Wherein the Prussians know the best way to find a fair trade dark roast is to sniff it out.
Despite growing up near Seattle, I’ve never been much of a coffee drinker (or any hot drink for that matter). By the time I’m finished doctoring up a cuppa joe, it can more accurately be described as “vanilla pudding with a faint coffee undertone.” If I really tried—and if I actually went to a coffee shop—I could probably outdo the Starbucks customer who ordered a Venti Caramel Ribbon Crunch Frappuccino with 13 special requests including extra servings of caramel drizzle, caramel crunch, ice and whipped cream, as well as heavy cream and a blend of honey roast and frappuccino roast.
This would undoubtedly have earned the ire of Frederick the Great, the late 18th-century king of Prussia who, when he wasn’t busy doing things like partitioning Poland, strictly regulated the consumption of coffee in favor of domestically-produced beer.
One More Cup of Coffee
Europe went coffee-crazy in the 18th century: the people of Vienna slurped it like proto-Starbucks customers with plenty of cream and sugar; the French became passionate about the drink after a 1670 visit from the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed IV to the court of King Louis XIV; and Gustav III was so concerned about Swedish coffee consumption that he ordered a test of this dangerous drink be conducted on a prisoner (ironically, Gustav himself died long before the coffee drinker).
Where Gustav III saw a toxic drug, however, Prussia’s Frederick William I saw a business opportunity. Declaring coffee to be a luxury item (along with chocolate, tea and other food and beverages), Frederick heavily taxed the drink; his son, Frederick the Great, increased the tax to 150 percent. The tax was effective in making coffee a luxury item, but it was also a luxury that was affordable for many members of Prussian society. Prussians took to offering coffee and sweets to visitors and, by 1744, the Kurmärkische Domainkammer reported that “coffee consumption by almost everyone and even the smallest of people has become a natural thing.”
While the Prussian state enjoyed the tax revenue, the cost of fighting the Seven Years’ War had drained Prussia’s treasury. Although Frederick II’s substantial increase in the luxury tax brought in some revenue, the future Great stewed over the amount of money flowing out of the country to pay for coffee beans:
It is disgusting to notice the increase in the quantity of coffee used by my subjects, and the amount of money that goes out of the country in consequence. Everybody is using coffee. If possible, this must be prevented.
He elsewhere groused that “at least 700,000 thaler (approximately $525,000) leave the country annually just for coffee.”
To make sure all coffee money was staying in-country (and therefore in his kingly pockets), Frederick licensed only his friends and supporters to roast and sell coffee (including, by law, “the knighthood, the nobility, commanders and officers, the clergy” and a handful of others). This led, of course, to a thriving black market in unlicensed and untaxed coffee; some enterprising women, in addition to the usual delivery channels like wagons and barges, even sewed special breast pads into their clothes to smuggle the lucrative beans. So many people abandoned their jobs to engage in smuggling that manufacturers had difficulty filling necessary positions.
To combat the illegal coffee trade, in the 1780s Frederick created a special task force of coffee sniffers, called by one writer “the KGBean.” Approximately 400 disabled veterans of the Seven Years’ War were deputized to track down illegal coffee, not only as it was being smuggled (they would station themselves on bridges and sniff the bags of travelers), but even in private homes. One resident of Berlin complained,
Just imagine the excitement when I sat at table with my friends, the door was thrown open, three uniformed men stormed into the room, inspected our cups and turned the kitchen upside down. Fortunately for me, only tea was served that afternoon.
The coffee sniffers were so successful that Prussians resorted to drinking two kinds of coffee: “bean coffee” made from coffee beans, and “coffee” made from chicory, burned bread and less desirable ingredients. Ultimately, the coffee-control legislation, and its crack troop of coffee sniffers, ended after Frederick’s death in 1786.
Everyday Will Be Sunday When the Town Goes Dry
Imagine a world in which every Starbucks is a speakeasy (a little hard to do with almost 33,000 locations worldwide, but work with me). Looking from side-to-side scanning for coffee sniffers, you knock on a door and whisper the password into an open slot: “Mocha Cookie Crumble Frappuccino.” You enter into a cacophony of wild jazz and gyrating flappers as you…uh…actually, it’s just a bunch of hipsters writing screenplays on their Macbooks while John Mayer croons on the sound system. Never mind.
Just go home and mix up a bathtub unicorn frappuccino.
Image: Die Gartenlaube by Louis Katzenstein (1892) (Source).