How coffee fueled literature, the French Revolution and Union Army victory

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Not long ago, author Michael Pollan quit caffeine cold turkey. He wasn’t keen to give up his daily coffees and green teas, but, as he was reporting a story about caffeine, multiple experts told him he couldn’t understand its power — why caffeine withdrawal is even included in the vaunted “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” — until he gave it up. 

The experts, he found, were right. Pollan found himself severely mentally impaired for weeks, and even after that initial withdrawal subsided, he still felt noticeably out of it. When he did return to caffeine after three months, it felt like he was consuming an illicit drug. 

It was “almost as if my cup had been spiked with something stronger, something like cocaine or speed,” Pollan writes in his new book “This Is Your Mind On Plants” (Penguin Press), out now. “I looked around me, taking in the mellow sidewalk scene, the kids in their strollers, and the dogs trailing them for crumbs. Everything in my visual field seemed pleasantly italicized, filmic.” 

Pollan goes so far as to assert that the stimulant created the modern world. 

“It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the arrival of caffeine in Europe changed . . . everything,” he writes. “Coffee and tea ushered in a shift in the mental weather, sharpening minds that had been fogged by alcohol, freeing people from the natural rhythms of the body and the sun, thus making possible new kinds of work and, arguably, new kinds of thought, too.” 

He notes that coffee first made its way from East Africa to the Arabian Peninsula in the 15th century, at a time when the Islamic world was more advanced in the sciences than Europe. In the 16th century, the Ottoman Empire had hundreds of coffeehouses, and some historians have linked the rise of java in the Islamic world with the advent of modern mathematics. 

In the early 17th century, the first coffeehouse in Europe opened in Venice, and thousands soon followed, creating a new kind of intellectual space. “You paid a penny for the coffee, but the information — in the form of newspapers, books, magazines and conversation — was free,” Pollan writes. 

The political conversations in coffeehouses were so potentially powerful that in 1675 in England, King Charles II moved to close them down. He abandoned his efforts after 11 days, upon seeing how dependent his countrymen were on caffeine. In France, coffeehouses were a venue for rebellion; the mob that stormed the Bastille and ignited the French Revolution first assembled at the Cafe de Foy. 

The Enlightenment and subsequent intellectual movements were also fueled by coffee. Voltaire is said to have drunk as many as 72 cups a day. Diderot relied upon it to put together the “Encyclopédie.” Balzac credited his literary proliferation to coffee and he went so far as to consume it in powder form, rather than allow brewing to dilute it. 

And, of course, caffeine also helped dramatically improve more humble laborers’ output. The minute hand on clocks was invented in the late 16th century, and it rose in use as coffee-drinking became widespread, something that Pollan writes is “surely more than coincidence.” As work moved away from physical outdoor endeavors to more nuanced indoor pursuits, “a new temporal discipline that coffee and tea could help to enforce” was called for. 

In America, one of the first employers to use coffee to increase productivity was the Union Army during the Civil War, when soldiers were each issued 36 pounds of joe per year. Economic blockades deprived Confederate troops of coffee — giving the Union a winning edge, historians have theorized. 

Humans started consuming tea long before coffee — it was used as a medicine at least as early as 1,000 BC — and it has had similar historical importance. Pollan writes that tea’s popularity in the latter half of the first century AD in China coincided with a golden age for the Tang dynasty. Tea became widely accessible to people in the West in the 1800s. In England, it helped laborers work long hours in harsh conditions, and when sweetened with sugar provided a cheap source of calories. “It’s difficult to imagine the Industrial Revolution without it,” Pollan writes. 

But caffeine has also been a victim of the productivity it has enabled. Industrial growth and pollution has led to climate change, which is now severely affecting finicky coffee plants. Some estimate that by 2050, roughly half of the area used to grow coffee will no longer be conducive to the crops. 

“Capitalism,” Pollan writes, “having benefited enormously from its symbiotic relationship with coffee, now threatens to kill the golden goose.” 

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