A brief history of how we fell in love with caffeine and chocolate

Cups of coffee, tea, and hot chocolate have become mainstays of the modern British diet, dispensed in outlets in every high street and enjoyed in the home or during breaks at work

(Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

These everyday beverages, so integral to British life, all originally came from far-flung regions: coffee from the Arabian peninsula, tea from China, and chocolate from Mesoamerica. By a strange coincidence, all arrived on our shores almost simultaneously during the middle of the 17th century, causing much debate about their benefits (or otherwise) to the health of the nation. 

Here, Melanie King, the author of Tea, Coffee & Chocolate: How We Fell in Love with Caffeine, explores the origins of our obsession with caffeine and chocolate…

We may think of the 1650s as a time of puritanical austerity, with the banning of holly wreaths and the closing of theatres. But it was during these years of austerity that tea, coffee, and chocolate first went on sale in Britain. The first cup of coffee appears to have been served in 1650, in the Angel Inn in Oxford, where an enterprising Jewish merchant began the long tradition of seeing students through their exams.

The first cup of hot chocolate came seven years later, when in 1657 an advertisement informed the public that they could enjoy “an excellent West Indian drink called chocolate” at a house in Queen’s Head Alley, Bishopsgate. One year later, a “China drink, called by the Chineans Tcha,” was advertised as being sold at the Sultaness Head Coffee-House by the Royal Exchange. Tea was still an exotic novelty three years later, when Samuel Pepys reported in his diary that he had a cup of tea, “of which I had never drank before”.

The sudden arrival of these three new beverages, all from distant foreign parts, immediately became the source of much curiosity, anxiety, and debate. Entrepreneurs extolled their health benefits, while sceptics made equally dubious announcements about their supposed harmful effects. For example, a 1664 treatise by a tea merchant, entitled An Exact Description of the Growth, Quality and Vertues of the Leaf Tea, confidently claimed that tea “vanquisheth heavie Dreams, easeth the Brain, strengthneth the Memory”, while making the body “active and lusty”. As Pepys discovered, apothecaries recommended cups of tea as a decongestant.

Coffee was also widely promoted as a ‘cure-all’. A 1660 advertisement by James Gough, who sold coffee in Oxford, stated that coffee had so many advantages that “it would be too tedious to nominate everything it is good for”. He nevertheless proceeded to give potential customers a long list that included consumption, gout, spleen, dropsy, rheumatism, headaches, and digestion. It was also effective, he pointedly noted, in banishing drowsiness in “students or others who are to sit up late, or all night”. One of the grandest claims for coffee, made in 1721, was that it stopped the spread of the bubonic plague.

Chocolate, meanwhile, was promoted by various treatises, advertisements, and poems, such as In Praise of Chocolate by James Wadsworth (who wrote under the compelling pseudonym Don Diego de Vadesforte). A “lick of chocolate”, Wadsworth claimed, not only helped women to get pregnant but, nine months later, eased the pains and length of childbirth! The cosmetic effects were equally irresistible: “Twill make Old women Young and Fresh.” Little wonder that fashionable women were soon sipping chocolate in bed, assisted by a special vessel, the mancerina, that prevented them from spilling the liquid onto their sheets.

Such bold claims about these new drinks did not go unchallenged. Equally vocal bands of detractors blamed the beverages for undermining the health, morale, and industry of the nation. The fact that they were to be drunk hot became a source of concern, since hot liquids were believed to boil the blood and therefore upset the balance of the four humours [the ancient Greek theory that the health of the body was controlled by four bodily fluids – blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm]. The perils of drinking hot liquids were graphically illustrated by a Fellow of the Royal Society, Dr Stephen Hales, who studied the effects of dipping a suckling pig’s tail in a cup of tea.


Smart gentlemen drinking, smoking and chatting in a coffee house, c1668. (Photo by Rischgitz/Getty Images)

Other alarming claims were made about tea drinking: it supposedly enfeebled the spirits, dried the brain, caused people to commit suicide, and led to a drop in productivity among workers, since even the lowliest labourers, as one opponent furiously noted, downed tools to enjoy a cup of tea. Coffee fared little better – it was denounced in a poem as a “decoction of the devils”, while a 1661 broadsheet claimed that it made men effeminate. In 1674, another broadsheet elaborated the effects of coffee on masculine performance, deploring this ‘heathenish liquor’ for making men unable to discharge their conjugal duties. The women of Britain were, as a result of their men sipping coffee, “languishing in an extremity of want”. 

If coffee was suspect because it came from ‘heathen’ lands – the Middle East – chocolate raised suspicions because it was associated with Catholics: the Spanish monks and conquistadors who had been the first Europeans to sample and export it. Its use in Aztec rituals (it sometimes served as a substitute for blood) was also a cause for suspicion. A physician and naturalist named Martin Lister noted that chocolate may have been a suitable drink for “wild Indians” but was hardly one for the “pampered” British.

In the 1660s, chocolate even played a part in a high society sex scandal, when one of the mistresses of the Duke of York (the future James VII and II), Lady Denham, fell ill and died. The poet Andrew Marvell reported that the venom had apparently been administered in a cup of “mortal Chocolate”. An autopsy ruled out any toxin, though it also claimed (as the sceptical Samuel Pepys noted) that she had died a virgin.

Despite their many opponents, all three beverages – tea, coffee, and hot chocolate – became an established part of the British diet, and advice was quickly produced on how best to prepare and enjoy them. The philosopher and courtier Sir Kenelm Digby suggested that tea should be steeped for no longer than it took to recite Psalm 51 (about three minutes).

Pasqua Rosee, an Armenian immigrant who ran London’s first coffee shop, offered advice on how to make and drink a cup of coffee: the grounds should, he said, be boiled with spring water, the liquid then drunk on an empty stomach with no food taken for an hour afterwards. A recipe from 1667 recommended mixing coffee powder with equal quantities of butter and salad oil, proving that today’s trends such as bulletproof coffee – a mixture of coffee and butter – are nothing new. Meanwhile a doctor named Benjamin Moseley suggested that those suffering from flatulence or scurvy might wish to add mustard to their coffee.

Coffee was often consumed in coffee houses, which in London became venues for gossip, political debate and, in the eyes of the authorities, sedition. A publication entitled Rules and Orders of the Coffee House pointed out that, in these establishments, “people of all qualities and conditions” gathered, with no consideration for ranks or titles. Charles II grew so worried about the subversive political effects of coffee houses that in 1675 he ordered their closure. Such was the public indignation that within days he was forced to rescind his proclamation. Within a few decades, by the early 18th century, there were around 3,000 coffee houses in England.

Chocolate, too, was drunk in special establishments. Unlike coffee, it was not a democratic drink that catered to all ranks of society. More expensive than both tea and coffee, chocolate became the drink of the affluent. Consequently, chocolate houses – White’s, Ozinda’s, and the Cocoa Tree – were found in the aristocratic area around Pall Mall in London. Chocolate was often spiced up with exotic ingredients. It was used for dipping wigg bread (a bread spiced with cloves, nutmeg and caraway seeds), and it might be stirred into wine, brandy, port, or sherry. Pepys’s first encounter with chocolate was in a tavern where, as a hangover cure, it was mixed with his morning draft of wine.

Odd as some of these complaints and prescriptions might seem to us today, the health benefits of coffee, tea, and chocolate are still today the subject of much debate and scientific study. We may not have broadsheets anymore, but the internet is full of testimony about the pros and cons of drinking coffee; the fat-burning and cancer-fighting properties of green tea; and the cholesterol-lowering and memory-boosting powers of chocolate. These three drinks have as strong a hold on us as ever.

Melanie King is a freelance writer of historical non-fiction. Her book Tea, Coffee & Chocolate: How We Fell in Love with Caffeine (Bodleian Publishing) is out now. To find out more, click here.

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