The historian Brian Cowan describes English coffeehouses as "places where people gathered to drink coffee, learn the news of the day, and perhaps to meet with other local residents and discuss matters of mutual concern." The absence of alcohol created an atmosphere in which it was possible to engage in more serious conversation than in an alehouse. Coffeehouses also played an important role in the development of financial markets and newspapers.
Topics discussed included politics and political scandals, daily gossip, fashion, current events, and debates surrounding philosophy and the natural sciences. Historians often associate English coffeehouses, during the 17th and 18th centuries, with the intellectual and cultural history of the Age of Enlightenment: they were an alternate sphere, supplementary to the university. Political groups frequently used coffeehouses as meeting places.
Europeans first learned about coffee consumption and practise through accounts of exotic travels to "oriental" empires of Asia. According to Markman Ellis, travellers accounted for how men would consume an intoxicating liquor, "black in colour and made by infusing the powdered berry of a plant that flourished in Arabia." Native men consumed this liquid "all day long and far into the night, with no apparent desire for sleep but with mind and body continuously alert, men talked and argued, finding in the hot black liquor a curious stimulus quite unlike that produced by fermented juice of grape."
Cowan explains how European perceptions of the initial foreign consumption of coffee was internalised and transformed to mirror European traditions through their acquisition of coffee and its transfusion into popular culture. As such, through Cowan's evaluation of the English virtuosi's utilitarian project for the advancement of learning involving experiments with coffee, this phenomenon is well explained. Sir Francis Bacon was an important English virtuoso whose vision was to advance human knowledge through the collection and classification of the natural world in order to understand its properties. His work with coffee inspired further research into its medicinal properties. Experiments with coffee led to supposed "cures" for ailments such as "Head-Melancholy", gout, scurvy, smallpox and excessive drunkenness. Adversely, there were those who were cautious of the properties of coffee, fearing they had more unfavourable effects than positive ones. Experimentalists put forth speculations surrounding coffee's consumption. These experimentalists feared that excessive coffee consumption could result in languor, paralysis, heart conditions and trembling limbs, as well as low spiritedness and nervous disorders.
Maximilien Misson, speaking of London coffeehouses in the late 1600s