In my years around coffee I have found that the many myths, tales and legends which can be found throughout the world are superb teaching tools. We as the “storytelling ape” innately find it easier to remember things which we encounter as stories, and this has been a foundation for my coffee education work for a long time. These articles will attempt to replicate some of this, by sharing some tales of coffee and discussing the reality, relative truth and impact of these tales on our understanding of the wonderful world of coffee.
Welcome back to Bear Essentials Coffee Tales series. This time we are going to take a look at coffee’s arrival in Europe, it’s troubled reception and how coffee nearly never was.
Coffee reached Europe from its origins in Africa in a staggering variety of innovative (or indeed illegal) ways. From the religious smuggler Baba Budan, who we have met before , through to the Dutch East India Company who managed to circumnavigate the Ottoman Turk restrictions and smuggle out a coffee plant, which they then seeded and planted in Ceylon, perhaps more famous for its tea growing to many. It’s fascinating the lengths to which people went to remove the humble coffee bean from its homeland.
Kolschiztky, Ottoman Camels & Coffee
One coffee journey which always brings a wry smile to my face is that of Kolschitzky and coffee in Vienna.
In the summer of 1683 the Ottoman army threatened an invasion of Europe and troops were massing on the borders of Vienna, then controlled by the Holy Roman Empire, with the city under siege. A strange place to find a coffee pioneer to be sure. But it is here that we meet Georg Franz Kolschiztky.
The commander of the Viennese forces was Count Ernst Rudiger von Starhemberg and he needed a messenger to pass the Ottoman armies and reach the commanders of the Holy Roman Empire’s Polish-Lithuanian allies. Our coffee “hero” was selected for the job, Kolschiztky had lived most of his life in Arabia and travelled the Arab world extensively. So his cultural knowledge and familiarity with the Ottoman people, made him an ideal agent.
Georg chose a classical spies gambit to achieve his goal, disguised as an Ottoman Turk soldier he infiltrated the besieging army and worked his way through the lines to reach the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Delivering his message Kolschiztky was then embroiled in the ensuing battle as the allied forces of the Holy Roman Empire and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth broke the siege and sent the Ottoman armies into retreat.
We rejoin Kolschiztky as he surveys the aftermath, the Ottoman forces have abandoned their baggage trains in the retreat and the victorious armies are picking through the loot. Gold, rice, grain, sheep, even honey is being distributed among the greedy victors. However the abandoned Ottoman mounts are proving a problem.
Camels are frankly ill tempered beasts at the best of times, and poorly suited to the lands of Eastern Europe, their fate is sealed, we shall perhaps imagine a pasture somewhere in modern day Poland where they are able to live out their lives fat and happy. The officer in charge is issuing orders to burn the 500 massive sacks of camel fodder (the pastures will have plenty of food, honest). As he sees this scene Kolschiztky rides out at speed and loudly proclaims the need to cease and desist!
Our intrepid Austrian has spotted that the sacks are not filled with camel food, well not unless you want very agitated camels (and you don’t. Trust me on this). Rather these 500 sacks contain the Ottoman forces’ supply of coffee! Georg convinces the officer in charge to give over the disposition of this “excess baggage” to him.
In his years in the Arab world Kolschiztky has learned a little of how to roast and prepare coffee, and in short order the Blue Bottle coffee house opens in Vienna. Mr Kolschiztky does rather well out of his venture, and is considered to have influenced the coffee drinking habits of Europeans. Georg is in the Arabic habit of sweetening his coffee and also begins to strain out the grounds and add milk. Incidentally this addition of milk is likely a distinctly European habit due to the predominance of lactose intolerance in the peoples of the Mediterranean and Africa.
A Difficult Reception
Despite the many ways it made its way into Europe and the huge number of Europeans who would adopt the drink, coffee had a far from easy time insinuating itself into our culture. Indeed on several occasions the drink was the subject of hostility and even outright banned.
The Pope & the Devil’s Drink
In Italy coffee arrived with a flourish, and would become a national obsession. But when coffee first began to influence the lives of Italians, the most powerful authority in the land, the Roman Catholic Church, was far from enamoured of the black stuff. Indeed a delegation of priests petitioned Pope Clement VIII to issue a papal ban on the consumption of “the devil’s drink”.
Pope Clement VIII purportedly elected to taste the dangerous concoction for himself. Upon consuming his first cup of coffee he is said to have been so impressed at the taste and effects that he declared “Why the Devil’s drink is so delicious! We cannot leave it to the infidels. No we shall fool Satan himself! I shall baptise this coffee, and make it a truly Christian thing!”
The rest as they say is history. Soon enough Italian lemonade vendors in the streets of the great cities had added coffee to their wares.
Coffee, France and the Winelovers
France was slower than most of Europe in it’s adoption of coffee drinking. Around 1669 the then Turkish ambassador threw vibrant and luxurious Turkish themed salons at his home, and began a craze for the adoption of all things Turkish. Among these was of course coffee drinking.
Ten years later, so exaggerated had the claims of coffee drinking as a guardian of good health become that the doctors of Marseille went on the attack. Claiming that the drink was in danger of dissuading the french people from the vital and healthy consumption of wines. Even going so far as to suggest that drinking coffee would cause convulsions, exhaustion, impotence (this isn’t the last time we will see that claim) and even paralysis.
In 1689 a noted French physician wrote a piece strongly defending coffee. A few years later someone living in Paris could even procure a prescription for a coffee enema to; “sweeten the lower bowel and enliven the skin’s complexion.” Still it took until the late 17th and early 18th century for coffee houses to become common in France.
Germany: Coffee vs. Beer & the Tyranny of the Coffee Smellers
In the lands of Germany coffee took hold quickly, from its arrival in the 1670’s it grew into a truly universal thing, in the early 18th century coffee houses were prevalent in most German cities. Johan Sebastian Bach even wrote the drink its own musical tribute in his Coffee Cantata (honestly, go look it up). Ludwig von Beethoven was known to grind with peculiar precision not less, nor more than 60 beans of coffee for each cup.
In 1777 His Majesty Fredrick the Great declared that coffee’s popularity was too great. “It is disgusting to note the increase in the quantity of coffee consumed by my subjects, and the entirely too great amounts of money which leave my kingdom as a consequence. My people must drink beer!” Within four years the king had declared it illegal for any non governmental premises to roast coffee.
While many had to resort to “creative” coffee substitutes (an article of its own), some enterprising people managed to acquire real beans and roast them illicitly. Fredrick however employed a cadre of spies and investigators to seek out these criminals, and they became commonly referred to as “Coffee Smellers”.
Interestingly it was the woman of Germany who helped coffee outlive its royal persecution. The frauen formed Kaffeeklatches, social circles in which coffee was consumed and many topics discussed. These female only salons helped maintain coffee as part of German life.
England and the Women’s Petition Against Coffee
To the west and across the channel it was a different tale, the women of England were deeply intolerant of the coffee drinking habits of their men. In 1674 the Women’s Petition Against Coffee was published, a document calling for the abolition of coffee drinking.
The reasons were passionate and on reflection deeply entertaining. The case largely based itself on the “propensity of men to congregate in taverns of a morning. Thence to drink themselves into a stupor. Only to later migrate to coffee houses to drink themselves sober.”
Indeed so extreme was the dispute between the genders that the document also noted “never had men worn greater britches, nor carried so little within them.” The coffee drinking habits had “so eunucht, husbands, and crippled the more kind gallents among men.” The men in question “came from coffee, with nothing moist but their snotty noses, nothing stiff but their joints, and nothing upstanding but their ears.”
In the centre of the raging debate King Charles II issued a royal proclamation in 1675 for the “Suppression of Coffee Houses”. As of January 10th 1676 coffee houses were illegal having “Having become the great resort of the idle and disaffected persons of the realm, to the point that tradesman have neglected their affairs.” He also noted that in such establishments “false malicious and scandalous reports are devised and spread abroad to the Defamation of His Majesty’s Government, and to the Disturbance of the Peace and Quiet of the Realm.”
Despite the implication that coffee houses were roosts of discontented rebels, it was proven that the greater “threat to the peace” was Charles’ proclamation. The extraordinary protests from ports and cities, the overwhelming decrying of the “terrible proclamation” created such waves as to actually provoke concern that the nation might once more overthrow the monarchy. On January 8th, just 48hours before the law took effect Charles “reconsidered” his position.
Coffee: The Irresistible Force
Looking at the modern proliferation of coffee in the European nations you would be forgiven for assuming that it had become an instant success (pun mildly intended). The little historical anecdotes above tell a different story, despite it’s appearing flavour and aroma, coffee wasn’t always a sure win in Europe.
What can we learn from all this? Well I would certainly suggest it could remind us not to take things like coffee for granted. Also the often dubious methods by which coffee actually got from Africa to europe, and indeed the rest of the world, are, or at least should be, a lesson in humility for us all (but that really is an article in its own right).
Whatever you take from this piece, even if it’s just a new perspective on the history of coffee in Europe, I would encourage you to learn a little more about the coffee you drink, and where it came from. As ever coffee has more than a few stories to tell.
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Thanks, – Bear