Today’s London Times published something of a book review of a new four-volume series, Eighteenth-Century Coffee-House Culture (Markman Ellis, editor): Smell the coffee – Times Online. It’s a long-winded article. But compared to the British tolerance for long-winded, academic tomes (it clocks in at a whopping 1,840 pages), the article is a walk in the park — and represents a great savings over the £350 list price (over $720).

Unfortunately, the article’s author spends too much uncritical time on the curious-but-flawed documentary, Black Gold, and its unburdened, one-dimensional representation of Fair Trade as a cure-all. After several paragraphs of this, he suddenly remembers that he’s reviewing a book and not a movie. The question he oddly seems to keep asking — of both the 1600s coffeehouse and the modern Starbucks — is whether coffeehouses are inherent goods or social evils.

More interesting are the roots of the early European coffeehouses of the 17th century as places of literary enlightenment, the exchange of ideas, and the consumption of foul, rancid coffee. But just as often, they were considered places that either sheltered drunkards in need of sobering up — or sent away the sober to the local ale-house, seeking to vanquish the choking smoke. There are tales of symbiotic relationships with the newspapers in the 1700s that soon turned contentious — curiously mirroring the role WiFi Internet access plays in cafés today.

And all the while coffee went from bad to worse: from excessively boiling “badly transported, badly kept, badly roasted and badly brewed” beans to indiscriminately cutting the beans with other roasted beans and peas, chicory, mangelwurzel, and other impurities otherwise used for livestock. In some ways, it makes the coffee quality movement of the past twenty years seem like an unlikely miracle. Think about that the next time you are served a bitter, ashy restaurant espresso filled to the rim.