Chances are that if you’re reading this, it’s with a cup of coffee somewhere near your elbow. It may be a fragrant, steaming, freshly brewed cappuccino from a coffee shop; it may be a tepid and half-forgotten mug of office instant. Whatever may be in your cup, it connects you directly to the rest of the world.
The economics of the humble coffee bean are eye-watering. Coffee is the most valued commodity in the world after crude oil, and commands a global market estimated in excess of USD 100 billion. Coffee farms provide the economic livelihood of over 25 million people in the world, while the coffee trade provides work for hundreds of millions across the entirety of its value chain.
More than 500 billion cups of coffee are drunk worldwide every year – most of them in the industrialized nations, with Finland topping the bill in terms of consumption per capita and the USA in terms of consumption by volume. Ninety per cent of that coffee, however, is produced in the developing world.
Your cup of coffee, whatever its provenance, tells a story of pleasure and pain, globalization and greed, capitalism and creativity. It is a little microcosm of the world’s vast and complex economic systems – and that’s even before the name Starbucks is mentioned.
Coffee has in fact always helped people to look beyond their own horizons. According to legend, the drink was first used by an abbot in the Ethiopian highlands to help him stay awake during his night-time devotions. The abbot had been alerted to the stimulating properties of the coffee bean by a goatherd who had noticed how lively his goats became after eating the berries from a certain tree.
Whatever the truth of this legend, coffee was being drunk by Sufi mystics by the 15th century, and coffee houses rapidly became established throughout the Arab world. Known as “Schools of the Wise”, the coffee houses of Arabia were places where people came to talk, listen to poetry and music, and play chess.
When coffee was introduced to Europe – with the first coffee house in Venice opening in 1645 – it was likewise associated with lively conversation and creative thinking. The first coffee houses in London were known as “Penny Universities”, as one penny – the price of a cup of coffee – provided access to such a wide range of ideas.
Coffee houses were the meeting-places of artists and philosophers, journalists and politicians, scientists and businesspeople, and many of today’s leading commercial institutions – Lloyd’s of London, The Bank of New York and the New York Stock Exchange, to name but three – had their origins in them.
So what of the cup of coffee at your elbow, assuming you are perhaps not right at this moment sitting in a café which is a hot-house of intellectual creativity somewhere on the left bank of the Seine, discussing your next private viewing with an experimental novelist, a stock-broker and a jazz saxophonist?
Coffee gives us a time and space to think, wherever we are. Whether on our own at home with a pencil and a notebook or in an open-plan office full of rattling keyboards, it creates a virtual springboard for the imagination. You can drink the stuff. Or you can drink the stuff and think. Or you can drink the stuff and think about something you have never thought of before.
So here’s an idea for a personal Penny University. Why not decide that every seventh cup of coffee you drink is going to be an inspirational one? It doesn’t matter where you are, or whether in company or alone; nor does the quality of the coffee matter of itself (the experience of hardship and deprivation can be inspirational, even for aficionados of the finest espresso).
If you were to take the ten minutes required to drink a cup of coffee to think about something, anything, in a way completely new to you, what would actually happen? Half Sabbath, half brainstorm, what might occur in that reflective little slice of time? And what might develop if you did this with every seventh cup you drank?
A penny for your thoughts, as they say. Milk and sugar are optional, by the way. And don’t forget to Google a decent patent lawyer before you really get going.
Photo: Coffee cup, Caffè Florian, Venice ©Jo Wilson.
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