A ‘heathenish liquor’? A cure for cancer? The history of coffee is full of surprises | Jonathan Morris

Last week a study was published showing that people with bowel cancer who drink coffee – quite a lot of coffee, two to four cups a day – were less likely to suffer a return of the disease. Experts have said that if the results hold in further studies, coffee could be prescribed to cancer patients on the NHS. That coffee does have an effect on human function is beyond dispute – but whether that impact is beneficial or detrimental has been the subject of contention since Sufi mystics began consuming the beverage some time in the mid-15th century.

The Indigenous peoples of the forests of Kaffa in south-west Ethiopia foraged berries from wild coffee plants that were shipped across the Red Sea to prepare the decoction known as qahwa, which Yemeni Sufis incorporated into their night-time religious ceremonies to reduce their desire for sleep. Once mainstream Islamic courts ruled coffee was not intoxicating, consumption became widespread among the Muslim populations in the Middle East and the Ottoman empire.

Coffee was initially very much thought of as a sort of medicine. Turkish merchants brought coffee to Venice, where it was prescribed for disorders of the digestive system. It seems to have been supplied made up into small potions, drunk cold. Europe’s first coffee houses appeared in 1650s London, when Pasqua Rosée opened his premises serving merchants from the nearby Royal Exchange. By 1663 there were 82 coffee houses registered in the City of London, whose customers were attracted by the outlandish health benefits claimed for the new beverage.

According to a widely reproduced handbill used by coffee house proprietors, the drink “closes the orifice of the Stomack, and fortifies the heart within … is very good to help digestion … quickens the spirits and makes the Heart Lightsome. It is good against sore Eyes … and against the Head-ache”.

It’s most attractive feature, however, was that “it will prevent Drowsiness and make one fit for business, if one have occasion to Watch and therefore you are not to Drink of it after Supper, unless you intend to be watchful, for it will hinder sleep for three or four hours”. For merchants living off their wits, conducting business over stimulating dishes of coffee was preferable to trying to maintain concentration while drinking the small beer sold in taverns. Despite the handbill’s warnings, many coffee houses remained open well into the evening to enable trading and networking to continue.

Coffee bar in Soho, London, 1954. Photograph: Hulton Getty

Not everyone was won over. The 1674 Women’s Petition Against Coffee alleged that “Excessive use of that Newfangled, Abominable, Heathenish Liquor called Coffee … has so Eunucht our Husbands and Crippled our more kind Gallants, that they are become as Impotent as Age and as unfruitful as those Desarts whence that unhappy Berry is said to be brought”. The petition’s call for men to resume drinking “Lusty nappy Beer”, and “Cock-Ale” to avoid being “Cuckolded by Dildos” suggests the petition was probably produced by tavern proprietors rather than wives protesting against coffee-drinkers’ droop.

Negative advertising returned to the fore two centuries later in the US, when wellness entrepreneurs began attacking coffee as responsible for a newly fashionable scourge: nerves. The businessman CW Post turned denouncing coffee into an art form, enabling him to become a millionaire just seven years after starting up a business manufacturing Postum, a roasted wheat bran beverage, in 1895. Post effectively gaslit coffee drinkers through his adverts’ references to such conditions as coffee heart, coffee neuralgia and brain fag. One featured an overflowing cup and the text “constant dripping wears away the stone – perhaps a hole has been started in you. Try leaving off coffee for 10 days and use Postum Food coffee”.

Ironically Post was a secret coffee drinker, albeit a seemingly self-loathing one whose periods of abstinence alternated with spells of bingeing.

Since the 1960s mass longitudinal surveys of coffee drinkers have thrown up contradictory evidence of its impact. Early studies identified a strong negative correlation with overall health, probably because they failed to allow for associated lifestyle choices – most notably smoking. In 1991 the World Health Organization listed coffee as a possible cause of cancer, but in 2016 this status was reversed as more nuanced studies have shown a larger number of positive outcomes being associated with coffee drinking.

Caffeine’s undoubted physiological and psychoactive qualities may influence some of these outcomes, but many may equally relate to the other hundreds of unique compounds contained in a single cup. The high quantities of soluble dietary fibre present within brewed coffee may contribute to bowel health, and coffee contains plenty of antioxidants associated with protection against ageing and dementia. Even a rogue court ruling in California in 2018 requiring roasters to put health warnings on roasted coffee as it contained the carcinogenic compound acrylamide was soon overturned by state officials on the grounds that the concentrations were so low it was virtually impossible that drinking coffee alone could result in cancer. Following centuries on the defensive, it may be time for coffee professionals to dust down those handbills and channel their inner Pasqua Rosée.

  • Jonathan Morris is the director of research culture and environment, and professor of history at the University of Hertfordshire. He is the author of Coffee: A Global History. He collaborates with a broad spectrum of coffee industry partners on bespoke heritage projects

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