Coffee makes us severe, and grave, and philosophical.
The origin myth of coffee begins with a Ethiopian goatherd named Kaldi, who observed his goats “dancing” after they had chewed a certain purplish berry. The goatherd, so the legend goes, tried the cherry himself and, worried by its stimulating effects, brought the beans to his imam. The imam pronounced the little beans the work of shitan (Satan) and threw the beans into the fire. But the resulting aroma of roasting beans changed his mind—perhaps a little of heaven’s work could be detected in the plant after all—and upon mixing the remains with water, the first cup of coffee was born.
As apocryphal as the story is, it might have a bean of truth to it—although sadly not the part about the dancing goats. The Ethiopian clerical class did view the local stimulant with mistrust, and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church banned its consumption sometime in the twelfth century. Islam, the church’s main religious rival, reached Ethiopia via trade routes in the eighth century and those same routes allowed coffee to percolate across the Arab world, stopping first in Yemen. Yet there it faced similar religious problems, for although Yemeni Sufis lauded the bean as a useful aid in staying up all night praying, the more orthodox religious establishment regarded coffee with some alarm. The dark beverage was accused of possessing the same intoxicating effects that Muhammad had warned against with alcohol.
Matters came to head in the year 1511 when the local governor of Mecca learned that satirical verses about him were sung in coffee houses. He publicly charged coffee with the crime of spreading immorality and literally put the beverage on trial. A full vessel was placed before a council of religious sages, who then decreed that the sale and consumption of coffee should be prohibited. Shops were then forcibly closed and coffee merchants flogged.
Within a year, higher authorities in Cairo had overturned the ruling and the governor was replaced. Yet the debacle began anew in Ottoman-controlled Istanbul, where in the 1580’s the Grand Vizier outlawed coffee. This time offenders were given bastinado—the charming punishment of having one’s soles beaten raw with sticks—while repeat offenders were sewn into sacks and thrown into the Bosphorus. Again higher powers intervened: the Sultan decreed its consumption acceptable and the Grand Vizier was replaced.
Why should long debates and harsh punishments occur over such a little vice in the first place? The religious argument bore little weight in the end—intoxication as defined by the prophet renders man “absent-minded and confused,” unable to distinguish “man from a woman, or earth from the heavens,” something for which even the most vehement coffee detractors cannot claim the drink culpable of. Even Pope Clement VIII, when told that coffee was “the devil’s drink,” proclaimed: “we shall cheat Satan by baptizing it”—thus inventing a particularly weak Americano.
Coffee’s crime then was not so much the consumption of it, but the manner of its consumption—the coffee houses where men would gather and gossip, often about politics. The Enlightenment was not the only revolution to have been born out of coffee shops, and rulers were wise to try clamp down on them—so were wives concerned about their husbands misconduct, as evidenced by an English society formed in 1674 called “Women Against Coffee,” which organized petitions to ban the drink in the attempt to get their errant husbands to come back home.
Perhaps the strangest attempt to ban coffee came in Berlin in 1777. Fredrick the Great had no taste for the drink of merchants and worried what its effect might be on the army. “The King does not believe that coffee-drinking soldiers can be depended on to endure hardship or beat his enemies.” He’d rather the troops drank the more manly, Germanic alternative: beer, which had clearly won more wars than any espresso had.
Given that 2.25 billion cups of the stuff is consumed per day—making the coffee the second most valuable commodity in the world—one would think the days of attempting to ban coffee are at an end. Not so, as evidenced by a 2010 bill introduced into the California state senate that would ban the mixing of coffee and beer—a bill so ludicrous, not in least because such a mixture sounds revolting, but also because coffee liqueurs such as Kahlua would still be perfectly legal, and so needless to say the measure went the way every other attempt did, it failed 4-10. The pernicious beverage is here to stay.
For more dark brews from LQ, explore Balzac’s obsession with, and untimely death from, an excessive amount of coffee, as well as our own Food Chains map, which charts the journey of coffee, pepper, and tomatoes across the globe and through time.
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