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#AdventCalendar: The coffee-hating king behind Sweden's 'first clinical trial'

Catherine Edwards
Catherine Edwards - [email protected]
#AdventCalendar: The coffee-hating king behind Sweden's 'first clinical trial'
These days, coffee is a key part of Swedish culture, but after it was first introduced it was often viewed with suspicion. Photo: Jessica Gow / SCANPIX/TT

Each day of December up until Christmas Eve, The Local is sharing the story behind a surprising Swedish fact as part of our own Advent calendar.


Today, the people of Sweden are among the world's top coffee drinkers, and fika (a break for coffee and pastry) is a sacred tradition they've exported globally.

But it only arrived to the country in the second half of the 17th century, and didn't enjoy popularity until the early 18th century when it became the fashionable beverage for upper class households.

In 1746, a royal edict was issued against the consumption of both tea and coffee, which meant anyone who drank them would have to pay heavy taxes or face having their kitchenware confiscated. Coffee was later banned completely.

King Gustav III was so convinced of the ill effects of coffee in particular that he ordered an experiment to be carried out. 

He set out to prove the dangers of caffeine through a kind of early 'clinical trial'. He submitted two identical twin prisoners, who had been facing the death penalty, to drink large amounts (three pots) of coffee or tea every day: coffee for one twin, tea for the other.

As it turned out, the coffee-drinker outlasted not only his brother but also the king and the two doctors who had been supervising the 'experiment'.

Sweden wasn't the only place where rulers were suspicious of coffee, and around the same time as King Gustav III was carrying out his experiment, Prussia's Frederick the Great hit out at the "disgusting" coffee consumption, apparently saying "my people must drink beer" and that coffee-drinkers couldn't be depended upon to protect the country in the event of war. He went as far as to employ people to detect the scent of the beverage on people walking in the street, and fine those who smelt of coffee.

Modern authorities in Sweden disagree with both Gustav and Frederick, and if you've been reading earlier Advent Calendar articles, you'll remember that for several decades Sweden actually kept warehouses full of coffee, precisely because they thought it would be important in keeping up morale in the event of war.

Each day until Christmas Eve, The Local is looking at the story behind one surprising fact about Sweden, as agreed by our readers. Find the rest of our Advent Calendar HERE and sign up below to get an email notification when there's a new article.




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