The word coffee may bring to mind images from steaming liquid to early mornings. If you are like 80% of Americans, you consume this familiar drink everyday . Whether it is a latte, a caramel macchiato, or black, coffee is an important part of the United States and Global culture. Every Starbucks’ fan knows a Pumpkin Spice Latte delivers large doses of craved caffeine and sugar, but it may be more surprising to learn that the coffee in it also carries a long history of knowledge. So let us follow the story of knowledge behind this drink.
Coffee bushes grew in Africa and the Arabian Peninsula for centuries before people discovered the wonders of caffeine in its berries  . While there are many coffee legends, they mainly agree that the discovery of coffee happened near Ethiopia, around the 6th century . The most famous story is of the Ethiopian goat herder, Kaldi . Legend has it that Kaldi’s goats ate coffee beans and started jumping around the field, maybe from all the caffeine. After seeing the strange reaction of his goats, Kaldi brought the beans to a Sufi, an Islamic scholar. The Sufi rejected the beans and threw them in the fire, thereby roasted the first coffee beans . Coffee’s rejection is quite an ironic start, but it would not last. From this point on, intellectuals, muse seeking artists, and exhausted students begin embracing coffee.
A Golden Age Spreads Black Gold
The Sufis do not dismiss the drink for long but rather spread coffee to Egypt and Southeast Asia, as they used to coffee to concentrate and connect with God . In the 1500s, the Islamic World was globally influential from its Golden Age of Innovation . Coffee came to rest of the world from Africa and Arabia through Islamic societies trading the knowledge and technology of their Golden Age. Strong trade routes existed between the Middle East, Europe, and Africa during this time. If you enjoy algebra, printing, or navigating by a compass you can thank the Islamic Golden Age . Most importantly (for our purposes) coffee came out of this age too. By the 1500s, coffee spread as far as Europe . Coffee got its big global break by tagging along with knowledge. This transmission of coffee exemplifies how when knowledge and technology spread culture often follows; they are inseparable. We live in a more globally connected world than the 1500s, so we see consequences of this every day.
In Europe, instead of spreading alongside knowledge, coffee’s influence took an active role in encouraging the great thoughts of the Age of Enlightenment . Coffee arrived in England by the 1600s , and by the 1700s the new trend of coffee houses caught on in Europe . Unlike a drive thru McCafe or the coffee houses in the earlier Islamic world, the most important purpose of these coffee houses were not to actually sell coffee. European coffee houses were most importantly social centers. People came to do business, discuss new ideas, and share information . They became a think tank of scholarship and innovation. This earned the houses their nickname, “Penny Universities,” so called because entry only cost a penny for unlimited time and coffee. Because of their affordability and popularity, coffee houses were lively and crowded. Men of all classes and professions came to socialize and share ideas. By their nature, the houses hosted a crowd that possessed the diversity that top companies and universities strive to recruit today. Many ideas and prospective occupied these houses, allowing companies, news, and ideas to flow profusely from these “universities.”
College Coffee Culture
Almost any college student will tell you that coffee is a large part of university culture. 40% of student age Americans drink coffee everyday . Whether it is the caffeine or the sugar, many students need this pick up to get through longs hours of classes and studying. Personally, I do not go to English class without my afternoon cup of joe. While students may be flooding coffee lines strictly for caffeine and sugar, coffee shops still create a large social atmosphere on campuses. True to the days of penny universities, coffee shops are popular places for students to study or discuss ideas with friends. A Frappuccino is going to cost you more than a penny, but four centuries later coffee shops are still creating a space for people to share and spread ideas.
Science or Social?
Because coffee and knowledge often intertwine, scientist have explored if coffee helps with learning and creativity. Research on this is inconclusive. Some studies suggests that the caffeine in coffee may actually help with learning and retention. A study from Nature Neuroscience finds that caffeine may help increase long-term memory . Studies have also explored if coffee aids in creativity, which is needed to create great works of art and scientific theories . While Benjamin Franklin, Beethoven, and Voltaire were all heavy coffee drinkers , there is little evidence to support that downing pots of coffee will help students invent the next light bulb or masterpieces. On the other side, some studies such as those presented in the New Yorker article “How Coffee Can Cramp Creativity”  suggest that coffee hinders the creative process. Overall, science has not offered any real explanation of coffee and knowledge, so we must look to other causes to explain this link.
The history of coffee displays how the social atmosphere coffee creates developed a relationship between coffee and knowledge. Coffee houses provided a space for people to meet, and gathered people create and share new ideas. Scholars have compared coffee shops, as they existed in London and in universities to small models of cities . They were places of many ideas, diverse people, and daily heavy attendance. This comparison gives insight that collaborative groups are the secret to making progress in society. Extending this conclusion predicts that collaborative social efforts will be responsible for the innovation of tomorrow. If we look to the future, people who spend a lot of time communicating with others will most likely produce the most successful new ideas. Communication and innovation have a much faster pace in our global world than the coffee shops of the 1600s. Therefore, we can expect knowledge, technology, and culture to spread at increasing rates by people talking to other people, maybe even over coffee.