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Once upon a time, when coffee was illegal in Sweden… say what now?

Småland-based writer and historical researcher Victoria Martinez explains why Sweden once thought coffee was so dangerous they banned it no less than five times.

Once upon a time, when coffee was illegal in Sweden... say what now?
An espresso machine. Photo: Anders Wiklund/TT

Congratulations! You’ve been selected to travel back in time. Unfortunately, you’re being transported to a time in Swedish history when coffee was illegal. But, hey, you can at least take comfort knowing that there will be plenty of people waiting to greet you holding a sign reading, “Welcome to Hell”.

Okay, not exactly. But they might very well be holding funerals for coffee pots, as was done on 1 August 1794, when the Swedish government passed yet another ban on the importation and consumption of coffee – the fourth of five enacted between 1756 and 1817. By this point, many people were understandably at their wit’s end. Justifiably, too, since a caffeine fix was pretty hard to get otherwise.

One British traveler to Sweden, Dr. Thomas Thomson, wrote glowingly of Swedish coffee in 1812 (a time when it was legal), “You can get coffee in the meanest peasant’s house and it is always excellent,” but despairingly of the alternative, “Swedish tea is just as bad as their coffee is good”.

“The Swedish tea is so weak,” he wrote, as if beginning a bad joke, “that happening one evening to sit by the lady who was pouring it out, it struck me that she had actually forgot to put in any tea, and was pouring out nothing but hot water…”.

READ ALSO: Ten places to get a perfect cup of coffee in Sweden

Of course, there were other alternatives, such as those suggested by Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, who published a dissertation on coffee in 1761. He recommended Swedes drink a replacement beverage made from hot water and items like ground burnt beans, nuts or toast.

A Swedish coffee pot. Photo: Maja Suslin/TT

Not surprisingly, during times of coffee prohibition, people managed to figure out ways of getting coffee, even on pain of having their cups and dishes confiscated as a punishment. If you happened to be a prisoner facing execution, you might even have your sentence commuted so you could become a royal guinea pig, as when King Gustav III supposedly “experimented” with identical twin prisoners.

In what is facetiously called Sweden’s first clinical trial, one of the twin brothers was forced to drink large amounts of coffee every day while the other was made to drink equal amounts of tea in order to prove coffee shortened life. As it turned out, the King died first, by assassination, in 1792, followed by the two doctors appointed to oversee the experiment. The tea-drinking prisoner died at the ripe-old age of 83. The last to go – nobody quite knows when – was the one who was supposed to experience an early and agonizing death by coffee.

Even when the penalties were increased to include possible prison time, coffee was regularly recorded by travelers to Sweden during times of prohibition. Almost immediately after she stepped on shore in Sweden in June 1795, English author and philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft enjoyed a meal in the home of a retired naval lieutenant, followed “with some degree of mystery, …[by] some excellent coffee.” It was only later she realized it was illegal, but she went on to record many more occasions on her journey when she enjoyed coffee in Swedish homes.

King Gustav III. Not a fan of coffee. Photo: Dan Hansson/TT

Maybe there really was something about Mary, because another English traveler, clergyman Edward Daniel Clarke, seemed to have an entirely different experience some years later. Writing in his early 19th-century travel books, he was quick to reassure his (perhaps more pious) readers that although Swedes were happy to keep coffee on hand to serve their foreign guests, they patriotically refused it themselves.

He reported, “One respectable old gentleman said, that ‘no Swede who loved his country would ever taste… an article which had contributed so largely to its ruin’.” Even, he asserted, “…the most gay and dissipated of the young Swedes refuse to drink it…”. They all, he claimed, much preferred the “Tea-Water,” which – he agreed with Dr. Thomson – was “nothing more than warm water served in small tea-cups”.

Clearly, the Reverend Mr. Clarke never came into contact with any of the people writing “coffee ban poetry” in memorial to their beloved beverage. One poem, written in 1766 as yet another ban was enacted, was a “farewell” to “our dear coffee… you sweet drink… [that] made me think witty”.

READ ALSO: Here’s where to have the best fika experience in Sweden

But you’re not likely to be very witty when you’re dead or constipated, which is just what you would be if you drank coffee. At least, that is, according to Carl Linnaeus, who claimed coffee caused everything from hemorrhoids and constipation to senility and sudden death. (Tobacco, on the other hand, was great, he believed, especially for preventing and treating a variety of illnesses).

Not that Linnaeus was opposed to using coffee for purely practical personal reasons. According to Wilfrid Blunt in his book, Linnaeus: The Compleat Naturalist:

“Linnaeus, when Physician to the Admiralty in 1740, used to find that by the end of the morning he felt quite sick from the halitosis of his patients; but by drinking at a gulp about a quarter of a pint of black, unsweetened coffee he gained immediate relief.”

Who wouldn’t risk senility under such circumstances?

Carl Linnaeus. A closet coffee fan. Photo: Pressens bild/TT

However genuine concerns over the negative health effects of coffee may have been, they were not the primary drivers of the Swedish coffee bans. The real threat, it was perceived, was not to public health, but to the Swedish culture and economy.

According to Professor Ina Baghdiantz McCabe in her book, Orientalism in Early Modern France, “Linnaeus argued that Europeans, and not simply Swedes, should abandon such immorally wasteful forms of sociability as drinking coffee”. Linnaeus was apparently not alone in believing that coffee drinking was a French “foreign custom” that was, he said, “infecting our people”.

An essay published in The Edinburgh Annual Register for 1817, published by Sir Walter Scott, spoke to the latter motivation. Sweden introduced the last coffee ban, it stated, because it “fancied that the trade of the kingdom would be improved by prohibiting the introduction of coffee at all… Soon after, the use of Swedish coffee, or any thing resembling coffee, was prohibited, as affording a cover for the introduction of the real drug”.

Modern scholars agree, including the late Professor Calestous Juma, who wrote in his 2016 book, Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies, that the Swedish coffee bans were “largely motivated by the mercantilist doctrine of the time” and “the general crisis in European trade from the 1760s”.

Even if many Swedes managed to drink coffee in spite of the coffee bans, they still may have experienced some pretty nasty side effects. A keen social and political observer, Mary Wollstonecraft recognized this, noting, “The prohibition of drinking coffee under a penalty, and the encouragement given to public distilleries, tend to impoverish the poor…”.

Neither did the bans appear to help the economy. As the essay in the Edinburgh Annual Register noted, despite the expectation that “an improvement would be made in the exchanges… soon after all the principal Banks in Stockholm broke, and at Christiana [now Oslo; Norway was then under Swedish rule] all business was at a stand…”.

After the fifth and final Swedish coffee ban ended in 1822, Sweden quickly began its ascent to becoming one of the leading per capita consumers of coffee in the world. Today, Sweden is schooling the world on how to do coffee breaks the fika way. And I, for one, am extremely grateful that the central component of this tradition is not hot burnt-bean water.

Victoria Martínez is an American historical researcher, writer and author of three historical non-fiction books. She lives in Småland county, Sweden, with her Spanish husband and their two children.

Read more from her family and history column on The Local here.

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For members


Five facts about Sweden’s Nobel prizes

Since 1901, Nobel prizes have been awarded for work that has led to great advances for mankind, in line with the wishes of inventor Alfred Nobel. The winners of this year's prizes will be announced daily from October 3rd-10th. Here are five facts about the prizes and their creator.

Five facts about Sweden's Nobel prizes

Posthumous awards

Since 1974, the statutes of the Nobel Foundation stipulate that the prize may not be given posthumously. But a person may be awarded if she or he dies between the time of the announcement in October and the formal prize ceremony in December.

Before the change, only two people had won a Nobel posthumously. One was Dag Hammarskjöld, the Swedish secretary general of the United Nations who died in a plane crash in 1961 but was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize later the same year.

And in 1931, the Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded posthumously to another Swede, Erik Axel Karlfeldt.

In 2011, the medicine prize committee selected Ralph Steinman of Canada, unaware that he had passed away just three days before the prize announcement.

Nevertheless, the foundation decided to give him the award.

A fortune for a Nobel

The Nobel Prizes come with a tidy prize sum, currently set at 10 million kronor ($895,000) per discipline, along with an 18-carat gold medal.

The 2021 Peace Prize laureate, Dmitry Muratov, turned his gold disc into a fortune to benefit Ukrainian children displaced by the war.

In June, his 196-gram medal — including 150 grams of gold — sold at auction for a whopping $103.5 million to an anonymous philanthropist. That smashed the previous record for a Nobel medal 21-fold.

A misunderstanding?

On April 12, 1888, Alfred Nobel’s elder brother Ludvig died in Cannes, France.

But newspaper Le Figaro mixed up the brothers and announced Alfred’s death on its front page under a rather inflammatory headline: “A man who can hardly be called a benefactor of humanity died yesterday in Cannes. He is Nobel, inventor of dynamite”.

Many credit this slight as the inspiration for Nobel’s creation of the prizes, pointing to the wording in his will that the awards should go to those who “have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind”.

“But we can only imagine” that this is what happened because the incident is not mentioned in his correspondence, his biographer Ingrid Carlberg told AFP.

As for the visitors who came to offer their condolences at the inventor’s Parisian mansion, they were surprised to be greeted by a very much alive Alfred, as reported by Le Figaro the following day.

1903 Nobel to pioneering climate researcher

A man of many talents, Swedish physicist and chemist Svante Arrhenius won the 1903 Chemistry Prize for his “electrolytic theory of dissociation”.

But he is now more widely recognised for his other pioneering work: at the end of the 19th century, he was the first to theorise that the combustion of fossil energy  – which at the time was primarily coal — emits carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and leads to global warming.

According to his calculations, a doubling of CO2 emissions would heat the planet by five degrees Celsius; current models suggest a range between 2.6 and 3.9 degrees Celsius.

However, completely unaware of just how much fossil fuel the world would go on to consume, Arrhenius underestimated the speed at which this level would be reached, predicting it would take 3,000 years.

New prizes, even richer

With 120 years under their belt and a name associated throughout the world with excellence, the Nobel prizes are considered the creme de la creme of awards.

But some critics consider them to be archaic, often honouring discoveries made decades ago and not taking into account newer scientific fields.

The Right Livelihood Award was therefore created in 1980 by a German-Swedish philanthropist after the Nobel Foundation refused to create two new prizes for the environment and international development.

Finland created the one-million-euro Millennium Technology Prize in 2002 to recognise the role technology plays in solving global challenges, while the $1 million Kavli Prizes in Norway have since 2008 honoured discoveries in the fields of astrophysics, nanoscience and neuroscience.

But the richest prize of them all is the most recent one, the Breakthrough Prize created in 2010 by a group of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. Dubbed the “Oscars for Science”, they come with a cheque for $3 million, more than three times the winnings of a Nobel Prize.