How The History of Coffee Shaped The Global Economy


It’s amazing how the history of coffee, tea, sugar, tobacco, and spices—completely changed the focus of the global economy, especially as they’re all entirely superfluous.

Coffee, Sugar, Tea

The Power of Sugar

Sugar started out being an exclusive luxury item—only the wealthiest of people could afford it. Even after it began to be produced in the New World, there were still elite people using sugar for things like sculpture and in some foods; it’s still a mark of status. But around the 17th century, that all began to change.

The Spanish-Portuguese monopoly was broken—they’re ruled by the same king at this point—and now there were British and Dutch manufacturers making their own sugar. They also developed a new manufacturing process that replaced the old press that required the cane be chopped and pressed with a stone.

This new machine had three vertical rollers that you pass the cane into and it crushes it. It’s powered by a watermill or a windmill so it’s a lot more efficient. There were also new furnace designs for refining the sugar.

Still Life with Sweets by Portuguese artist Josefa de Óbidos, 1676 for The History of Coffee article
Still Life with Sweets by Portuguese artist Josefa de Óbidos, 1676

All of this meant that sugar was arriving in Europe in vast quantities and the price plummeted. Did that matter? Not in the least, because they’re marketing it to new consumers.

It’s now fobbed off on ordinary people and the demand for sugar became so great that the industry just grew and grew. An increasing percentage of the average European diet was composed of sugar. They put it in their coffee and tea, they made candy out of it—they started what is in effect a junk food industry.

In other words, so that a few plantation owners and sugar refinery owners could get very, very rich, Europeans ended up eating more and more refined sugar, getting rotten teeth, and being malnourished. It may not be physiologically addictive, but there is a belief it is psychologically addictive.

Addictive substances make the best consumer goods because once you’ve got them and you get hooked on them, you can keep the price high. You can encourage people to buy more and more and use it in new ways, so the Europeans, and of course North Americans, became sugar addicts.

Learn more about: Coffee, Tea, and Sugar

The History of Coffee, Tea, and Chocolate

Chocolate was drunk by the Aztecs and enthusiastically sipped by Spanish nobles, who’d sit around all day drinking a cup of chocolate. It’s even used during a fast—noble women would have their servants bring a pot to mass, so it’s not breaking the fast.

Arguably, it’s the perfect drink for lazy courtiers whose ideal in life wasn’t to be great businessmen but to inherit wealth, live off rents, and never lift a finger. Chocolate relaxes you so it may not be surprising that it became the drink of choice in Spain rather than a highly caffeinated drink.

These weren’t like Starbucks; these were places where people really did go to socialize

But in Protestant Northern Europe, where making money was the name of the game, where you had to be alert and wired and able to stay awake long hours to watch your investments, it’s perhaps not surprising that coffee dominated there. In the 17th century, coffee houses started opening all across Europe, especially in London.

These weren’t like Starbucks; these were places where people really did go to socialize, to hash out business deals, to draw up contracts, and some of the coffee houses literally became businesses. The insurance company Lloyd’s of London, the largest in the world, started out as a coffee house.

Coffee is said to be the ideal drink for industrious, Protestant work-ethic-driven Englishmen, Dutchmen, Germans, and Americans. In the 1730s, Bach even wrote this lovely little cantata about coffee: “Ah how sweet coffee tastes, lovelier than a thousand kisses, sweeter far than muscatel wine.”

Trembleuse or Gobelet et soucoupe enfoncé
Trembleuse or Gobelet et soucoupe enfoncé

Cafes in other European countries tended to be very different. In Paris, the first one was Le Procope in 1686. It’s still there and it’s still flourishing. The café became a place to linger where you found literary types, poor intellectuals, and bohemians.

It’s similar in Vienna, although typically it would be a café-konditorei, so they’d serve pastries and cakes there, too. There’s a story that the Viennese were introduced to coffee after the Turks were attacking the city in 1683.

They were forced to retreat, leaving behind their sacks of coffee, which the Viennese quickly stole and brewed up. Apparently they invented the croissant also to celebrate the victory (remember the Turkish flag has a little crescent moon on it).

It’s probably not true, but it’s a fun story. There’s another weird story that the bagel was invented in homage to the Polish general Jan Sobieski, modeled after his stirrup.

The other product was tea and why it replaced coffee in England was really just a matter of politics.

The other product was tea and why it replaced coffee in England was really just a matter of politics. The English had been buying tea in China and they wanted to protect the trade for the East India Company, so they lowered the tariff on tea to practically nothing and they raised the tariff on coffee—which was supplied mostly by the Spanish and Dutch; it’s grown in Java and South America.

But the English didn’t have coffee plantations, so they actively promoted tea. On the one hand, it made Britain ultimately a nation of tea drinkers; on the other hand, trying to force tea on Americans was one of those factors that caused the American colonists to revolt. Later on, the British figured out, “We can grow our tea in India,” and then it became the major supplier to the empire with fermented black teas like Assam and Darjeeling.

This wasn’t merely the passing of plants and animals from one continent to another. This was moving of people, tying together of economies, changing the way of life entirely through institutions like slavery, and it signaled not only the global dominance of Europe, but the introduction on a mass scale of superfluous luxury items that later became crucial in manufactured foods of the industrial era.

From the Lecture Series Food: A Cultural Culinary History
Taught by Professor Ken Albala, University of the Pacific in Stockton, California