Coffee Culture and Ideas: A Need for A Break

A little departure this week. Think of it as a coffee break.

There is a theory that the Industrial Revolution and the intellectual flourishing that came from it in England was due to one thing: coffee. Up until then, people were mostly, well drunk. When water sanitation is poor and the options for getting water intake few, beer and wine were among the only options for people seeking means to hydrate. So for centuries there were entire generations of people who largely pickled from day to day (no wonder the lifespan was less than 40 for many).
Then along came coffee, allowing you do something with boiled water that tasted — well, better than boiled water. (Although as one who is a bit of a coffee connoisseur, I can only imagine that it tasted horrible back then, but I digress). Coffee had a bonus effect: it is a stimulant. So instead of swilling back a pint of ale at the pub, which leads to sleepiness, proclivity for getting into fights or having unwanted/unplanned sex, and general unwellness (not mention a big gut), we had people perky, with neurons firing wanting to chat and coming up with ideas — lots of them. And the recipe for coming up with a good idea, is to come up with lots and lots of ideas. The author Steven Johnson talks (and writes) about this in a very interesting and recent TED talk .

For me coffee has had a very special place in my heart (and tummy I suppose). I discovered coffee in the dog days of high school when coffee shops were one of the only places we could hang out. But it was in university that I really enhanced my love of the bean and used it various ways. It was an escape from studying: “I’m just going for a coffee”

Or work: “coffee break time”.

Sometimes it was to help me wake up, and sometimes it was used to help me stay up.

But what I loved most about it were those times when it was the catalyst for the kind of discussions that Steven Johnson talks about. I had three different places I frequented, but none were as enjoyable as Stone’s Throw, which was literally a stone’s throw from the university campus, where I lived for the last two years of my degree. During my time there I made friends, and grew friendships, but also found solace in books and my journals that I kept. It really was a time when my ideas lived large and ruled my life as I somehow managed to find a way to fit my friends, loved ones, work, academic pursuits, hobbies and down time.

We are our ideas and what we do with them and its that simple act of taking pause over a cup of coffee (or tea, or matcha latte, or ….) that can remind us of what those ideas are and, in the process, who we are as people. The idea of the “to go” cup is anathema in some cultures, because it takes the act of communion that coffee brings out of the equation and just leaves you with a pressed drink of beans, water, and maybe some milk. I agree to some extent, but even the act of going out for coffee — particularly with friends or people who love (who are often both) — is a way of creating possibilities by engaging people in dialogue, through a shared experience of a drink.

You cannot travel to any culture where food and drink is not part of a welcome or hosting arrangement. To offer someone something to drink is a sign of hospitality. I’ve been reminded of the importance of this a lot over the last few weeks and with it, what ideas have been nurtured along with it.

Our ideas and the sharing of those ideas are the utmost expression of who we are. It is creativity: to create something. By offering tools and technologies, knowledge and opportunities to connect people to helpful services, we are inspiring in them ideas about how to engage in the world.

With a Starbucks on nearly every corner, it should be easy to generate ideas and get good ones. But it seems that what is missing is the break. Sit in any Starbucks or related cafe and you’ll see that most orders are “to-go”, creating all kinds of waste and also potentially stifling the opportunity to sit and reflect. What we’ve done is taken all the caffeine benefits from coffee, added sugar to it, and upped the calories without adding the most essential ingredient: time.

As the holidays approach, the days get shorter, and the number of demands increase, I am reminded about the benefits of coffee beyond the warmth it brings and how, with time (and maybe a little sugar), it can do wonders to stoke innovation.

3 Comments on “Coffee Culture and Ideas: A Need for A Break

  1. Very nice. I know you roast your own beans; are you also an espresso snob? I saw this thing, read some comments about it on an espresso lover’s blog, and got very disheartened (water temperature, bean quality, length of the pull, etc., etc.). A french press is as elaborate as I’m willing to get.

  2. Recently i needed to reduce on my personal caffeine drinking although this post makes me to wish I hadn’t!

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