The start of the coffeehouse

From Ethiopia to Madison, coffee has a long past
The start of the coffeehouse
Photo by Fatoumata Ceesay
One of the Barriques locations is in the former Hotel Loraine.

Coffee’s roots are in Ethiopia, and its cultivation spread to the Arabian Peninsula in the 15th century. Two hundred years later, the custom of drinking coffee took hold in Europe. The first coffeehouse opened in Venice in 1629; by 1663, there were more than 80 coffeehouses in London, and they became gathering places for the city’s merchants and traders. Proprietors enticed customers by providing intelligence that today we would find in publications like the Wall Street Journal. Edward Lloyd’s specialty was shipping, and his coffeehouse evolved into Lloyd’s of London, the eminent world insurance syndicate.

By the end of the 17th century, the British had brought both coffee and the coffeehouse to our shores. However, the brew took a backseat to tea until the Boston Tea Party in 1773, when drinking coffee became patriotic. By the Civil War, we had become a nation of caffeine-hooked consumers. Ultimately, the marketing of roasted beans in paper bags, followed by ground coffee in cans, further fueled our addiction.

In the early 20th century, coffee shops sprung up everywhere and offered quick meals with both counter and table service. More than likely, the menu included grilled sandwiches, breakfast all day, plate lunches, ice cream confections and, of course, coffee two ways: black or white. In urban areas these cafes were frequently located in hotels–a respite from the expensive and formal dining room–and catered to guests and walk-ins alike. Madison’s Hotel Loraine Coffee Shop was just such a place. In a world before social media, the small-town coffee shop was the epicenter of the latest news and gossip. A great example that survives is the Koffee Kup in Stoughton.

In Italian neighborhoods, coffeehouses dispensing old-world espresso have always flourished. In the ’50s, originally in Greenwich Village and North Beach and subsequently on college campuses, the Beat generation embraced the coffeehouse as a venue for poetry reading and folk music. Famous musician Bob Dylan once performed at our local beatnik hangout, The Pad.

Today coffee shops are all about coffee. Espresso, cappuccino and latte have become our cup of Joe. It’s no longer just black or white but foamed, flavored and frapped as well. It’s crafted by a barista rather than sloshed out of a Pyrex carafe. If food is present, the norm is baked goods with perhaps some sandwiches. Starbucks, the McDonald’s of caffeinated beverages, helped bring about this revolution, introducing heretofore unknown coffee concoctions to every nook and cranny of our nation.

Our city is fortunate to have a wealth of homegrown coffee purveyors. Exemplary is Barriques, with eight locations around town–one in the former Hotel Loraine. All have the requisite delectable pastries and free WiFi, but each has its own personality and serves light meals with wine by the glass and bottle.

It seems there is now a coffee shop on just about every corner. Enjoying a cup of java may not be new, yet it has never been so hot.

Dan Curd is a Madison-based food writer who has written for the magazine for more than 20 years.