A Brief Yet Enlightening History of Caffeine
Those crazy party dudes of the social sciences, anthropologists, have discovered evidence as only they can that caffeine has been knowingly used as a stimulant since the Stone Age. This may not be exactly on the level, since apparently their primary source of information is an episode of The Flintstones.
Seriously, the official history of caffeine as a separate substance from coffee doesn’t really trace back very far into history, though, yes, anthropologists have suggested its effects were known to our ancient brethren. Our story really begins with, of all things, a poet. One of the most famous poets of all time, in fact, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, best known for her version of the Faust legend. It was Goethe who first gave a young chemist named Friedrich Ferdinand Runge some coffee beans, suggesting that he give the beans the same type of chemical analysis that Runge had been going with extract of belladonna. Don’t let anybody ever convince you that the entire history of the world isn’t built upon a foundation of intimate events. Runge took those not-so-magical beans and isolated caffeine sometime around 1819. And we’ve all been climbing that beanstalk ever since.
And, actually, even before then. Because even though the actual reason for coffee’s stimulating effects weren’t known, it was still quite obvious the effects were there. The Chinese took advantage of the caffeine found in tea at least as far back as 2700 BC and coffee first appeared in Africa in the 6th century AD. Of course, it’s well known that mighty civilizations in pre-Colombian South Africa drank both coffee and chocolate, well known for their caffeine content.
Because caffeine has obviously been around as long as man, it is exceedingly difficult to get a grip on its history. Many legendary stories abound as to its ancient uses, including one that awards a goat herder with discovering its stimulating effect by observing the behavior of his flock after they had chomped down on coffee beans. He supposedly tried the beans himself and was rewarded with a rush. The story probably isn’t true, however.
Yes, for most of the history of caffeine, it was inextricably tied to coffee and tea. They made perfect delivery systems for the drug. Unless, of course, you didn’t much care, or couldn’t afford, coffee or tea. Although the first espresso machine appeared almost in conjunction with Runge’s discovery, it wouldn’t be until the 1880s that a method for delivering caffeine into a beverage artificially was discovered.
Caffeinated soft drinks instantly became all the rage and even those who were happy enough receiving their stimulant via coffee picked up the occasional sugary drink. What made this a true turning point in the history of caffeine, however, is that for the first time children began ingesting it. In fact, large numbers of children started getting the rush of caffeine and the health risks associated with this is still being debated today as the soft drink industry continues to thrive.
By the 20th century, caffeine had pretty much become the most popular legal drug in the world. It is consumed in one way or another in every country. Although most of the history of caffeine could also be written as a history of coffee, its uses exploded in the latter half of the last century. Caffeine is found not only in coffee and tea, but soft drinks, alcohol, medicine and even water! It is surely no accident it has become omnipresent in a society that finds itself with an ever-increasing need for a longer day than the 24 hours we are stuck with.
Darren Williger is an over-caffeinated, low carbohydrate eating, winemaking enthusiast who writes for caffeinezone.com, mylowcarbpages.com, and homemadewine.com