While rebellion against a monarch was brewing in Britain’s American colonies, elsewhere in Europe, absolute monarchs were consolidating their power. One of these monarchs was King Gustav III of Sweden. Gustav seized power in a coup that would install him as Sweden’s absolute ruler for a little more than 20 years.
Gustav III fancied himself an enlightened autocrat, enacting policies that made Sweden more tolerant of other religions and enhanced the great cultural achievements of his country. But even before he took power, he was a fierce critic of the excess and privilege of Swedish nobility. One of these excesses was coffee.
Coffee came to Sweden around 1674 but didn’t really catch fire until around a half-century later. Coffee houses became a central meeting point in major European cities for men, usually of aristocratic birth, to discuss news, literature and politics. Coffee houses were places where the political-minded could voice their opinions and sway others.
At this time, there were two divergent schools of thought on coffee. Some doctors believed it could improve your health, while others believed it was actually detrimental to health. While some scientific experiments were done by both sides (as they are today), much of the information about the negative effects of coffee were spread by winemakers and their associated industries.
Coffee, it turned out, was cutting into the market of those who would otherwise be drinking wine, writes author H.E. Jacob, in his book ”Coffee: the Epic of a Commodity.” Coffee was still very new to the continent and in general, little was known about the effects of it. The only thing most people knew at the time was that they shouldn’t drink it before bed.
But King Gustav III associated the beverage with the excesses of the Swedish nobility, those whose power and influence he was trying to curtail. But Gustav wasn’t the only Swede who noticed the excessive consumption of coffee. As early as 1746, the Swedish government imposed a heavy tax on the stuff that did nothing to curb its use. Eventually, coffee was banned entirely – but it would have the opposite effect than what the Swedish government intended.
What happened next was just like what happened in the United States some 150 years later, when alcohol was outlawed. Bootleggers began making a killing by selling the black bean on the black market. Upon taking power, King Gustav III read studies that showed coffee might actually be a poisonous substance, so he decided to do a little experiment of his own.
In “The World of Caffeine: The Science and Culture of the World’s Most Popular Drug,” authors Bennett Alan Weinberg and Bonnie K. Bealer describe the king’s experiment. He ordered that a convicted murderer should drink coffee every day and appointed two doctors to oversee the daily research. As a control, he ordered another convict to drink tea every day.
Sadly for the world of coffee research, the two convicts outlived the two doctors appointed to oversee their consumption and results. They also outlived King Gustav III, who was shot in the back during a masquerade ball in 1792. He lived on for 13 days following the shooting, but died of sepsis.
The two convicted prisoners actually went on to lead long lives. The tea-drinking murderer was the first to die at age 83 at a time when life expectancy in the country was little more than 38 years.
Sweden would oscillate between coffee bans and heavy taxation on coffee for at least another century, but today the country is one of coffee’s leading worldwide consumers.