris in 1789, calling the citizens to arms, set the chaos in motion, and the caffeinated mob stormed the Bastille just a few days later.

Before I wind up this episode in response to our listeners’ request, I want to add a bit of botanical background for my fellow plant nerds. The genus Coffea is native to Africa in the island of Madagascar. It is a member of the Rubiaceae family, which also contains the quinine tree, which we’ll be discussing in a later episode. Most of the world’s coffee is derived from one species, Coffea arabica native mostly to Ethiopia, although some specimens have been found in neighboring Kenya and South Sudan.

Coffee is a beautiful shrub or small tree which can reach in excess of 20 feet, 30 feet in some cases, in the wild. It features smooth, dark, evergreen leaves born in pears on opposite sides of the stem. Exquisite white flowers are extremely fragrant. The fruits, known as coffee cherries, resemble large holly berries. Coffee beans are not beans at all, but resemble true beans, which are members of the legume family.

Coffee fruits typically contain two of these beans, which are actually seeds that are covered by pulp, mucilage and parchment. So to be clear, coffee beans, botanically speaking, are not beans. They’re seeds.

Once the ripe beans have been picked, usually by hand, since they’re delicate and must be picked at the peak of ripeness, the so-called beans are extracted, processed, dried, and roasted to produce commercial coffee.

One peculiar and somewhat more expensive form of coffee is peaberry. A peaberry is simply a double coffee bean. Most coffee fruits produce two beans per cherry, but in one case out of 10 only a single bean develops. Some coffee aficionados claim that peaberries produce a more intense, more flavorable cup of coffee, but if so, the difference is lost on me.

As an aside, an even more expensive coffee is “kopi luwak” from Indonesia. Coffee fruits, known also as coffee cherries, as noted earlier, are fed to palm civet cats which are small mongoose-like mammals in Southeast Asia. Enzymes in the civet’s digestive track are supposed to alter the beans’ flavor, which are then excreted, then washed carefully, I hope, then roasted, ground, and prepared.

Inspired by this weird process, the Brazilians are doing something similar with Guans, which are rainforest turkeys known as jacu bird coffee. And the Thais are doing it with elephants, which is then sold as Black Ivory Coffee, which can cost up to $1,000 a pound.

Meanwhile, there’s another species in addition to Cafe Arabica, which plays an important role in coffee cultivation and production, Robusta coffee with the scientific name of Coffea canephora. Robusta is harder than Arabica. Whereas Arabica must be grown above 2,000 feet on well-drained mountain slopes, Robusta can thrive from sea level up to 2,000 feet and can survive warmer climates as well. Moreover, Robusta beans contain twice as much caffeine as those of Arabica, meaning they require fewer pesticides since caffeine, as we’ve heard, is actually an insecticide. And they have a stronger flavor and more bitter taste and produce more crema, which is why Robusta is often used to make espresso or included in espresso blends.

To coffee aficionados, Robusta is generally considered a less expensive and lower quality product, but its hardiness, lower susceptibility to disease, and ability to grow in hotter and lower regions, and its desirability for espresso blends, make it a valuable commodity in its own right.

Worth noting is that there are dozens of endemic species of Coffea found in Madagascar, the enormous island located off the southeast coast of Africa, across the Mozambique channel. As far as we know, these species are caffeine-free, meaning that these wild species might one day prove useful in cross-breeding with commercial species to reduce caffeine content, increase shields, and enhance resistance to pest and diseases.

Meanwhile, the global economic value of coffee is staggering. After petroleum products and precious and industrial metals, coffee represents one of the world’s most valuable commodities. Put another way, Americans are estimated to consume more than 400 million cups of coffee every day, and several northern countries like Finland, Norway, and Sweden drink way more coffee than Americans on a per capita basis.

In fact, again, in terms per capita, the US, with coffee houses on so many corners, does not even rank in the top 10 of coffee-drinking countries. Let me say that again. In terms of per capita consumption, the US with coffee houses on so many corners does not even rank in the top 10 of coffee drinking countries.

Yet one can accurately state the demand for coffee is out of this world. According to Jonathan Morris, not only do scientists drink coffee at the Antarctic Research Lab, but there is an Italian espresso machine on the International Space Station.

So let’s talk a bit about the role of coffee and the culture and history of the United States. Coffee had been available in Boston for over a century prior to the American Revolution. When the British imposed heavy taxes on tea, coffee was considered a patriotic alternative. In fact, the famous Boston Tea Party on the evening of December 16th, 1773, was planned in the Green Dragon, which was both a coffee house and a tavern and served as a meeting place for Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Paul Revere, and other members of the Sons of Liberty. Daniel Webster called the Green Dragon “The headquarters of the Revolution.”

Coffee, as would also be the case with bourbon, was seen to be a patriotic drink versus British tea and British rum, according to Hobhouse, “There were tea parties and emulation of the affair in Boston Harbor that took place in every one of the other colonies. Social events pledging those present to drink coffee instead of tea became badges of respectable revolutionary fervor. It was a socially and politically brave man or woman who stuck to tea after independence.”

As would be the case in France, caffeine generated upheaval. In 1922, American journalist William Ukers penned the classic book All About Coffee, in which he stated, “Wherever it has been introduced, coffee has spelled revolution. It has been the world’s most radical drink and that its function has always been to make people think. And when the people begin to think, they become dangerous to tyrants.”

Coffee played a role in both the colonies and the new nation. Alexander Hamilton drew up plans for the Bank of New York, a predecessor of the National Bank, at a coffee house on Wall Street in 1783.

The Declaration of Independence was first read aloud to the public at Philadelphia’s Merchant coffee house. And as the Enlightenment gave way to the Industrial Revolution, as the 1700s drew to a close, the role of coffee shifted as well. In the American colonies, just as in Europe, coffee and coffee houses catalyzed development and promotion of new ideas. With the Industrial Revolution, however, denizens of rural areas flocked to the cities to take time-consuming, monotonous, and often dangerous factory jobs. In these settings, coffee enhanced alertness and improved coordination, which not only increased productivity, but could mean the difference between life and death in coal mines, textile mills, and iron foundries, which featured few safeguards.

During the Civil War, coffee assumed a primary role in maintaining soldiers’ morale, alertness, and well-being. Coffee beans. as a relatively light and non-perishable foodstuff. served as a treasured and essential component of the Union Army rations.

Jonathan Morris wrote, “Coffee’s centrality to the troops’ existence can be gauged from the fact that the word ‘coffee’ appears more frequently in Civil War soldiers diaries of the period than rifle, cannon, or bullet. Soldiers then and now prize coffee as an appetite suppressant and an unfailing source of alertness and energy.

One peculiar coffee-laced episode from the Civil War led to an American presidency and thus bears retelling. The bloodiest day in American history was September 17th, 1862, at the Battle of Antietam with a combined tally of 22,727 dead, wounded, or missing. Future US president but then Sergeant William McKinley made his way to the front lines, dodging heavy fire and serving hot coffee to his fellow Union soldiers. McKinley’s actions were considered such a morale booster that his efforts became known as “McKinley’s Coffee Run” and were immortalized by a monument on the battlefield near Sharpsburg, Maryland.

Nonetheless, compared to Jimmy Doolittle’s daring raid on Tokyo in 1942, paratroopers dropping behind Nazi lines the night before D-Day in 1944, or Navy SEALs helicoptering into hostile territory to finish off Bin Laden in 2011, McKinley’s coffee run doesn’t rank very high on the list of US military heroics.

The end of the 19th century in the US saw a shift towards convenience over freshness and taste in food and drink, and coffee was no exception. Fast-paced lifestyles, demand for instant gratification, and the move towards standardization led consumers to canned and instant coffee. Taste and quality took a backseat, not just with coffee, but with all consumables.

With harried consumers, egged on by clever and insistent marketing, frozen and canned foods dominated the pantries and kitchens of American families. The Cultural Revolution of the ’60s and ’70s driven by the Baby Boomers and fueled by not a few plants of the gods, wink, wink, saw increased appreciation and demand for fresher, healthier, tastier, and even organic foodstuffs, including coffee. We tend to associate this counterculture with the so-called hippies, but the movement really began with the Beatniks, young people in the 1950s who rebelled against conventional societal norms rejected materialism and expressed their creativity through literature, poetry, and folk music. Part of their rebellion was expressed in their disdain for their parents’ drug of choice, alcohol. Instead, famous Beatniks like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac downed coffee in famous coffee houses like the Vesuvio in San Francisco, the Caffe Reggio in Greenwich Village, or the Club Passim in Harvard Square.

As part of their rejection of mindless consumerism and materialism, these folks helped spearhead the specialty coffee movement, which focused on the production and enjoyment of high-quality coffee. Eventually, coffee was treated as wine, not something to quaff in a hurry, but a libation to savor and appreciate. Note that wine, according to Jonathan Morris, contains about 300 compounds affecting flavor, whereas coffee has well over a thousand.

Meanwhile, the specialty coffee movement places a strong emphasis on quality and flavor and artisanal craftsmanship. Direct trade relationships with coffee farmers feature top prices for high quality beans to emphasize fair trade, address economic inequalities, and support sustainable practices, and these coffee enthusiasts employ special brewing methods unknown to their parents, like cold water process, French press and pour-overs to enhance the enjoyment of both the coffee and the experience in general. No electric percolators or Mr. Coffee machines for them.

So why did this movement originate in the Western US? Whereas the earliest and most important ports for importing coffee were New York and New Orleans, several historical events led to the West Coast becoming the leading center of coffee culture. One was the Gold Rush in the mid-1800s in which people from the East Coast chose to travel through the Isthmus of Panama in Central America to reach California, which was quicker than traveling overland across the US in those days. This increased maritime connections between the West Coast, where the demand was, and Central America, where the coffee was produced. And the 49ers, as the miners were then known, wanted coffee for all the same reasons cited above.

And to increase its competitive advantage, the Port of San Francisco developed better unloading and distributing facilities than existed in New York and New Orleans, the predominant coffee ports of the day. Shortly thereafter, during the First World War, the coffee from Central America, often produced on German-owned plantations and intended for the Port of Hamburg, Germany, was diverted to San Francisco, instead.

Meanwhile, a boom in coffee shops in both the Bay Area and Seattle, Peet’s was founded in Berkeley in 1966, while Starbucks was founded in Seattle in 1971, fostered increased interest in, demand for, and appreciation for specialty coffees throughout the West Coast.

So it is no accident that this revolutionary brew, coffee, married to a culture of creativity and innovation, helped foster the birth of Microsoft in Seattle and Silicon Valley in the Bay Area, one of the greatest technological advancements in human history.

In the words of Tom Standage, “Coffee remains the preferred drink for anyone seeking an intellectual edge in the 21st century, just as it was in the 17th. Its association with innovation, reason, and networking, plus a dash of revolutionary fervor has a long pedigree.” And thank you, coffee.

The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

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