One of the highlights of my recent American book tour was a visit to Starbucks HQ in Seattle. I explained about the coffeehouse internet, and the extent of coffee’s influence on the course of history. As I was leaving I went past the Starbucks Map, which shows how many Starbucks coffeeshops there are in different countries of the world. There are over 9,000, around 6,000 of which are in the US. Since the population of the US is around 300m, that means there is roughly one Starbucks for every 50,000 people. In Britain, in contrast, there are a mere 451 Starbucks coffeeshops. The population of Britain is around 60m, so that works out at one Starbucks for every 133,000 people. In other words, there’s probably room in the British market for twice as many Starbucks coffeeshops as there are at the moment. (Other chains also exist in both countries, of course.) You think that’s scary? In London in 1700, one authority puts the number of coffeeshops at 3,000. The city’s population at the time was around 600,000. So that’s one coffeeshop for every 200 people. The figure of 3,000 is dubious, though, since it comes from a single source. It seems likely that the real figure was more like 1,000. But that’s still a coffeeshop for every 600 people. What is the point of all this number crunching? Simply this. If you think today’s cities are overrun by coffeeshops — something I don’t have a problem with, by the way — the situation 300 years ago was far, far worse. (This all occurred to me today as I was filming with an American TV crew at the Jamaica Wine House — a London pub on the site of the city’s first coffeehouse, established in 1652. They even have an original advertising handbill from that year, “The Vertue of the Coffee Drink”, hanging on the wall.)
I’m a week into my book tour, and things seem to be going well. I’ve done 17 radio interviews, three television interviews, three print interviews and four signings in the past seven days. I’ve been favourably reviewed in The New York Times and got as high as #168 on Amazon.com and #69 on Amazon.ca — not that I’ve been checking obsessively, you understand. Amazingly, I got my samples of stone-age beer, Roman wine and sailor’s grog through both Canadian and US customs, and have even managed to get a couple of radio hosts to taste them on air. I squeezed in some sightseeing in Washington, DC (thanks, Kevin) and some holiday with my family in New York. I’ve been lucky enough to find Ommegang beers in several places. Most of all, though, I’ve enjoyed hearing people’s reactions to the book and fielding questions about it.
One type of question comes up quite often: why didn’t I include mead, chocolate, gin, cider or some other drink in the book? It’s a good question. My original plan was to write an appendix on the drinks that didn’t quite make it but, er, the appendix didn’t quite make it either. The short answer is that those other drinks do not align with important historical forces in the way that my six drinks do. Chocolate was popular at the same time as coffee, for example, particularly in the south of Europe. But the action at the time was in England and the Netherlands, where coffee accompanied the scientific and financial revolutions of the period. Similarly, the gin epidemic that took place in London during the early 18th century is quite well known in Britain — there have been a couple of recent books about it — but was a local anomaly that resulted from deregulation of distillation in an attempt to prop up demand for cereal crops, and did not have any broader geopolitical implications. Mead is probably as old as (or older than) beer, but its production could not easily be scaled up, unlike the production of cereal grains, which is why the Egyptians and Mesopotamians drank beer. And so on. But perhaps I should write that appendix after all.