Saturday, March 26, 2011

Today's Tidbit - The Devil's Drink

I had to go out and buy a new coffee maker today - couldn't stand the thought of a Sunday morning without my "cup of Joe", my "Brewtus", my "Go Juice", my mug of Mojo, my "Wakey Juice" - and it reminded me of this tidbit!

 What popular beverage did many medieval Christians believe was "the Devil's drink" until Pope Clement VIII approved its consumption in 1592?

 Answer:  Most of us wouldn't be able to start our day "right" (or get through it!) without a cup or two of this beverage: coffee.  Coffee is the most popular drink in the world today with over 400 billion cups being slurped each year, and the United States is the world's largest consumer of coffee (2.5 million lbs. a year).  But for such a commonly enjoyed drink, we know little about its origins.  

There are many legends about the origins of coffee.  The most common tells of an African goatherd by the name of Kaldi who, in around 600-800 C.E., was tending his animals in modern day Ethiopia when he noticed they were acting quite strangely - jumping around and very hyperactive.  On investigating, he saw they were eating the red berries of a nearby bush.  Curious, Kaldi ate some of the berries and found himself strangely invigorated.  Both man and beast had tasted the power of caffeine!  Kaldi shared his discovery with a monk from a nearby Islamic monastery, who took the new discovery back and experimented by crushing a few berries and then pouring boiling water over them - the first cup of coffee!  The monks grew to like the coffee because it helped them stay awake during their long hours of prayer and the use of it spread to other monasteries.  

Devout Muslims began to believe that coffee was a divine gift brought by an angel from heaven to the faithful on earth, and so the drinking of coffee rapidly spread throughout the Middle East.  Wherever Islam went, coffee went to: from India to North Africa to the eastern Mediterranean.  Arab nations tried to guard the secrets of growing and roasting coffee; it was illegal to sell coffee beans as seeds to non-Arabs.  It's believed that no coffee seed sprouted outside of Africa or Arabia until the 17th century, but it was impossible to stop the demand for the dark, delicious drink.  Coffee became so closely associated with Arabs that during the years of the Crusades many European Christians refused to drink it because it was considered the "wine of the infidels".  When priests in Rome demanded that the drink be banned in 1592, Pope Clement VIII took a sip of it and then declared, "This Satan's drink is so delicious that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it. We shall cheat Satan by baptizing it." 

With the Pope's blessing, the demand for coffee rapidly spread across Europe.  The 1st coffeehouse was opened in Venice, Italy in 1683.  Drinking coffee in England, famous for being the land of tea drinkers, became so popular that there were more coffeehouses in 18th century London than there are today.  But many still thought it to be an evil drink.  In 1674, British women organized "The Women's Petition Against Coffee", complaining that men were spending too much time enjoying themselves at the coffeehouses.  Prussia's Frederick the Great tried to block the imports of coffee to his country in 1775.  He thought coffee was "disgusting" and encouraged his subjects to drink beer instead - he even employed "coffee smellers" to stalk the streets sniffing for the aroma of the outlawed drink.  Tea was the favorite beverage in the American colonies until the British raised the tax on it, leading Americans to switch to coffee in protest (and to ultimately revolt!).  

The Dutch became the people most responsible for spreading coffee around the world and Amsterdam became the coffee capital of the world.  But the Brazilians were the slyest.  In 1727, Brazil's emperor decided that he wanted a cut of the coffee market so he sent an aide of his, Lt. Colonel Francisco de Melo Palheta, to French Guiana to settle a border dispute between the French and Dutch - and to steal some coffee seedlings.  Palheta not only settled the dispute, but also had the "energy" to initiate a passionate affair with the wife of the French governor!  She was so enamored with Francisco that, as a farewell gift, she gave him a bouquet of flowers in which she had hidden some coffee seeds and cuttings.  It is from these "love shoots" that the world's greatest producer was born.  Brazil's huge coffee plantations soon turned coffee from a drink only for the rich elite to an everyday drink that any "common Joe" could afford.  And finally, if you think you're a coffee addict, you couldn't be as bad as the French philosopher Voltaire (1694-1778). It's reported that he drank 50 cups a day!

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