Not Shakespeare’s cup of tea: Consuming caffeine in early modern England

In Shakespeare’s plays, we find scenes that take place in taverns and alehouses – but no coffee shops – and characters who drink ale and wine – but not what we now think of as the quintessential English beverage: tea. While Falstaff spends much of Henry IV, Part 1 calling for another cup of sack (a popular Spanish white wine in the period), never does he call for a cup of coffee. That’s because alcohol was a daily component of early English diets, but caffeine was almost certainly not introduced to England until after Shakespeare’s death in 1616.

Coffee, tea, and chocolate were among the many new foodstuffs introduced to English diets over the seventeenth century thanks to expanding global commerce. The English approached these new victuals both with great interest and with great apprehension. There were many—sometimes conflicting—theories about food, but consumption of foreign products was generally discouraged, in part because it was thought that local foods were best suited to people’s constitutions, and in part because of a concern about contamination by foreign elements. Chocolate, coffee, and tea attracted particular attention not only because they tasted good but also because their stimulating qualities were unusual to those immersed in a food culture historically reliant on the consumption of alcohol.

One of the first English-language texts to describe chocolate
Henry Stubbe’s The Indian nectar, or A discourse concerning chocolate (London, 1662, call number: S6049) was one of the first English-language texts to describe chocolate, including its preparation, by stirring hot water and cocoa in a cup using a whisk called a “molinillo.”

The arrival of chocolate

England was introduced to chocolate by James Wadsworth, who in 1640 translated a popular Spanish text, A curious treatise of the nature and quality of chocolate. In seventeenth-century Spain, chocolate was served as a drink that was foamy, spicy, bitter, and often mixed with additional spices, such as cinnamon, and lots of sugar; this is the recipe that Wadsworth prescribes for the readers of his text. Although chocolate eventually became incredibly popular, it was not immediately appreciated. In fact, at least one contemporary reports that, before Wadsworth’s text, English pirates even threw away the incredibly expensive cacao pods they stole from a Spanish ship, because they mistook them for sheep dung.

Of the three new caffeinated drinks, Europeans were the most ambivalent about chocolate, because it was so mysterious. It was unclear whether chocolate was a food or a drug, and if it wasn’t a drug, whether it was a food or a drink (a distinction that would determine whether it was acceptable to consume during periods of religious fasting). It was also unclear how chocolate fit into humoral theory, which was a dominant theory of health and diet: Was chocolate meant to be drunk after being heated, and therefore hot and wet? Was it meant to contain spices and be eaten solid, and therefore hot and dry? Its ambiguous nature made it suspect, and it was hotly debated in pamphlets.

Pamphlet against coffee
An anonymous pamphlet (London, 1674, call number: W3331), Folger Shakespeare Library. Rather than arguing that alcohol is superior to coffee, the pamphlet argues that both drinks are consumed in excess and mutually encourage poor behavior: the “women” authors refer to the coffeehouse as “a Pimp to the Tavern” claiming that after “a morning draught of more Ale than a Brewers horse can carry, hither [men] come for a pennyworth of Settle-brain [i.e. coffee], where they are sure to meet enow lazy pragmatical Companions, that resort here to prattle of News, that they neither understand, nor are concerned in; and after hours impertinent Chat, begin to consider a Bottle of Claret would do excellent well before Dinner; whereupon to the Bush they all march together, till every one of them is as Drunk as a Drum, and then back to the Coffe-house to drink themselves sober; where there or four dishes a piece, and smoaking, makes their throats as dry as Mount Aetna enflam’d with Brimstone; so that they must away to the next Red Lattice [tavern] to quench them with a dozen or two of Ale.”

Coffee spreads to England

While tea and chocolate were drunk widely in East Asia and the Americas, respectively, for centuries, coffee was not even known until the fifteenth century, when people in the Red Sea basin area (now Yemen and Ethiopia) began drinking it. Over the sixteenth century, coffee spread throughout the Ottoman Empire. The first Englishman to document coffee was probably William Biddulph, who described it in a letter he sent from Aleppo in 1600. Over the course of the seventeenth century, coffee slowly made its way into the English diet and, within a century, it was a central component of public life in England, where coffee houses sprang up in great numbers.

An example of the coffeehouse debate genre
The title page to A coffee-house dialogue, or, A discourse between Captain Y and a young barrister of the Middle-Temple (London, 1679?, call number: 157345), Folger Shakespeare Library. Much like coffeeshops today, coffeehouses were social spaces, in which people read newspapers and discussed current events. The coffeehouse debate even became a genre, referenced in plays and pamphlets like this one, which were published throughout the seventeenth century.

The high cost of tea

Although England is now seen as a tea-drinking nation, coffee was initially more popular than tea. Not until the eighteenth century did tea become popular in England. Green tea was the only kind of tea initially available, and it was extremely expensive, about ten times the cost of high-quality coffee at the time. Tea’s exorbitant cost was one reason why only urban elites drank it at first. Although tea (and the sugar people put in their tea) did become cheaper over time, people across the social spectrum still spent a high proportion of income on these two commodities in the eighteenth century. By the nineteenth century, tea had taken over as the preferred drink, supplanting not only coffee, but also chocolate.

Manuscript cookbook with teaspoon and teacup
Anonymous English Cookbook (c. 1720, call number: W.b.653), Folger Shakespeare Library. When tea became popular, so too did tea’s accoutrements. Teaspoons and teacups were so common that the terms “teaspoon” and “teacup” became (and remain) common measurements in recipes.

Shakespeare might have written his works without the help of caffeine, but that’s no reason to skip your daily ‘cup of Joe’. If you’re looking to fight the 3PM slump with caffeine early-modern-English style, you might try William Hughes’s recipe for “American nectar” [i.e. hot chocolate], or the following recipe for “Chocolate Creame”:

Handwritten recipe for chocolate creame
“Chocolate Creame” recipe from an anonymous receipt book (c. 1700, call number: V.a.272), Folger Shakespeare Library.

Chocolate Creame

Take a pint of Cream when it begins to boyle put into it a large spoonful of grated Chocolate let it boyle up keep it all the while stirring then put in the yolks of 2 Eggs beat[en]. Let it stand a little longer till it begins to thicken so take it of the fire and mille it [i.e., whip it] in a chocolate pot so serve it up.


Suggested Reading:

Edmund Valentine Campos, “Thomas Gage and the English Colonial Encounter with Chocolate,” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 39:1, Winter 2009.

Brian Cowan, The Social Life of Coffee: The Emergence of the British Coffeehouse, Yale University Press, 2001.

Markman Ellis. Empire of Tea: the Asian Leaf that Conquered the World. Reaktion Books, 2015.

Marcy Norton. Sacred Gifts, Profane, Pleasures: A History of Tobacco and Chocolate in the Atlantic World, Cornell University Press, 2008.

One Comment


  • Hi, great article. Where can I find you to ask some questions about print history? I am interested in learning about the inner workings of early print shops.


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