The fascinating story of how coffee made its way to the West.
What has been largely forgotten, however, is that everyone’s favorite pick-me-up was once considered a “bitter invention of Satan” and was shunned by the Western world. In fact, that we now sleepily go through the motions of filling our pots and pressing the buttons is thanks to Pope Clement VIII.
Legend has it that a goat herder named Kaldi was the first to discover the effects of coffee, around the year 850. The story goes that he noticed his goats would all flock to certain kind of cherry, which would make them more energetic. He chewed on the fruit himself to confirm the effects and was so impressed that he brought the cherries to an Islamic monastery, where experimentation with the pits would eventually yield the first form of coffee.
The drink quickly achieved popularity in the Middle East, although it was seen by some as a vice akin to alcohol and tobacco. During the reign of Sultan Murad IV (1612–40), all three of these items were made illegal, in a bid to cleanse the land of vice. Some historians maintain that Murad was so stringent in this ban that he would disguise himself as a commoner to travel through the streets, catching and executing these prohibition-breakers.
Coffee was met with harsher criticism when it came to Western society. The association with its Islamic founders fanned the flames of prejudice and it was commonly dubbed “Satan’s Drink.” It was not until the reign of Pope Clement VIII, more than 700 years after its discovery, that the West accepted the drink.
When members of his court implored Pope Clement VIII to denounce coffee, the pontiff insisted on trying a cup before he cast his verdict. After a few sips, he announced, “This Satan’s drink is so delicious that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it.”
Popular tradition holds that the pope then “baptized” coffee beans in order to cleanse them from the devil’s influence. Historians are unclear whether this was a metaphorical baptism, or if the pope performed an exorcism rite on actual beans, but either way it had the same effect. Once Catholics knew they were allowed to drink coffee, it spread through Europe like wildfire.
It was not long after the Catholics accepted the consumption of coffee that it spread to the Protestant communities, and soon coffee shops would pop up in every major European city. The use of coffee saw productivity increase, as people were offered an alternative to alcohol in their free times.
The Age of Enlightenment is considered to be due, in large part, to the use of coffee. Coffee shops promoted the exchange and expansion of ideas, which gave way to philosophers and revolutionaries. Voltaire was said to have consumed up to 50 cups of coffee a day while writing his works.
We know that the Church has blessed beer and they have blessed cheese, but we bless Pope Clement VIII for his role in bringing us, each day, our daily brew.