Coffee, Tea, Chocolate

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Coffee, tea, and chocolate were all increasingly widely consumed in nineteenth-century Europe. They had numerous apparent benefits: they offered appealing taste and stimulating effect (from the caffeine), yet they were not alcoholic. They were prepared with boiled water (which people understood made water safe), and were thought to have medicinal benefits. In contrast, the water in many cities was polluted and unfit to drink, which had led to high consumption of light beer or light wine. Londoners in the early nineteenth century had particularly bad water, which led to several outbreaks of waterborne illness and prompted London hospitals to serve only alcoholic beverages to their patients. Factory owners encouraged the drinking of tea or coffee rather than beer or wine because of the dangers associated with running machinery while intoxicated and perhaps because stimulants increased productivity. On the downside, coffee and tea replaced beverages that provided more nutrition. Chocolate, tea, and coffee were also associated with the increasing demand for sugar in Europe, because sugar lessened their bitterness. And as with any popular commodity, all were targeted for taxation by governments.


Originally from Ethiopia, coffee was introduced to Europe by Italian traders in 1600. In the seventeenth century, coffee houses became important literary and political places, and they retained this character through the nineteenth century. The Spanish, having been chocolate drinkers since they introduced it from the Americas, were late to embrace coffee, and it was not until the nineteenth century that coffee houses began to prosper in Spain.

However, in France coffee was an essential beverage. Coffee was deemed so essential that in 1806, when Napoleon I (r. 1804–1814/1815) decided to make France self-sufficient (to cut Britain off from its European trade customers), he sought a substitute for coffee. Since coffee cannot grow in Europe, the French substituted the herb chicory during this period. When foreign policy changed, the French went back to true coffee, although sometimes mixed with chicory.

The medical qualities of coffee had been investigated since its entry into Europe. This inquiry continued in the 1800s, with some researchers praising its energizing effects and others deploring the stimulating aspects as upsetting the body's natural balance. Caffeine was isolated in the 1820s, although not all critics of coffee's healthfulness understood that caffeine was the active substance. By the late 1800s, it was clear that excessive consumption of coffee created a recognizable syndrome.

By the early 1900s, afternoon coffee became a customary occasion in Germany. The derogatory term Kaffeeklatsch was coined to describe women's gossip at these affairs (although now the term simply refers to relaxed conversation).

Coffee became an international commodity, and one of Europe's major sources was Brazil, where the coffee plant was tended by slaves. With the abolition of the slave trade in Brazil in 1850, the coffee industry, and the culture of Brazil, was slowly forced to change as the existing slaves aged and died. Other changes in the coffee trade were due to technical developments such as steam pressure espresso, vacuum tins to package roast coffee (which hurt the market for local roasting shops), soluble instant coffee, the filter-drip coffee process, and the process for decaffeinating coffee beans.


Europe was introduced to tea in the mid seventeenth century; in Spain, Italy, and France, it was a drink for the upper classes. In England and the Netherlands, tea was drunk by all.

The well-known British preference for tea was well established by the nineteenth century, partly because it was easier to brew than was coffee, partly because the British East India Company advertised profusely, and partly because smugglers offered tea at cheaper prices than did legal sellers, who had to pay high taxes. Especially in Britain, "tea" was not simply a drink but a social event. By the 1880s, afternoon tea had become an important daily event. Also by the 1880s, the price of tea—or what was sold as tea—had dropped enough so that working-class folk could afford a steady supply.

Because until the nineteenth century tea only came from China, it was often expensive. This led many tea sellers, both Chinese and European, to supplement the tea leaves with additives. Sometimes the adulteration was harmless, as in the case of adding orange or lemon leaves. Some adulterants were harmful, such as the dye added to green teas: a mix of Prussian Blue and gypsum, which added both plaster and cyanide to the tea. The British parliament did not pass a "tea act" to check the quality of tea until the end of the nineteenth century.

Tea was so important to the British that the East India Company engaged in a complex trade by which the British traded opium to Chinese merchants for tea. The Chinese emperor had forbidden opium importation and requested that the British stop the opium trade, but the British refused. This tension led to the First Opium War of 1839–1842, which the British won. Ironically, by about 1840, the British actually had another source of tea, India.


The Spanish introduced chocolate to Europe in the early sixteenth century, and consumption was well established by the late eighteenth century. Chocolate was taken as a beverage, and, because of the high cost, chiefly drunk by aristocrats. Less austere Catholic clergy welcomed chocolate as a drink allowed on fast days. This association with the upper classes and the clergy conflicted with the ideals of the French Revolution and turned French opinion against chocolate in the late eighteenth century. In Britain, cocoa was popularized by the navy; hot, nutritious, and nonalcoholic, it was considered the perfect drink for sailors on watch duty.

Chocolate underwent several processing improvements in the nineteenth century. In 1828, Dutch chemist C. J. van Houten discovered how to remove most of the bitter fat; the "Dutch process" of alkalization neutralized acids and made chocolate more soluble in water. Van Houten's work led to the production of the first chocolate bars in 1847, although milk chocolate was not developed until 1875.

As with other expensive and exotic products, chocolate was subject to adulteration. In the midnineteenth century, a British study found that 90 percent of the fifty brands of commercial cacao were adulterated with starch fillers or brick dust and toxic red lead pigment.

See alsoAlcohol and Temperance; Diet and Nutrition; Wine.


Coe, Sophie, and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York, 1996.

Hobhouse, Henry. Seeds of Change: Five Plants That Transformed Mankind. New York, 1986.

Pendergrast, Mark. Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World. New York, 1999.

Pettigrew, Jane. A Social History of Tea. London, 2001.

Weinberg, Bennett Alan, and Bonnie K. Bealer. The World of Caffeine: The Science and Culture of the World's Most Popular Drug. New York, 2001.

Kathryn A. Walterscheid