A History of Coffee in Norway, Part Two

A History of Coffee in Norway, Part Two

By Chris Kolbu

In this series of articles, we’ll be taking a trip through Norwegian history as it pertains to coffee, stopping here and there to shed light, briefly, on important personalities and formative events.

As we enter into the 19th century, we’ll take a look at how coffee won over its harshest opponent and built ties that would later bolster its popularity even more.

The first bout of opposition came about in 1783. By order of the Danish king, a so-called luxury regulation was passed into law: it sought to limit the extent and frequency with which people could enjoy luxury goods, of which coffee was one.

Peasants were hit the hardest. The luxury regulation clamped down hard on all festivities: limits on how long a wedding celebration could go on, what fabrics could be worn, how much alcohol could be served, and last but not least, a total ban on coffee consumption.

In a hardscrabble existence brightened every now and then by celebrations and gatherings that in many ways defined the rhythms of their lives (birth, marriage, death), this luxury regulation was, understandably, met with resistance.

Interestingly, the stated reason for this regulation was to alleviate Royal dismay with perceived “insolent levels of exuberance” among its subjects. To what extent these regulations were actually enforced is anyone’s guess, as it was made the responsibility of the local lensmann (an appointed sheriff of sorts) to put into action.

It is hard to imagine any law more likely to inspire severe displeasure among the populace.

The law was repealed in 1799, and farmers were once more free to engage in insolent levels of exuberance, as—apparently—was their wont.

The predominantly Lutheran church of Norway was adamantly opposed to coffee, both as an intoxicant and as a frivolous luxury. However, they, much like muslim scholars and catholic popes before them, had no real choice but to reluctantly admit it was quite the unstoppable force they were dealing with.

clementThe aroma of coffee is far too pleasant for it to be the work of the devil. This beverage is so delicious that it would be a pity if Muslims were the only ones to enjoy it. We shall drive Satan crazy by baptising it and making it a true ‘Christian beverage’.

—Pope Clement VIII, 1603 (from this book)

200 years later, rather than oppose coffee openly, the Lutheran church opted for the venerable tactic of fence-sitting, carefully wrapping their anti-coffee sentiments in layers of scepticism, while maintaining a stern line of tacit disapproval. In many ways, it was a bit of a stalemate.

Only 20 years later the church had completely reversed their stand and now embraced coffee openly. What could possibly have motivated the church to change its mind this quickly?

Something worse. And truth be told, it was quite bad.

In 1816, two years after the Danish-Norwegian union had ceased, a law was passed that liberalised home distillation: If you owned land, you were now free to use as much of your crop as you wanted to make and distill your own spirits. As you would expect, things went completely off the rails.

The church, working with a rapidly swelling organisation known as the temperance movement, urging the prohibition or abstinence from hard spirits—not wine or beer—realised that coffee was by far the lesser evil. “Bring a cup and saucer, coffee will be served” became a popular line in adverts for meetings in the fight against spirits. It could even be argued that coffee became a symbol of the temperance movement.

Sipping from the Saucer

Søren Sommerfelt, a priest in Salten, Nordland wrote in one of his letters of 1824 that “spirits are consumed all year round. Most drink at least their morning spirit—a fasting dram before breakfast—but to their great misfortune, not everyone leaves it at that.” He goes on to write that he hopes coffee consumption will increase in the area.

The results of this unlikely alliance between the church, the temperance movement and coffee were immediately felt. As early as 1820, a general store in rural Elverum reported that coffee was the third most selling item and represented 11% of their sales.

The temperance struggle peaked in 1842, when the Storting (“grand council”, the unicameral parliament of Norway) voted to ban home production of spirits. It was vetoed by the king, but a slightly reworded law passed the next session, severely restricting both production and serving of spirits.

The fight was over, but not in the way you would think: coffee was now solidly embraced by all levels of society. The irony of having defeated the most popular depressant intoxicant (alcohol) with the most popular stimulant intoxicant was hopefully not lost on people back then!

In any case, “defeated” might be too strong a word: alcohol consumption kept rising until it peaked in the 1870-1880s at 7 litres of pure spirits per year, which incidentally is more or less equal to current-day consumption. Coffee consumption, perhaps more tellingly, was up from the 200-350 grams of 1780-95 to around 2,5kg in 1845, a tenfold increase!

It was now, in the mid-19th century, that coffee truly became a drink of the masses. In the next article, we’ll have a look at how that played out.

Continue reading Part Three.

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