A Cook's Diary

Why Was Coffee Once Known As “Satan’s Drink”?

Christians have been drinking wine for two thousand years but coffee was a no-no until around 500 years ago. Before then, coffee was called “Satan’s drink” and Christians were forbidden from drinking it. Why?

Christians have been drinking wine for two thousand years but coffee was a no-no until around 500 years ago. Before then, coffee was called Satan's drink and Christians were forbidden from drinking it. Why?

There are many legends about how coffee was discovered.

It’s a combination of politics and convoluted logic. Wine was associated with Jesus who, according to Bible stories, turned water into wine and stone into bread. So, drinking wine was more than okay in the Christian world. If Jesus drank wine, how could it be bad?

Coffee, meanwhile, was a popular drink among Muslims.

A short history of coffee

There are many legends on how coffee was discovered. One tells the story about how Kaldi, a goat herder in Ethiopia in the 9th century, observed goat chewing some berries and, as a result, became lively and alert. Kaldi tried the berries himself, felt exhilarated and told an Islamic holy man in a nearby monastery. The holy man disapproved, threw the berries into the fire, the roasting perfumed the air, the roasted berries were gathered and ground, and… coffee was born.

There are many legends about how coffee was discovered. One involves a goat herder, a second tells of a sheik in exile while a third tells of civet cats.

Fresh coffee beans

The second legend tells about a sheik named Omar who lived in exile in the desert in Mocha (part of Yemen). Hungry one day, he chewed berries which he found bitter. He roasted them but they became too hard to be chewed. Finally, he boiled them, and the first coffee drink was born.

A third legend involves civet cats… But, legends aside, the first documentation of coffee appeared in the 11th century. At the time, the plant was called bunn and the drink made from its beans was buncham. Even then, it was already known as a stimulant.

Catholic priests’ twisted logic

While most authors agree that coffee was first drank in Ethiopia, it was in Yemen where it began to be cultivated — for religious purposes. Coffee was drank in Sufi monasteries for stimulation during prayer.

From Yemen, coffee spread to the Arab countries where drinking wine was banned. By the mid-1500’s, the Arab world was completely enamored of the stimulating effects of coffee that coffee houses opened in Cairo, Syria, Aleppo and Istanbul.

Christians have been drinking wine for two thousand years but coffee was a no-no until around 500 years ago. Before then, coffee was called Satan's drink and Christians were forbidden from drinking it. Why?

Coffee has long been a popular drink in Arab countries.

So, you have Christians drinking wine while the Muslims were drinking coffee for the same reason — to experience altered states. In the Arab world, not everyone was happy with the coffee craze as some likened the effects on consuming alcohol. During the rule of Sultan Murad IV in the Ottoman Empire, drinking coffee was a capital offense.

As coffee drinking spread across Europe, Catholic priests were up in arms. Citing Coffee: The Revolutionary Drink for Pleasure and Health, Grandmotherafrica.com observes:

The logic was convoluted. As the book explains, these Christian priests in Europe believed that “Muslims worshiped the devil and that the devil forbade his followers from drinking wine, as that drink was reserved for those who followed Jesus. So the devil provided coffee, instead.”

And that was how coffee came to be known as Satan’s drink. Just how did all the stupidity end? Curiously, it was the Catholic Pope that put an end to all the nonsense. Or so the story goes.

Pope Clement VIII declares coffee as delicious

So, we come to the part that inspired this post — the claim that it was Pope Clement VIII who finally made coffee acceptable to Christians. Well, to Catholics, at least.

Pope Clement VIII put an end to the Christian ban on coffee drinking

Pope Clement VIII put an end to the Christian ban on coffee drinking | Scene from Metropolis, Episode 3 | Image credit: Netflix

I came across the anecdote in the third episode of Metropolis (now on Netflix).

Drinking Satan’s drink became such a controversy Pope Clement VIII had to intervene. His infallible palate would decide coffee’s fate once and for all. According to legend, he declared, “This devil’s drink is delicious. We should cheat the devil by baptizing it.” With his blessing, coffee quickly spread throughout Europe and eventually the world.

Did that really happen? Well, even Metropolis calls the Pope Clement VIII reference a “legend”.

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