Did Coffee Kill Beer Soup?

As world beverages go, coffee is a neophyte – not steeped in a long history, as it were, but as of now still fresh brewed and in the first flush of its aromatic, world-conquering glory.

Did you know that the recorded history of tea goes back three thousand years earlier than the history of coffee? Due to coffee’s enormous global popularity today, it is almost unthinkable to realize that this dark elixir has not always been around. But when coffee did finally come to prominence, it was a game-changer.

Ancient history tells the tale of beer and wine as the staple beverages of society. In the Eastern world, tea has been celebrated in writing for its social functions and its medicinal value since practically the dawn of writing in China several thousand years ago.

Coffee, however, waited in the wings for its historical moment – recorded in written history around 900 A.D. and transported to Europe initially in the 1500s.

Recorded Histories of the World’s Great Drinks

Beer Wine Tea Coffee
~4000 B.C.E. (or earlier) ~3000 B.C.E. (or earlier) ~2700 B.C.E. (or earlier) ~900 A.D.

There are many fascinating quirks about the history of coffee, especially as it fits into a larger history of consumption and drinks in particular. You may have noticed something about the short list of the world’s greatest hits when it comes to beverages of the ancient world. The connection relates to water.

The processes that produce both beer and wine made these drinks safe to imbibe in an age where you couldn’t always say the same thing about the water that was available. Fermentation produces alcohol, which “cleans” the drink by killing pathogens (An article in Scientific American cites this factor to argue that drinking beer and wine may actually help fight outbreaks of cholera). Tea features another safety measure – making water safe to drink by boiling it.

The Western world did not find out about tea, however, until the 1500s. And coffee wouldn’t achieve widespread popularity for another hundred years or so, which explains some pretty entertaining historical trivia.

In countries like England, the lack of clean drinking water meant that beer was the drink of the day. People drank beer in the morning and all day long. People even used it in soup. They called it, perhaps un-creatively, beer soup.

mochaThe adoption of coffee and tea as staple drinks helped to change the habits of a culture. Sadly, that led to the decline of beer soup, but you have to imagine that the work place became a far safer environment when coffee replaced beer at the breakfast table.

Of course it’s true that beer, wine, tea and coffee are all great-tasting drinks anyway. That’s why they remain popular today in a world where safe drinking water is much easier to find (and usually cheaper than these other drinks).

And while we can’t really say that the cappuccino killed beer soup, we can certainly say that coffee has played a role in finding a balance and a diet within our culture that doesn’t require us to concoct beer-breakfast-food ideas in order to survive.


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