Coffee drinking under siege: A not so cozy history (Part 3)
By Perry Luckett, CoffeeMan1
Welcome to part three of this series about the times and places coffee was banned or under threat. So far, I’ve covered Sultan Khair Beg of Mecca (1511), the Catholic clergy’s appeal to Pope Clement VII of Italy (1618), Sultan Murad IV in Constantinople (1623), and King Charles II in England (1675). Now let’s move to the 18th century and back across the English Channel to Sweden and Prussia (Germany).
Gustav III of Sweden and the “excesses of coffee drinking”
In the 1700s, coffee drinking was skyrocketing in Sweden. Sounding a familiar theme, governments officials suspected coffeehouses were dens of subversion where malcontents planned revolts. So King Gustav III issued an edict in 1746 against "the misuses and excesses" of coffee drinking. An excise tax on coffee consumption followed, and those who failed to pay the tax were fined. The government also banned “coffee paraphernalia,” so police confiscated cups and dishes.
Turns out, Sweden banned coffee four more times between 1746 and 1817. In 1756, coffee was banned completely, but that failed to keep coffee beans out of Sweden. Because coffee bootlegging became a popular and profitable profession, government agents stayed busy conducting "coffee raids."
Gustav orders bizarre “experiment” to support his bans
To prove his position on coffee was sound, Gustav supposedly "experimented" with identical twin prisoners to demonstrate its bad effects. In what is facetiously called Sweden's first clinical trial, one of the twin brothers was forced to drink large amounts of coffee every day while the other had to drink equal amounts of tea in order to prove coffee shortened life.
With a touch of delicious irony, King Gustav died first (by assassination in 1792), followed by the two doctors appointed to oversee the experiment. The tea-drinking prisoner died at the ripe-old age of 83. The last to go—nobody quite knows when—was the twin who was supposed to experience an early and agonizing death by coffee.
Coffee made a comeback by 1800—now dominant drink in Sweden
In 1769, the Swedish government conceded the battle and decided it should reap some of the profits. It lifted the ban and imposed a stiff import tax instead. But by August 1794—even after King Gustav’s assassination—it had passed yet another ban on importing and consuming coffee. At this point, many Swedes were holding funerals for coffee pots as a form of protest. They were understandably at their wit's end because the Swedish form of tea was little more than tea water, making a caffeine fix hard to get. Once this last ban was finally lifted, however, coffee became the dominant beverage in Sweden. Since then, they’ve been one of the countries with the highest coffee consumption per capita in the world.
Frederick the Great of Prussia and coffee’s rivalry with beer
Frederick the Great (officially Frederick II) of Prussia modernized the Prussian bureaucracy and civil service, reformed the judicial system, and made it possible for men not of noble status to become judges and senior bureaucrats. He also encouraged immigrants of various nationalities and faiths to come to Prussia. Having enjoyed philosophy and literature as a young man, he supported the arts and philosophers he favored and allowed complete freedom of the press and literature.
Given his expansive policies about including commoners and immigrants in his government, one would think Frederick might take a benign attitude toward what his subjects ate and drank. Not so. In 1766, Frederick established a state monopoly on coffee imports. He decided coffee was a suitable drink for the aristocracy but a ruinous luxury for common people. He also accepted the opinion of Prussian physicians that coffee was bad for one’s health, especially their medical warnings that coffee caused effeminacy in men and sterility in women.
Frederick was a great fan of beer and beer-cheese soup
On September 13, 1777, Frederick issued this decree:
"It is disgusting to notice the increase in the quantity of coffee used by my subjects, and the amount of money that goes out of the country in consequence. Everybody is using coffee. If possible, this must be prevented. My people must drink beer. His Majesty was brought up on beer, and so were his ancestors, and his officers. Many battles have been fought and won by soldiers nourished on beer; and the King does not believe that coffee-drinking soldiers can be depended upon to endure hardship or to beat his enemies in case of the occurrence of another war."
We’re not sure this quotation is authentic, but it’s similar to a 1779 letter in which Frederick wrote: "It is despicable to see how extensive the consumption of coffee is . . . if this is limited a bit, people will have to get used to beer again . . .. His Royal Majesty [Frederick] was raised eating beer-soup, so these people can also be brought up nurtured with beer-soup. This is much healthier than coffee."
Frederick’s objection on health grounds probably was a smokescreen, however. His main concern was loss of money to foreign coffee traders, which he thought could ruin his kingdom's economy. Beer was a domestic product—brewed and distributed within Prussia, so losing sales to coffee meant “at least 700,000 thaler [a coin containing 16.7 grams of silver] leave the country annually." That was money he could direct to Prussian business owners while taxing a significant part of it for his own coffers.
Freddy thought: “If you can’t stop something, at least make money on it”
Frederick’s efforts were partly successful for a while, and beer soup experienced a short revival, but coffee’s progress eventually proved unstoppable. In 1781, Frederick again attempted to contain the common people's spending patterns by creating a royal monopoly on roasting—requiring all roasters to get licenses from the government. But he rejected nearly all of the applications, granting exceptions only to people who were already cozy with his court. So roasting licenses went to the nobility, clergy, and government officials, who had to buy green beans only from him. Frederick made a fortune from license fees and the profits from selling beans.
This policy effectively kept coffee out of the hands and mouths of poor people and limited contraband activities. As a result, many people had to find unpleasant substitutes for coffee, such as beverages brewed from wheat, barley, corn, dried figs, and chicory. But more affluent citizens bought coffee on a thriving black market, which Frederick fought to suppress. To stop them, he hired about 400 wounded or retired soldiers to work as coffee spies, or "sniffers." They roamed city streets following the aroma of roasting coffee to find those without roasting permits. These spies were given a quarter of all the fines they were responsible for collecting but obviously weren’t popular with the public.
Fortunately for coffee sellers, none of these tactics worked. They just increased coffee smuggling and the "contraband activities" Frederick claimed he was trying to prevent in the first place. So the government lifted restrictions soon after the king died in 1786, and coffee consumption surged once more to rival beer sales throughout the country.
If you have comments or questions about the history of bans and bashing of coffee, let us know in the comments below. And make your own coffee cozy and delectable with Koffee Kompanions’ great Thinsulate™-insulated products. They keep coffee and tea hot and flavorful, cold drinks cold, and ice cream pints from melting too quickly!
Kay Sirrah, Historical Attempts to Ban Coffee, Jul 14, 2013 at www.hitrecord.org
William Harrison Ukers, All About Coffee, 1922 as quoted in Lucas Reilly, “No Joe: the Time Coffee Was Banned in Prussia,” http://mentalfloss.com/article/563778/time-coffee-was-banned-prussia
Bennett Alan Weinberg and Bonnie K. Bealer, The World of Caffeine: The Science and Culture of the World’s Most Popular Drug, New York: Routledge, 2002. As quoted in Jay Brooks, “When Frederick the Great Went to War on Coffee,” September 13, 2018. https://brookstonbeerbulletin.com/when-frederick-the-great-went-to-war-on-coffee/