I love coffee. I’m drinking a hot cup while I pen this article. Roasting and grinding coffees from around the world is my hobby. Experimenting with different brewing methods in search of the perfect cup of Joe is my holy grail. I even researched planting my own coffee trees here in Orlando so that I could experience the whole process from soil to cup. A hero of mine, Heriberto Lopez, had the same idea in 1985. Mr. Lopez, who owned a coffee plantation in Venezuela, came to the United States so his son could receive treatment for a rare heart condition. He gambled some of his family fortune on growing coffee in south Florida, so that he could work in the U.S. while his son got the treatment he needed. The experts said it would never work. Heinz Wutsher, a researcher with the U.S. Department of Agriculture laboratory in Orlando said, ”I think the whole thing is a crackpot idea.” Well you know what? They were right. It failed. Coffee grows best in the bean belt, 25 degrees north, 30 degrees south latitude. Florida is technically in the belt, but has a deficiency of mountains on which to plant coffee. Mr. Lopez and I had our caffeine fueled dreams thwarted by geography and economics, but I still enjoy learning about coffee. Reading “Uncommon Grounds” by Mark Pendergrast, I was horrified to learn that coffee had been prohibited in various countries at different times. Why ban a harmless drink? Who could be so cruel? Don’t they know coffee is the elixir of Life? Well my friends, let us dive into when, where and why coffee was banned in history.
1511, Kha’ir Beg, the governor of Mecca, was cruising past a Mosque and saw some dudes getting their caffeine on so they could do some endurance praying–much like some of you would do with Mountain Dew and an all night Dungeons and Dragons session. Beg got bent out of shape for some reason, so he banned coffee under the power given to him by the Koran prohibiting wine. I know you are thinking, “How in the hell is coffee, a stimulant, anything like wine, a depressant?” I’m sure the Saudis were thinking the same thing. So Kha’ir goes to some local Persian doctors, the Hakimani brothers, and buys some expert testimony. The Hakimani boys claimed that coffee was harmful and had no legitimate medical use–a conflict of interest since coffee was used as a natural, inexpensive cure for depression as opposed to whatever expensive pharmaceuticals they were selling. Finally, the Sultan of Cairo stepped in because people were getting cranky without their morning coffee, and declared governor Beg had exceeded his authority to ban coffee and the people rejoiced. Happily, Kha’ir was caught embezzling money and was executed. I guess he skipped the part in the Koran about stealing.
Continuing in the 16th century, the next group anxious to wield the banhammer are the Italians. Christian Europe had been brawling with the Muslim Ottomans since 1591 and were a little salty. The Pope’s advisors wanted to ban coffee as the “bitter invention of Satan” because the drink was popular with the Turks. Ironic, considering coffee was banned in Mecca less than one hundred years before. Pope Clement the VIII requested a cup so that he may see what all this devilry was about and declared, “This Satan’s drink is so delicious that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it.” The Pope also believed that coffee was less harmful than alcohol and thus blessed the bean. Thanks to the Coffee Pope, modern Italians are free to sip espressos while riding vespas saying, “Ciao.”
The 17th century saw a new Muslim anti-coffee zealot, this time in Constantinople. In 1623, Murad IV claimed the throne of the Ottoman empire, famous for making little couches you put your feet on. So Murad quattro was a new king and usually you become king by screwing people over and crushing dissent. Coffee has been blamed/credited with fueling rabble rousers, as the king was aware. In fact, one of the HQs for planning the American Revolution took place in the “Green Dragon,” a coffee house in Boston. Americans switched to coffee from tea because screw England, and the founding fathers would drink caffeine and write kick-ass constitutions. Back to Constantinople, Murad knew coffee angers-up the blood and fuels revolutions so he banned coffee. Turns out, people really love coffee and kept drinking it despite the first offense: catching a beating. Second timers got sewn into a bag and thrown into the Bosphorus. Even with these severe punishments, Murad still had no trouble going undercover with his big ass sword, surprise beheading people he caught drinking Java. The ban ended when Murad decided to have a one man drinking contest and died of alcohol at the ripe old age of 28. Maybe he should have had coffee instead.
Moving into the next century, 1746 Sweden not only banned coffee, but coffee paraphernalia because people were abusing coffee. I don’t know how you abuse coffee other than by leaving a pot of coffee on a burner until it turns to tar. Gustav the third, king of Sweden, ordered a pseudoscience twin study to prove the harmful effects of coffee. One twin drank tea, the other coffee. They didn’t wait around to get the results because the twins lived into their 80’s. So the Swedes sent goons around anyways, kicking in doors and smashing coffee pots and confiscating coffee beans for evidence (totally not for them to consume or resell). Shockingly, people continued to consume coffee in spite of the ban. Eventually the Swedish government decided enforcement was unmanageable and repealed the bans in the 1820’s. Today Sweden has one of the highest per capita coffee consumption rates in the world.
Another jerk from the 18th century is Frederick “the Great” of Prussia. In 1777, Fred was concerned that coffee consumption was cutting into the beer profits. Beer was a local product so profits stayed in Prussia. Coffee, being an import good, caused money to flow out of the country. So he proclaimed coffee banned and told the proles to go back to drinking beer for breakfast. In true Top Man fashion, nobles were allowed to continue to drink coffee. Fred liked to drink his coffee made with champagne instead of water, in true baller fashion. Rappers take note, that is how you stupidly waste money. Drinking a hot champagny cuppa in front of the people you are telling don’t drink coffee doesn’t inspire people to respect the ban. I thought ordering a bunch of Germans to drink beer for breakfast was an easy sell, but Fred screwed it up somehow. Freddie had to rescind his order and allow the Prussians their coffee.
An article about coffee prohibition wouldn’t be complete without mentioning America, the largest coffee market in the world. Multiple attempts by moral scolds and busy bodies to shut down coffee have been mounted, but, luckily for us, they have all failed so I won’t bore you with the details. However, one man was moderately successful in cutting into American coffee consumption, C. W. Post. Post was not a mentally stable person, to put it mildly. He believed in all the quack cures of the day and Grandpa Simpson diagnoses. C.W. suffered from nervous breakdowns and became
student of John Kellogg, another cereal Barron, that taught him the dark arts of healthy eating to cure his imbalanced humours. Kellogg was a Seven Day Adventist and shunned caffeine and advised C.W. to give up coffee. C.W. became a titan of the breakfast food world because he was the first to understand the power of advertising. He spent a tremendous amount of money pushing his health foods on the public using clever ads that weren’t always completely true. Post started an ad campaign warning about the dangers of coffee and how it is basically killing you every time you take a sip. Unbeknownst to the public, C.W. couldn’t start his day without his big mug of bean juice. That didn’t stop him from telling everyone else to drink Postum, the coffee substitute made from wheat bran, wheat, and molasses. Bizarrely the slogan of Postum was “There’s a Reason.” I guess that did something for the chumps of the 20th century because they bought the stuff. Postum sales surged during WWII as coffee was diverted to the front lines, because nothing kills Nazis better than a conscripted 18 year old with coffee jitters and a M1 garand. If you would like to try this
abomination of a drink, you can still purchase Postum on Amazon.
21st century America has not banned coffee, thank the Coffee Pope, but we do have prohibition of drugs. The arguments for caffeine prohibition of the past are the same arguments used to prohibit drugs today: “The money flows out of the country;” “ It makes God angry when you use an intoxicant;” “Undesirables use it and listen to music I find offensive;” “ It causes crime and dissent among the masses;” “Drugs have no legitimate medical use.” These arguments are as hollow now as they were 500 years ago and the banners are as big of hypocrites as ever. Three out of our four past presidents are known to have used drugs and yet happily continued the war on drugs. The true reason for drug prohibition is power and that is one hell of a drug. Currently in the 103rd year of drug prohibition, America has been slow to reverse course, but public opinion is changing and that is what ultimately lead to the reversal of coffee prohibition in Mecca, Sweden, and Prussia. So the next time you’re in the breakroom having a cup of coffee with a coworker, share what you have learned about the tyrants that banned the drink they are enjoying. Maybe you’ll help turn the tide of public opinion.