That oh so humble and innocent looking dark, warm liquid that greets your mornings, coffee, is anything but. Its full intriguing tail has dancing animals, sex, Ethiopian shepherds, a pope, prohibitions and several religions in it. It is one of the largest traded commodities in the world, has side effects most drugs could only dream about and has been involved in smuggling, slavery and ecological disasters waiting to happen. Do you still think that swirling cup of dark liquid is as innocent and humble as it looks?

Be warned – you will want to have one last pot of coffee, or two, before reading on…

From the time coffee was discovered, man should have known it was up to no good by the way the animals that ate the coffee bush’s berries became highly alert, physically active and sexually rampant.

It’s first recorded use, around 800 AD, was by the Galla tribe in Ethiopia when a shepherd made the connection between his goats eating coffee bush berries and the frisky behavior they then displayed. Not wanting to be left out, he ate some berries and enjoyed the buzz. From that point onwards, until the Arabs, coffee was used as a power boosting pill taken before battles, hunts and anything energetic. And how did they turn berries into power pills? They ground them up, mixed them with animal fat then rolled them into small balls – not quite the coffee we’re used to, is it?

In 1000 AD the Arabs took a liking to coffee and transported it to their homelands where they mass produced it on plantations. Not content with power pills, they learned to boil the berries’ beans to make a beverage they called “qahwa” (literally, “that which prevents sleep.”) which was much to the delight of the local monks whom used it to aid their quest for spiritual enlightenment.

By the time 17th century Italian traders introduced coffee to Europe, fifteenth century Turkey had passed a law making a divorceable offense for a husband not to provide his wife with her daily quota of coffee; and a corrupt 16th century governor of Mecca, Khair Beg, had been executed for trying to ban coffee when he feared that its influence threatened his rule.

On its arrival in Europe, its association with the “Infidel” Ottomans gave it such a threatening influence that pope Clement VIII’s advisors thought it might tempt Europeans to Islam so urged him to ban it; but he refused to do so without trying it first. He evidently enjoyed it because his answer, according to legend, was: “This Satan’s drink is delicious…it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it. We shall fool Satan by baptizing it.” So with the pope’s blessing, it quickly became an acceptable drink throughout Europe.

Within 50 years, coffee houses had become an everyday feature of European towns and cities. The first coffee house in Italy opened in 1645 and in England in 1652. By 1675, there were around 3,000 coffee houses in England alone. In France, coffee houses became the meeting places for like minded individuals to discuss new and revolutionary ideas. Some might attribute the French Revolution to over indulgence in coffee. Apparently, the English did, because they once banned it due its association with rebellious political activities.

The popularity of coffee in North America exploded during the Revolutionary War when the British cut off tea supplies making coffee America’s only real alternative caffeine fix.

Already known for an execution and fueling ideas conducive to political unrest and religious dissent, it’s now accused of being an ecological disaster waiting to happen due to the way it’s grown.

The “traditional shaded method” of growing coffee was ecologically friendly. Plants were grown among trees which provided shade from the Sun and habitats for animals. Although plants grown this way produce better tasting coffee their berries are fewer and take longer to ripen. To speed up the ripening process and increase yields, some farmers have taken to “sun cultivation” in which plants are grown in rows without shade from trees.

Sun ripening usually involves clearing forests and using more fertilizer and pesticide. When trees are used for cover, pests are taken care of by their natural predators that live in the habitats the trees provide so fewer pesticides need to be used; and nutrients are provided by dead insects, dead vegetation and waste products from surrounding vegetation so less man made fertilizer is used. Some of the ecological issues now accredited to coffee are deforestation, pesticide pollution, habitat destruction, and soil and water degradation.

And then there are the side effects…mostly caused by caffeine:

A recent study by psychologists at Durham University, England, suggested that people who drink more than seven cups of coffee per day are more likely to hallucinate than those who drink fewer. Although it’s unclear whether people who are prone to hallucinations drink more coffee or whether the caffeine in coffee prompts the hallucinations, it is clear that people with a high caffeine intake are prone to hearing voices and “feeling the presence” of dead people.

Another study points to caffeine increasing the sexual appetites of females – ever been asked in for coffee at the end of a date, lads? No complaints from me here but I’m sure some (extremely few) might see it differently. Although this effect has been observed in rats it’s thought it may also apply to non-habitual human users.

Males are less fortunate according to an anonymous women’s petition from 1674 that said “…the Excessive Use of that Newfangled, Abominable, Heathenish Liquor called COFFEE… has… Eunucht our Husbands, and Crippled our more kind Gallants, that they are become as Impotent, as Age.” But I’ve read it was used by Arabs to increase potency so perhaps this was just an English problem or just female jealousy of the male frequented coffee houses.

Some of coffee’s more recognizable effects caused by excessive caffeine intake include a fast heart rate, excessive urination, nausea, vomiting, restlessness, anxiety, headaches, depression, tremors, insomnia…

It’s not all bad though – it’s thought that coffee helps to ward off alzheimers, dementia and related diseases. It can increase the capacity for mental or physical labor. It’s also said to improve short-term memory by increasing a person’s ability to recall information related to his or her train of thought; but this improvement comes with a downside – it decreases the ability to recall unrelated information.

It’s also being trialled for use as a fuel: oils extracted from coffee can power diesel engines. Coffee powder has even been compressed into logs and used in steam engines and on home log fires. I hear it smells good.

So the next time you reach for that cup of coffee, remember that it’s estimated 140 liters of water are needed to produce enough beans to make that one drink, it’s a cause of deforestation and soil erosion, political unrest, an execution (or many), hallucinations, over activity of the nervous system and it’s credited with increased sexual arousal in females and impotency in males; and let’s not forget all those slaves that were used to grow the plants forebears. Are you sure you want to sip that?

Of course, moderation’s the key; but, hey, who’s counting?

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