When you think coffee, you might think of a multi-billion-dollar industry that spans the globe. You might think of the famous European coffee houses that housed the great artists and revolutionaries of the Renaissance. Or Bach’s libretto, proclaiming that coffee tastes better than a thousand kisses. You might think of the political history of coffee, in particular of the American adoption of coffee in the aftermath of the Boston Tea Party, a period in which drinking tea was seen as unpatriotic. You might notice that the third world produces coffee for the first, and wince at the role that the slave trade played in the production. Or you might just think of frappuccinos.
What might not spring to mind is the role that religion has played in bringing you your morning cup of joe. (Full disclosure: I dislike coffee. I shouldn’t be writing this article.)
Coffee was discovered in late antiquity. Legend maintains that a ninth-century Ethiopian goat-herder named Kaldi observed that his goats were perky after chewing the bright berries of a certain (coffee) bush. He sampled them himself and, having never been exposed to caffeine before, felt energized. He brought the beans to a local Islamic monastic community, who sampled them. Disgusted by the berries, they tossed them aside, inadvertently roasting them in the flames of the fire. The beans inside the berries emitted a delicious aroma and thus, by accident, coffee was discovered.
From the thirteenth century onward, coffee was spread throughout the Muslim world by the Sufi orders of Southern Arabia. It aided spiritual concentration. It was brought first to Ethiopia and quickly became known as “the wine of Islam” (Arabic qahwa, from which we get the word coffee, may originally have meant wine). The Muslim mystic and theologian Shaikh ibn Isma'il Ba Alawi of Al-Shihr said that when used with prayerful devotion coffee could lead to a state of enjoyment that Muslims feel when receiving hidden religious revelations. According to the sixteenth-century Muslim historian Al-Jaziri, coffee was even drunk as part of religious rituals in the sacred mosque in Mecca itself.
In Islam, coffee even became associated with the angelic orders. According to one Persian legend, the angel Gabriel administered it to a sleepy Mohammad (it gave Mohammad the strength to unhorse 40 warriors and, ahem, mount 40 women). Another Muslim legend claims that King Solomon once cured a town of a mysterious illness by serving them (at the angel Gabriel’s suggestion) boiled coffee beans.
Not everyone was excited by the power-generating properties of coffee. In Cairo, Istanbul and Mecca, moralizers attempted to proclaim coffee an intoxicant and, thus, prohibit it under Islamic law. During Ramadan in 1539 Cairo’s coffee houses were raided, and Sultan Murad IV (1623-40), ruler of the Ottoman Empire, even attempted to use the death penalty to outlaw it.
Christians felt equally wary. Coffee had spread to Europe from the Ottoman Empire and from the port of Mocha in Yemen. For political leaders, like Charles II of England, coffee houses were places where revolution took root. He denounced them in 1675 as places of scandal and disaffection. Religious leaders were worried, too. The strong association of coffee and Islam meant that when coffee was exported to Europe it was called “the black bitter invention of Satan.” Only once Pope Clement VIII sampled the bean and gave it his blessing did Catholics cease to view it as an anti-Eucharist. According to popular lore, Clement declared “this devil’s drink is so delicious, we should cheat the devil by baptizing it.”
Coffee first arrived to Colombia – home of the world’s best quality coffee – in the mid-sixteenth century. It wasn’t indigenous to the region. Local religious and political leaders tried to encourage people to plant coffee crops but they met with resistance. The coffee plant takes five years to yield its first harvest, and many local farmers were understandably unwilling to wait. The solution was struck upon by an enterprising priest, Father Francisco Romero, in the small town of Mesa de los Santos in today’s coffee triangle. Instead of the usual Hail Mary and Our Fathers, Fr. Romero began prescribing coffee planting as penance. For each sin committed the penitential Catholic had to plant three coffee trees. The Archbishop thought the idea genius, the practice was generalized, and Colombia’s coffee industry was built on the sins of her forefathers.
Even today coffee has its religious devotees. In modern day Colombia coffee-pilgrims travel from around the world to locate the geographical origins of their favorite beverage with Experience Cafetera. They are part of a “Third Wave” of coffee consumption, in which adherents insist on knowing not just what kind of coffee they are drinking but the altitude at which it was grown. This third wave is part sustainable tourism and part religious ritual. Even small local farmers in Colombia use expensive imported coffee pots to prepare the first fruits of their crops.
In Starbucks all over the world people begin their days with coffee, if not prayers. Whether Catholic penance or Devil’s drink, the conclusion is inescapable: God might make the sun rise but coffee gets the world up.