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what was the historical buzz?
January 10, 2012 2:00 PM   Subscribe

Were there stimulant drinks or foods in Europe before the arrival of coffee and tea from Asia and Africa? If so, what were they, and who had access to them?

For the purposes of my question, the compound in the food or drink need not be caffeine, but it should be recognized by modern science as having a stimulant effect on humans.
posted by jepler to Food & Drink (28 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
 
You mean like alchohol? Just about every culture on earth has had beer, and most have also had wine.
posted by easily confused at 2:16 PM on January 10, 2012


Alcohol is a depressant, not a stimulant.
posted by brainmouse at 2:18 PM on January 10, 2012 [8 favorites]


I can't find any references to it being used as such prior to the introduction of coffee, but chicory is native to Europe and has historically been used as a coffee substitute. I think it's reasonable to believe it was used in this way before coffee was introduced, but like I said, no sources for this are jumping out at me.
posted by feloniousmonk at 2:43 PM on January 10, 2012


My understanding is that chicory has a bitter, vaguely coffee-ish flavor, but that it doesn't actually have any stimulant effect.
posted by nebulawindphone at 2:54 PM on January 10, 2012


Yup, there's no caffeine in chicory.
posted by en forme de poire at 2:58 PM on January 10, 2012


It's my understanding that the arrival of caffeinated drinks (ESPECIALLY coffee) was fairly unprecedented in Europe and the Arab world. While there may have been some "stimulating" drinks that predate those, the potency of coffee - and later tea - left any similar drink in the dust.

That said, the Americas had coca, chocolate, and mate before the arrival of Columbus. Though I'm not sure whether they were consumed in beverage form prior to European influence. Also, none of them are nearly as potent as either coffee or tea.
posted by Sara C. at 2:59 PM on January 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Digitalis is present in foxglove, which is native to western Europe. Digitalis is poisonous in large quantities, but there are folk tales going back centuries that if you're suffering chest pains, chewing a bit of foxglove will help you. And in fact that's true: in small quantities it is a powerful heart stimulant.

Digitalis isn't exactly the same kind of stimulant you're talking about, though, and it isn't (and never was) used recreationally.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 3:01 PM on January 10, 2012


Thanks for the answers, even if none are in the positive—from some cursory internet searching I hadn't found any either. Marking Sara C. as the Best Answer because she sounds most authoritative.

It's interesting that the "recreational" or casual use of stimulants seems to have come so much later than the recreational use of depressants (alcohol).
posted by jepler at 3:28 PM on January 10, 2012


It's interesting that the "recreational" or casual use of stimulants seems to have come so much later than the recreational use of depressants (alcohol).

You use what you got.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 4:51 PM on January 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


Well, if you think about it, all of the drugs we use are made by plants or fungi. Most of those plants and fungi have a very limited range and are finicky about climate and soil and so on. But yeast is the exception — it's everywhere.

So depending on where you are, you might not be able to walk out into the woods and find coca or coffee or tea or khat or yerba mate or tobacco or ephedra or betel nuts or etc. etc. etc. But you can always find something sugary or starchy that has natural yeasts growing on it. Which means that even if you lose the ethnobotanical lottery and end up someplace with no fun stimulant-producing plants at all, you'll still have booze.
posted by nebulawindphone at 4:57 PM on January 10, 2012 [6 favorites]


If you're interested in this, I highly recommend A History Of The World In Six Glasses, which is how I came to be so "authoritative" on the topic.

I also read Uncommon Grounds: The History Of Coffee And How It Transformed Our World at some point, but honestly I didn't think it was really that great on this particular aspect of the subject. It was more about coffee as a commodity.
posted by Sara C. at 5:09 PM on January 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


I would imagine they had herbal teas as the idea of teas is pretty universal. Some herbal teas can be pretty invigorating (I like ginger and lemon teas for this reason) but I don't know if any of them contain caffeine. Ginseng has been used traditionally as a stimulant and can be taken in a tea form, but I don't know what the active compound is in that either.
posted by wwax at 5:56 PM on January 10, 2012


Licorice root
posted by blargerz at 6:08 PM on January 10, 2012


Alcohol is a depressant, not a stimulant.

It's my understanding that the effects of alcohol are a bit too complex to group it entirely as a depressant, brainmouse. For instance, it's immediate effects in most people are stimulant-like, followed by depression of metabolism. Vaguely corroborating link.

Certainly, it's the only "depressant" I know of that can wake me from drowziness after a late nap.
posted by IAmBroom at 7:06 AM on January 11, 2012


The availability of ginger, ginseng and even lemons in Europe came fairly late (though of the 3 the only date I quickly turned up, for lemons, was before coffee). Licorice root and chicory don't seem to have specific stimulant compounds recognized by modern science (Glycyrrhizin, from the licorice plant, does have recognized health effects but not as a stimulant; chicory is apparently recognized as an antiparasite but not as a stimulant).

I'll exclude alcohol arbitrarily, if only since I knew when I asked the question that alcohol was available in Europe before coffee and tea. So we can save the argument about its stimulant effect, if any, for another day.
posted by jepler at 8:03 AM on January 11, 2012


Ginger was certainly known in Europe. The Romans used it, it became rare, then Marco Polo brought it back from China, repopularizing it.
posted by IAmBroom at 10:13 AM on January 11, 2012


Sure, but ginger drinks are nowhere near as potent a stimulant as something like coffee. Coffee literally revolutionized the way life worked in Western Europe. Tea introduced radical changes, as well. In contrast, all we can really say about ginger beer (which started out as an alcoholic drink) is that it possibly existed as early as 1702.
posted by Sara C. at 10:50 AM on January 11, 2012


OK, looks like I was wrong about about ginger's arrival in Europe. What compound in ginger, if any, is recognized by modern science as a stimulant?
posted by jepler at 12:17 PM on January 11, 2012


I'm not sure whether opium counts as a stimulant or a depressant, and I'm hazy on whether it was a pre-existing commodity, or concurrent with tea/coffee. I just remember hearing something about it on this BBC Radio 4 podcast (In Our Time) about tea. Same as Sara C.'s link for coffee, this one is more about the history of tea as a commodity, but maybe I'll just throw it out there anyway.
posted by pimli at 12:57 PM on January 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


They did an In Our Time about tea?! How did I miss that? Thanks pimli!
posted by Sara C. at 1:11 PM on January 11, 2012


I was so focused on the drink aspect I forgot you also asked about food. How about the capsaicin in chili peppers?

Sara C.: yay!
posted by pimli at 1:16 PM on January 11, 2012


That said, the Americas had coca, chocolate, and mate before the arrival of Columbus. Though I'm not sure whether they were consumed in beverage form prior to European influence.

Cacao and Mate were absolutely consumed as beverages prior to European arrival. I can't speak as authoritatively on mate, but there's evidence of chocolate drinking in Mesoamerica going back thousands of years. But yes, I am agreeing that Pre-1500s Europe had nothing even vaguely resembling what coffee/tea are today.
posted by Panjandrum at 1:58 PM on January 11, 2012


I'm not sure whether opium counts as a stimulant or a depressant, and I'm hazy on whether it was a pre-existing commodity, or concurrent with tea/coffee.

They had opium in Europe going at least as far back as the ancient Greeks, and in Eastern Europe there was also cannabis going pretty far back. Neither one is a stimulant, though. Opium is a depressant and cannabis is an okay-it's-kind-of-complicated.
posted by nebulawindphone at 4:18 PM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Rhodiola rosea is a stimulant reportedly used in traditional systems of Scandinavian and Russian medicine. I don't know if its use predates that of coffee and tea, though.
posted by Wordwoman at 8:31 AM on January 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Pimli, peppers (of all kinds) were imports. Chili peppers come from the New World. Black Pepper comes from the east. None of them were native to western Europe.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:55 AM on January 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


So, aside from some plants with really trivial stimulant effects (compared with the java jive), Europe basically didn't get its buzz on before coffee and tea? Are all we fellow nitpickers at least in agreement on this? :)
posted by IAmBroom at 12:05 PM on January 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


I knew peppers were brought in, but I didn't realize the OP was only asking for plants native to Europe. That was why ginseng and lemon were considered. But if that was indeed what the OP meant, then, oh well, never mind then.

Pre-16th century Europeans must have been a terribly cranky lot in the morning.
posted by pimli at 4:29 AM on January 13, 2012


I'm not asking exclusively for plants native to Europe, but for the purposes of my question it would have had to become available in Europe well before coffee. So if wikipedia is accurate when it says the lemon "was distributed widely throughout the Arab world and the Mediterranean region between 1000 and 1150", then the lemon would fit the availability prong of my question. (however, I think it fails the other prong: which compound in the lemon is a stimulant according to modern science?) (and wikipedia goes on to say "The first substantial cultivation of lemons in Europe began in Genoa in the middle of the 15th century", so does it really meet the availability test anyway?)

On the other hand, if this random page on the internet is accurate when it says "[t]he first European reference was in 1643 in the writings, “Relations della Grande Monarchia Cina”", then ginseng would not fit the availability prong of my question unless writing about it came most of a century after its availibility (hard to prove, even if true).

"[C]offee became available in England no later than the 16th century according to Leonhard Rauwolf's 1583 account"
posted by jepler at 8:01 AM on January 13, 2012


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