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Coffee and prog

Any fool knows that progressive rock was invented by the English and by extension, the best beverage to consume while you’re listening to your prog is a nice cup of tea…

Both of these statements are contestable, so let me start with the first. I’ve been reading A trippersonic guide to Pink Floyd by Scott Meze (2nd edition, 2021) and he suggests that The Mothers of Invention’s Freak Out! inspired The Beatles to write Sgt Pepper’s, and The Zodiac’s Cosmic Sounds inspired the Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed, going on to point out that The Nice and Yes utilised American music to help create their own style. He asserts that organ-based US bands in the ‘post-British invasion’ period between 1966 and 1969 were exponents of progressive rock, who he hypothesises were influenced more by Manfred Mann and Alan Price than by any of the European classical composers; I’d argue that his examples are proto-prog, that prog’s day zero was 10th October 1969 and that Art music, typically but not exclusively Western classical music, was an essential component of what would become called ‘progressive rock’ but while I’d accept that it’s a predominantly English phenomenon, the genre is best seen as a genuine amalgamation of styles selected from a range of musical forms from around the world.

As to the second of these contentions, cemented in the Prog psyche with an official range of merchandise linking tea drinking to prog, I believe the notion requires further examination. It’s got to be more than Gong’s Pot Head Pixie mythology, glidding around in flying teapots, hasn’t it? Embedded in the Progarchives website there’s a forum set by a bored member about tea drinking which ran for a short period in January 2013, beginning with the question ‘which type of tea do you prefer?’

Only four choices were offered and out of the 29 responses, black tea was the most popular with just over 50% of the vote. While choice of tea leaf can get as complex as the choice of brew unleashed by third-wave coffee (14% of Progarchives forum respondents indicated Oolong tea), most Britons will use a black tea blend sourced from different countries in some form of bag which will more likely than not be placed directly into a mug, as teapots seem to have taken on a decorative role rather than simply being functional. Classic British tea stereotypes are the ‘builders’ brew’, the ‘Yorkshire brew’ and ‘breakfast blend’ and it’s the latter that springs to mind when I see that ‘drink tea and listen to prog’ slogan.

Tea is obviously considered a quintessentially English drink but it’s actually a relative latecomer to British shores, having arrived on these islands in the mid C17, after coffee. The Chajing (Classic of Tea), the earliest and most famous of all China’s tea treatises was published during the Tang dynasty (618-906) coinciding with the opening of the imperial tea gardens, and tea eventually reached Europe via Venice in the mid C16 sometime after the collapse of the silk road. Portuguese and Dutch traders were the first to carry tea to Europe, with seafarers from Portugal believed to have made contact with the Chinese as early as 1515, setting up regular shipments by 1610.

Ironically, it is speciality coffee shops that now exploit the full potential of tea and it was London’s coffeehouses that were responsible for popularising the drink in England in the first place. Back in 1657 the merchant Thomas Garway was offering both the drink and dried tea leaf to customers from his coffee house in Exchange Alley, promoting the beverage as 'making the body active and lusty', and 'preserving perfect health until extreme old age'.

Tea became popular amongst the aristocracy following the marriage of Charles II to Catherine of Braganza, a Portuguese princess who had developed a taste for the drink, but that didn’t stop Charles for passing a number of what turned out to be unenforceable Acts of Parliament designed to stifle the rebellious, rabble-rousing chatter he believed was brewing amongst tea drinkers, and a law was eventually passed in 1676 requiring coffee house owners to be licensed to sell tea. Regardless of these efforts to curtail its consumption, by the start of the C18 tea was available in over 500 coffee houses, much to the chagrin of innkeepers and the government, the former because their profit from the sale of gin and ale was cut, and the latter because the tax revenue from liquor was reduced, though the effects on the exchequer were countered through ever more punitive taxes on the tea trade. Despite duty rising to 119%, by the mid C18 tea had become the most popular drink among Britain’s lower classes.

One of the side effects of this heavy taxation was smuggling and because smuggled tea was expensive, it was also very lucrative. The normal modus operandi was for tea trading ships to anchor some way out to sea for transfer to smaller fishing boats who would land the cargo somewhere along the British coast away from port and from there to be hidden away in secret places. Such was the profit to be made that smugglers would adulterate the tea with willow, liquorice and sloe leaves or even re-dry used tea leaves and add them to fresh leaves. Smuggling was effectively ended by the 1784 Commutation Act, reducing the tax on tea to 12.5%.

Perhaps Charles II had a point about tea and revolutionary thoughts, but what he feared didn’t come to pass until 1775 and it wasn’t in the British Isles. With Britain deep in debt, Parliament imposed a series of taxes on American colonists, claiming that much of the debt was from fighting wars on the colonists’ behalf but failing to recognise colonists had no representation in the UK parliament. The Stamp Act of 1765 was a tax on almost every piece of paper they used; the Townshend Acts of 1767 were taxes on essentials, including tea.

The presence of British soldiers on the streets was evidently an irritation and on the 5th March 1770 a group of colonists attacked the guard at the Boston Customs House with a variety of non-lethal objects close to hand. Reinforcements arrived and opened fire on the mob, killing five and wounding six in what became known as ‘The Boston Massacre’, an event that further strained relations between the UK and the American colonies. The taxes were eventually repealed, apart from the duty on tea which brought in huge revenue for the British government, so the colonists boycotted tea imports from the British East India Company and used smuggled Dutch tea instead, pushing the British East India Company deep into debt and forcing Parliament to enact the Tea Act in May 1773 which allowed the British East India Company to undercut every other exporter by selling the tea duty-free, but applying a tax when it reached colonial ports. However, despite the price of smuggled tea surpassing that of British East India Company tea, the illicit trade continued, championed by the Sons of Liberty, a group of colonial merchants including John Hancock, Samuel Adams, Benedict Arnold, Patrick Henry and Paul Revere who had opposed the Stamp Act and continued to protest about taxation without representation. The group organised a protest meeting to mark the arrival of the British East India Company ship Dartmouth at Griffin’s Wharf and by 16th December 1773 two sister ships Beaver and Eleanor had arrived, all loaded with tea from China. The large group of colonists voted to embargo unloading of the tea and refused to pay taxes on the cargo against the express wishes of Thomas Hutchinson, the colonial Governor, so that night with no compromise on offer more than 100 colonists wearing disguise boarded the three ships, split open each of 342 tea chests and dumped the contents in the harbour. Such was the volume of tea it took the men almost three hours to complete their act of defiance. Britain’s retaliation through the Coercive Acts (1774) led to copycat tea dumping, the Declaration of Rights, the Revolutionary War (April 1775 – September 1783) and finally the British acknowledging American Independence in the Treaty of Paris on 3rd September 1783.

While I like the idea of tea-induced foment, especially directed at conformist institutions whose only interest is self-perpetuation, I’m hardly a great fan of the fiscally conservative Tea Party movement, the libertarian, right-wing populist and conservative activist grouping set up within the Republican Party in 2009 following an appeal by CNBC reporter Rick Santelli. They were advocates of small-government who call for lower taxes and for a reduction of the national debt and federal budget deficit through decreased government spending in a regurgitation of the ideas espoused by Ayn Rand.

Rick Santelli (photo CNBC)

Tea Party support amongst US citizens dropped to 14% in 2014, down from 18% in the previous set of mid-term elections, but while it no longer acts as a rallying group following the agreement of a two-year Congressional budget deal in 2019 which ended the debt ceiling imposed by Tea Party leaders during the Obama presidency, its ideas have largely been absorbed by the GOP.

Thankfully, I don’t envisage tea-drinking prog fans rising up and storming Broadcasting House because the BBC doesn’t give enough airplay to prog.

Originally consumed for alleged medicinal purposes when introduced to England in the mid C17, for the next 100 years coffee houses acted as social venues where people, invariably men, gathered to drink coffee, make deals and converse about topical matters. The first English coffee house was established in 1650 at the Angel Coaching Inn in Oxford by a Jewish entrepreneur named Jacob, creating a distinctive culture of ‘penny universities’ offering an form of unstructured learning for the admission price of a penny, which gave access to newspapers and conversation with academic staff who frequented these institutions. While hot chocolate, light meals and later tea were also available, no alcohol was served in these establishments making them more suitable for serious discussion and helping to mark their importance in the development of financial markets and newspapers. Though gossip and scandal would no doubt make up some of the chatter, they were ideal places for political and philosophical debate, creating a historical association between English coffee houses and the intellectual and cultural history of the Age of Enlightenment.

My first taste of coffee was in the mid 1960s at a coffee house off Duke Street, Barrow-in-Furness, which was demolished a few years later during the construction of the town’s Civic Hall. I seem to recall requiring a lot of sugar to make it palatable. Though we owned a percolator, rolled out on special occasions, my family were tea drinkers and it was only when I moved to London to study that I started to drink coffee, taking pride in using a freeze-dried blend rather than powder – at the time the market was dominated by two brands, Maxwell House and the better tasting but ethically questionable Nestlé-produced Nescafé before the competition broadened in the early 80s; my first espresso was at a bar in Rome on 27th August 1980, somewhere along the Corso Vittorio Emanuele, shortly after arriving in the city. My wife and I were given a Russell Hobbs 'Reflections' espresso/cappuccino coffee maker as a wedding present in 1988 but it didn’t get much use because the pressure was so low, and we switched to a series of cheap filter machines and cafetieres to get the taste of real coffee instead, though I’d order an espresso when we began our regular trips to Italy from 2005 and fully embraced third wave coffee culture when we visited family in New Zealand in 2009.

Russell Hobbs 'Reflections' espresso maker (top right) from the Spring-Summer 1988 Argos catalogue

My main Christmas present in 2014 wasn’t prog-related but it was based on the fact that good coffee had been playing an increasingly important part in my life; I was given a DeLonghi espresso machine and a voucher for a barista lesson, then bought myself a mid-range coffee grinder to ensure I could produce a decent, consistent brew whatever beans I chose. I prefer a dark roast with chocolate notes, and though I’ve done a little cupping under the watchful eye of baristas from Ozone Coffee Roasters in Shoreditch and was taught about the timing of the roasting to bring out the characteristics of the humble bean, I’m not a great lover of citrus or floral coffees, though I don’t mind a hint of stone fruit.

ProgBlog's DeLonghi espresso machine (2014 - 2016)

I’ve been a fan of Venice’s Torrefazione Cannaregio since discovering it in 2005 and though it’s now moved from the original tiny store to larger but equally busy premises at Fondamenta dei ormesini, Cannaregio 2804 (, it remains an essential part of the ProgBlog Venetian itinerary. I’ve even imported beans from the store between visits.

The DeLonghi machine served me well for over 18 months but in the mean time I retired and returned to work part-time and I felt ready to upgrade. Remembering my training, I invested in a Rocket Appartamento espresso machine paired with a mini Mazzer timer grinder, the kind you see in most coffee bars. The ProgBlog Instagram posts ‘coffee and prog’ started in June 2018 when I had the house to myself so I could make myself an espresso or cappuccino then listen to an LP and read my newspaper without interruption. The prog-coffee association was furthered by holidays in Italy where days involve beachcombing, seeking out architecture and finding the nearest record stores - my interest in progressivo italiano easily outstrips my appreciation for all other forms of prog - all punctuated by coffee stops. It’s been suggested that Italy has slipped down the table of where to find the best coffee and while I’ve experienced great coffee in Australia, New Zealand and Finland, not to mention London, I can vouch that the culture in Italian bars means you’re never going to encounter a MacBook, making me a big fan of the vibe.

ProgBlog's Rocket Appartamento

An espresso anywhere in Italy cost only €1 as late as 2020, the price having been capped when the country switched currency from lira to Euro in 1999. Part of the reason un caffè is so cheap is that the cost of necessities has been regulated by the Italian government since around 1915, and espresso is considered to be a necessity, but several factors combine to minimise costs: espresso is traditionally served as a single shot; roast profiles tend to get darker the further south you go, which means less coffee is used per shot of espresso (typically around 7g a shot); the beans are typically a blend of Coffea canephora (robusta) and Coffea arabica, giving lower prices and high levels of caffeine because robusta beans are roughly half the price of arabica. €1 is no longer enough to cover the cost of the coffee as supply chain problems associated with Covid and drought in coffee-producing countries has pushed up transport and raw material costs. I now expect to pay a minimum of €1.10 for my espresso but €1.30 isn’t unusual – and I drink my coffee at the bar like the locals so I don’t incur the coperto.

Caffè e Prog

If stereotypes are to be believed, Americans should also be into coffee rather than tea, with the diner culture and endless top-ups. The booklet that accompanies King Crimson’s Thrakattak CD contains a diagram for the ‘Crim Valet’, a portable espresso machine in a flight case with storage for cups, glasses and wine. The Crim Valet, aka Café Crim, actually made it out on the road a few years after the release of Thrakattak during a European tour around 1999 – 2000. This suggests that Levin is serious about his coffee and he used to have a page on his PapaBear website called ‘Tony’s Coffee Corner’ which reveals that he owned a Gaggia which was sampled for inclusion on the track Espresso & the Bed of Nails from his 1995 album World Diary; he also released a live album Double Espresso in 2002. But has Levin blotted his copybook? His road diary from the Japan tour recounted in the booklet accompanying BLUE Nights has the following entry for April 5th: “There seem to be Starbucks in various parts of Tokyo, so decent espresso isn’t far away anywhere here.” I suppose that Starbucks tax avoidance might not have been such an issue in 1998 but of all the mega-chain coffee stores, Starbucks’ coffee is of the poorest quality. I attended a conference in Seattle in May 2002 where the coffee was provided at no charge by Starbucks but it was much better to take refreshment outside the Washington State Convention Center [sic] at a Seattle’s Best Coffee franchise, a company with a complicated past, sold to Starbucks in 2003 and subsequently sold on to Nestlé in 2022.

Tony Levin's 'Crim Valet' (from the Thrakattak CD booklet)

There’s no debate, really. Prog is broad enough and inclusive enough to allow you to drink what you want but for the record, I’m a coffee and prog guy.

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