Most Americans, including me, begin their day with a nice, hot cup of coffee. The beverage is so widely used that it is estimated that 2.25 billion cups of coffee are consumed daily, worldwide. This suggests that a third of the world’s population relies on its tasty kick to help them through the day. What has been largely forgotten, however, is that this popular drink was once considered a “bitter invention of Satan” and was shunned by the Western world.
According to an ancient chronicle, a man named Omar was living in a desert cave in Ethiopia. Hungry, Omar chewed berries from nearby shrubbery, but found them to be bitter. He tried roasting the beans to improve the flavor, but they became hard. He then tried boiling them to soften the bean, which resulted in a fragrant brown liquid. Upon drinking the liquid Omar was revitalized and sustained for days.
Omar shared his discovery and the drink quickly achieved popularity in the Middle East, although it was seen by some as a vice akin to alcohol and tobacco. Coffee was met with harsher criticism when it came to Western society. The association with Muslims fanned the flames of prejudice and it was commonly dubbed “Satan’s Drink.”
In 1600, when members of his Papal Court implored Pope Clement VIII to denounce coffee, the pontiff insisted on trying a cup before he cast his verdict. After a few sips, he said, “This Satan’s drink is so delicious that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it.”
Popular tradition holds that the pope then “baptized” coffee beans in order to cleanse them from the devil’s influence. Historians are unclear whether this was a metaphorical baptism, or if the pope performed an exorcism rite on actual beans, but either way it had the same effect. Once Catholics knew they were allowed to drink coffee, it spread through Europe like wildfire.
Coffee drinkers everywhere should remember to thank good Pope Clement VIII for his role in allowing to enjoy our daily brew.