S2 Episode 5: The Five Attempts to Ban Coffee

Five Attempts to Ban Coffee logo
Coffee brings people together. It encourages conversations, stimulates thought, and provokes epiphany. Everyone seems to agree with this – or do they?

It turns out that throughout history, not everyone has supported coffee or even believed it to be healthy. Sometimes these people have been motivated for political purposes. More often than not, however, fear of coffee, its effects, and those who popularize it, has been the chief reason people have attacked it.

In this episode, I talk about five instances where state and religious leaders fought to outlaw or ban coffee.

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(Episode Transcript Below)
The 5 Attempts to Ban Coffee throughout History

Coffee brings people together. Whether it’s 2016 and estranged friends meet at a coffee shop to catch up on each others lives, or its 1780 and American revolutionaries are sharing political opinions over cups of coffee, that one fact seems to be irrefutable. Coffee encourages conversations, stimulates thought, and provokes epiphany. Everyone seems to agree with this – or do they?

It turns out that throughout history, not everyone has supported coffee or even believed it to be healthy. Sometimes these people have been motivated for political purposes. More often than not, however, fear of coffee, its effects, and those who popularize it, has been the chief reason people have attacked it.

In this episode, I’d like to talk about five instances where state and religious leaders fought to outlaw or ban coffee. We’ll start in Mecca in the early 16th century, and we’ll end at the end of the 18th century.

Attempt 1: Mecca, 1511

In the early 1500s, Khair Beg, the young governor and chief of police of Mecca, learned that satirical verses were being written about him at coffee houses and shared openly. He, along with more conservative Muslims, pushed the idea that coffee was as much an intoxicant as wine – a beverage that is banned by the Koran. Khair Beg, a politician in every sense of the word, saw an opportunity to stop this sedition and undertook a campaign to show the destructive capabilities of coffee. Beg convinced two well known Persian physicians, as well as a host of coffee drinkers, to issue pronouncements about coffee’s intoxicating and dangerous affects to an assembly of jurists representing various schools of Islam. The jury ruled in Beg’s favor, and the young governor sent a copy of the findings to his boss, the Sultan of Cairo. In 1511 Beg outlawed coffee and coffee-houses within Mecca.

At that time, coffee was widely used by Muslims to prepare for and stay awake during late-night prayer vigils; some even believed that the heightened sense of awareness brought them closer to God. Some of these Muslims were present during Beg’s coffee court and even went so far as to defend the drink on the record – but to no avail.

After reading the results of the jury’s findings, Kansuh al-Ghawri, the Sultan of Cairo, was furious. Kansuh had appointed Khair Beg, and insisted that no ban could be instated without his prior approval. The sultan was likely a coffee drinker himself, and was surrounded by some of the best physicians the Arab world had to offer – none of whom agreed with Beg’s findings.

History is a little unclear as to what transpired next; some reports indicate that the sultan lifted the coffee ban, charged Khair-Beg with embezzlement, and put him to death. Others say that the sultan simply replaced Khair-Beg with a new governor in the following year who wasn’t averse to coffee. Regardless, the world’s first recorded coffee ban didn’t last long.

Attempt 2: Venice, 1600

While muslims in the early 1500s outlawed coffee on the basis that its effects were similar to wine, a century later Italian Catholics tried to outlaw it because it was seen as the opposite. Wine, in the catholic tradition, is a staple of the Eucharist – one of the sacraments that the church holds as a rite with particular religious significance. In 1600, catholic clergymen in Venice knew that coffee was popular with Muslims, and they saw the drink as a sort of antithesis to wine, even going so far as to call it the “bitter invention of Satan.”

The political goals of the clergymen are unclear to us now – what we do know, however, is that suspicion and fear are powerful motivators. They saw their religion being threatened by outsiders, and coffee was an easy target. Like-minded catholics issued appeals to ban the drink within Venice, and the controversy grew to a breaking point. Finally, the pope was called in to settle the dispute.

Upon tasting coffee for the first time, Pope Clement VIII is said to have exclaimed “This devil’s drink is so delicious…we should cheat the devil by baptizing it!” Many historians believe that coffee’s spread through Europe over the next century was encouraged most because of this single papal endorsement.

Attempt 3: Constantinople, 1623

Murad IV was the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire from 1623 to 1640, and he took the throne at the age of 11. Shortly after becoming sultan, Murad made it his goal to clean up the corruption that had plagued previous sultans. As a part of this campaign, Murad banned alcohol, tobacco, and coffee in Constantinople – going so far as to order executions for breaking this ban.

Some records indicate that Murad’s punishments started less severe – beatings, and casting violators into the waters of the Bosporus: a strait that connects the present day Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara. Other records say that he was truly without mercy; there are stories of Murad IV disguising himself in commoner’s clothing and prowling the streets and taverns of Constantinople late at night, looking for violators of his decrees. Upon finding someone sipping coffee under cover of darkness, he would reveal his identity and behead the law-breaker on the spot.

Murad IV died in 1640 from cirrhosis and was replaced by the sole surviving Ottoman prince, Ibrahim. Murad IV had killed all four of Ibrahim’s brothers and sisters during his reign of terror, and Ibrahim lived in constant fear that he would be next. Nonetheless, he ascended the throne, but proved to be more interested in harems than in enforcing the coffee ban of his predecessor.

Attempt 4: Sweden, 1746

In 1674 coffee arrived in Sweden for the first time, but wasn’t truly popular until about 100 years later. By the 18th century, it was a staple beverage for the wealthy worldwide, and Sweden was certainly no exception.

Unfortunately, this popularity didn’t diminish the power of fear and suspicion surrounding coffee for certain individuals in Sweden – namely King Gustav III. He was convinced that coffee, for all of its wonderful benefits, had to contain negative drawbacks that hadn’t yet been discovered. To his benefit, he decided to go about this with a scientific mind – though his methods remain in question, to say the least.

In 1746 Gustav issued a royal addict against “the misuse and excesses of tea and coffee drinking.” He commanded the state to levy heavy taxes on consumption – if someone bought coffee and didn’t pay the tax, they were heavily fined, and their coffee paraphernalia – including cups and dishes – were confiscated by the state. Later, Gustav banned coffee completely, though this simply drove consumption underground.

It was at this point that King Gustav III decided to prove once and for all that coffee has negative health effects that could be scientifically proven. So, he decided to hold an experiment.

Gustav III used two identical twins for his coffee experiment. Both twins had been tried and condemned to death for crimes that they had committed previously, but Gustav promised them mere life imprisonment on one condition: one of the twins had to drink three pots of coffee every day, for the rest of their life. The other had to drink the same amount, but of brewed tea. The twins agreed.

Two state-appointed physicians were given the task of supervising the twins and providing accurate and detailed reports to the king on their findings. Unfortunately, both physicians died of natural causes before the experiment was completed. Even more unfortunate, Gustav himself was assassinated in 1792 before either of the twins met their end.

The twins, it would seem, were the only ones to survive, and perhaps benefit from the experiment. The tea drinker was the first to perish at the ripe age of 83. The coffee drinker lived even longer, though his exact age at death has been lost to the history books.

While Sweden continued to try to ban coffee until the 1820s, none of their attempts were successful. Ironically, today Sweden has some of the highest coffee consumption per capita in the world.

Attempt 5: Prussia, 1777

Frederick the Great of Prussia was a brilliant military leader, politician, and proponent of the arts and the enlightenment in Prussia. He achieved some of the greatest military victories of his country’s history, including victory against great odds in the Seven Years’ War. He was also well known for his love of beer.

In 1777 Frederick noticed that beer consumption in Prussia was declining. In an effort to combat this, he issued a manifesto calming that beer is far superior to coffee, and that the country’s coffee consumption was interfering with their beer consumption.

An excerpt from the manifesto:

“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 as a consequence. Everybody is using coffee; this must be prevented. His Majesty was brought up on beer, and so were both his ancestors and 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 relied upon to endure hardships in case of another war.”

In 1781 Frederick the Great made coffee a royal monopoly. He commissioned the help of disabled soldiers and employed them to spy on citizens, sniffing in search of illegally roasted coffee. It may come as no surprise that the general population was incredibly annoyed with this.

Interestingly, in his later years Frederick the Great was known to rise before dawn and consume six to eight cups of coffee before attending to state business. Perhaps his positive relations with the newly formed coffee-loving United States of America had some influence on his preferred morning beverage later in life.

As interesting as these five examples are, my hope is that they illustrate a larger point: coffee, throughout history, has been as much something to be enjoyed as it has been something to fight for. Over time, leaders of powerful nations have made it their work to snuff out coffee consumption and sales, yet all have failed. Perhaps this is simply because coffee is well loved – it provides energy, and it’s tasty – but I think it goes deeper than that. We, as humans, for whatever reason, are tied to coffee. Nearly every culture that has come into contact with it has fought to integrate coffee into their daily routines and rituals – and when threatened, have risen up to support and defend it. Often, coffee is tied to nostalgia – it reminds us of home. It brings us together, and it gives us an excuse to talk and share ideas.

Coffee may not speak to our hearts with the same level of passion as ideas like freedom and justice do, but it does speak. And history has shown that when it speaks, people of all demographics and backgrounds listen.

2 thoughts on “S2 Episode 5: The Five Attempts to Ban Coffee

  1. Oh my god, I didn’t know that. Coffee is something that indeed bring people together and helps us solve out problems mentally, so it shouldn’t be ban!

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