Amsterdam is undergoing a continual process of gentrification. Opinions towards gentrification are far from homogenous and have been extensively reported on, but one question rarely asked of this process is what smells can be attributed to an influx of relatively affluent residents, raising property prices and pushing out locals? Avocado toast? Macbooks? A more aromatic, well-known hallmark of Amsterdam’s gentrification is the increasing presence of expensive cafes such as Starbucks (Glaeser). However, this is not the first example of coffee houses being associated with a privileged class, as this article will later explain.
The Netherlands has a passionate relationship with coffee, and is the fifth largest per capita consumer of the drink. The reason for this intense connection with coffee originates in how the VOC were largely responsible for importation and distribution via trade of coffee beans in Europe in the 17th and 18th century. Around 1645, coffee beans presented one of the only profitable trade goods between Yemen, where coffee was first commercialised, and the Netherlands due to resistance from the Middle East to allow the Western traders full access to their market (Brower). Meanwhile, the popularity of coffee houses was spreading like wildfire all across Europe, with the bitter beverage hailed to have medicinal properties such as the clearing of flem and aiding in anxiety and digestion disorders, as well as in increasing intellect (Kjeldgaard et al). To match the demand, Pieter Van den Broecke smuggled some coffee plants from Yemen to both Batavia, where they were cultivated and distributed under the VOC’s control, and back to the Amsterdam Hortus (Topik). It is now suspected that almost all coffee plants in Europe and Brazil would have originated from the specimen in Amsterdam’s Hortus. In 1710, The Botanical Gardens even experimented with the roasting and brewing their own coffee drink from the plant. One can only imagine the smell of such beans being roasted and brewed in an area close to the ports that welcomed the plant into the city.
The smell of coffee is powerful and integral to our relationship to the bean’s drink. You have probably heard people say they love the smell but can not stand the taste. The overtones are distinct and rich, dark and bitter. The undertones of the scent can totally depend on the type and quality of the coffee, and can be nutty and earthy, sometimes floral or fruity. Coffee drinkers that are exposed to the aroma experience a similar degree of alertness as to if they had actually drank some of the caffeinated beverage.
The energising effects of coffee undoubtedly fuelled the popularity of coffee houses in the early modern era, where patrons would attend and engage in more coherent discussions than at alcohol-serving establishments. In 1989, philosopher Habermas introduced his take on the coffee houses of Britain in this period as being areas of social life where democratic ideals could be realised and individuals could gather and “debate over the general rules governing relations” between the state and society (Habermas). Koffiehuizen were also popular in the Netherlands, with an Amsterdam doctor in 1686 making the comment that [translated] “It has been hardly 40 years that people have used this drink in the Netherlands. [...] But now the drink is so popular that the coffee houses are crammed full!” In Britain’s coffee houses of this period, for one penny anyone could enter into these spaces and engage in debate which would ultimately act to be mediate society and the state, according to Habermas. However, the assumption that these spaces eliminated hierarchies was highly flawed as they would function by excluding already marginalised voices, such as women and the working class (Fraser). Far from a democratic ideal. Ultimately, this would become one of the markers of the decline of coffee house ubiquity as many coffee houses began to charge more than a penny so as to allow only a more “sophisticated” gentry access to these informal assemblies of political discussion (Bramah).
Outpricing marginalised groups can have detrimental effects on the potential for people to come together in a space and perhaps work towards something that is beneficial for a society. Now, it’s highly unlikely that anyone, myself included, will ponder the growing inequalities in society, the trade history of coffee and critique of Habermas’ public sphere each time you wipe off your macchiato's microfoam from your nose. It may be mere coincidence that establishments serving coffee have again come to serve as this symbol in the Western world, or maybe there’s something about coffee; how it energises, how its so addictive; how it smells.