I really feel I should declare upfront, I am very much a fan of coffee. This no doubt sways my opinion of Sweden’s former monarch, Gustav III. I may have quietly raised a mug of Ethiopian coffee in quiet defiance to the mad king while writing this tale.
Coffee has been an elixir of life for many since the late 15th century – when a Sufi Imam from Yemen noticed how chipper a group of birds were, pecking away at coffee beans, on a trip to Ethiopia. He promptly brought the elixir back to Yemen, where it quickly became a tradition to pour a cup of hot Joe on the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday – so one story goes. Another tale has it the power of coffee was discovered in Ethiopia, by an Ethiopian herdsman called Kaldi. He noticed the goats who ate coffee beans had boundless energy, so he started eating them himself.
In the recent past, when Cracked.com’s YouTube channel ruled large swathes of the internet, their roving reporter Robert Evans (now of Behind the Bastards, Worst Year Ever and the It Could Happen Here series) explained how the Ethiopians used to ferment coffee beans throughout the day while out riding through their own body heat, for a cheap high at days’ end. It is must see viewing – Evans has several of Cracked’s staff tripping balls on various natural highs and having quite the party in the piece. One TED talk I watched a long time ago and now cannot find to properly reference the author (I particularly closely checked all of Malcolm Gladwell’s talks and, Gladwellian as it sounds I don’t think it was him) claimed – at a time when English water was too polluted to drink – the emergence of coffee houses saved the British Empire. Prior to coffee the everyday Briton sustained themselves on beer throughout the day. Coffee houses gave them both a clearer head and a place to mingle, where the ideas which powered the Industrial Revolution percolated as much as the Arabica beans themselves. I have no idea how true this is – it is an enticing thought though.
On what may well be my favorite episode of the podcast The Constant, ‘Shipwreckless’, Mark Chrisler points to how coffee houses like Lloyds of London morphed into insurance brokers for the marine trade, which, through lack of proper oversight coupled with an ability to make a killing -even when underwriting old death traps – led to the rise of the ‘coffin ships’ – overloaded, decrepit vessels sent out with no regard for the lives of those onboard. Another tale around coffee is how it apparently reached Europe. One tale states in the wake of the 1683 Siege of Vienna, Austria, as the Ottoman Turks retreated they left behind bags and bags of coffee beans. Not only did the siege of Vienna save Christendom apparently, it continues to save our mornings. The first Austrian coffee house did appear two years after the battle, but it is known coffee had been coming into Europe for quite some time before via Malta and Venice. Sebastian Major dissects numerous food myths which arose around the siege in an episode of Our Fake History.
We still have a week to fill in this schedule. I love coffee. Though the following tale is light on detail – Dates? Names? Pffft, who needs that stuff, History nerds? (Yes please!) – Let’s talk about King Gustav III anyway, and his hatred for the Jitter Juice.
Though Sweden is now the 6th biggest drinkers of coffee in the world, per capita – consuming the equivalent of 18 pounds weight of coffee a year – this was a hard won passion. Between 1756 and 1817 the Swedish Royal family would ban the drink on five occasions. Coffee was first imported to the country in 1674 (that’s right, almost a decade before the siege of Vienna apparently brought the bean to Europe) but remained very much a niche drink until the turn of the century. Coffee then suddenly reached a tipping point, and became extremely popular with all levels of Swedish society just after 1700. One might think an elixir of life such as coffee taking off, and in a lot of cases becoming a substitute for day drinking, would be a great boon for the ruling classes. It was a great socializer of people without the occasional ‘nose painting’ drunkenness can bring. It gave your people greater energy to get through the day and work hard. It warms you up in the cold, Northern climes. What’s not to love right?
Well, if you are to believe the King of Sweden, coffee made people jittery, rude, an altogether all too ‘French’. Such foreign-ness was not to be tolerated. It is far more likely the introduction of the foreign drink was hurting the domestic Swedish market for ale and mead, as day drinking gave way to the coffee houses. Though Sweden did not start brewing alcohol at industrial levels till the industrial revolution reorganized society into several large cities – necessitating larger scale production – they did have many local micro-breweries dotted all over the map. These small businesses suffered. In 1746, in an effort to relieve their suffering, the crown enacted a high import tax on coffee and tea. Did this harm coffee sales? Hardly.
The next stage was to convince the populace that to drink a hot cup of Java was to take your very life in your hands. Enter Physician to the Admiralty Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778). Linnaeus was a brilliant mind who did much for the proper classification of plants and animals – formalizing what we now call binomial nomenclature (a classification system giving all living things a double barreled, Latin name ie. Homo Sapiens for humans, Felis Domesticus for the common house cat). He identified a great many plants in Sweden and Lapland. He worked out wormwood could be used as anti-malarial medication to help fight malaria. He made a raft of small discoveries over the years, such as recommending the best wood to use for the butts of guns, and suggesting to Anders Celsius his newfangled temperature scale should have the freezing point at 0 and boiling point at 100, and not vice versa – and he was well rewarded for his efforts with titles. When the king wanted scientific proof that coffee was bad for you Linnaeus was happy to oblige. Having first tried and failed to find a way of growing coffee locally, then to substitute the Arabica bean with a local alternative, Linnaeus dutifully proclaimed coffee was dangerous, and possibly to blame for hemorrhoids, constipation, senility, even strokes and heart attacks. In spite of this Carl Linnaeus himself was a big coffee drinker.
King Adolf Frederick would ascend to the throne in 1751, and would enact a number of bans on coffee in his lifetime – all largely ignored by the public at large, even though at first they risked the seizure of all their cups and saucers, then later, imprisonment. During one ban, in 1794 the first wave feminist, writer, academic, and mother of Mary Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote of her travels through Sweden, and how even the coffee made in one’s home there outclassed the coffee in Britain’s finest coffee houses. Perhaps ironically Adolf Frederick would become known for his strange death. He died of indigestion in 1771 after a meal of kippers, lobster, caviar, sauerkraut – the not at all ‘French’ champagne – and FOURTEEN SERVINGS of a local dessert called Hetvagg. Not a single coffee was consumed.
Which leads us to our, poorly researched and perhaps dubious tale. In 1771 Gustav III would rule Sweden, till his assassination in 1792. Somewhere in this timeframe he was alleged to have carried out the following experiment. Like his gluttonous father, Gustav hated coffee. He was determined, once and for all to prove it was nothing more than a slow-acting poison. The tale has it he took two prisoners who were on death row for murder – some texts claim they were identical twins, and while I won’t say this was bullshit I will say I think it statistically unlikely – and commuted their sentences to life terms on the proviso one would drink three pots of coffee every day till he died. The second prisoner had to drink the equivalent in tea. The sources all point out not only did the prisoners outlive Gustav – who was very unpopular with the nobles because, as their first absolutist ruler in some time following a run of figureheads, he was determined to mess with a lot of their civil liberties. He had also started a constitutionally illegal war with Russia while they were tied up in another war with the Ottoman Empire. He was shot in the hip at a masked ball on 13th March 1792, later dying of infection. The unnamed doctors supervising the experiment all died off before the, also unnamed subjects. At some unnamed point the tea drinker, now 83, passed on leaving the coffee drinker to enjoy his daily cups of mud in peace. Is this a true story? Who the hell knows. A number of publications, including the Smithsonian have all reported on it though.
The next time you happen to be sitting out in your courtyard, Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo up on your Kindle, Kobo, or even real book – it mentions coffee 92 times by the way – remember the right to drink coffee was hard won by the Swedes, that part of the tale at least is true.