The Cheat Sheet

How a Swiss move stirs up a storm in a coffee cup

Venky Vembu | Updated on April 17, 2019

What move would this be?

Last week, the Swiss government said it plans to do away with the nation’s “emergency stockpile” of coffee, which it began building up after the First World War. The decision isn’t final yet, but the government is leaning in that direction.

What reason does it cite for this decaf move?

The Swiss Federal Office for National Economic Supply (which oversees the stockpiles of commodities to safeguard against shortages caused by wars and natural disasters) concluded provocatively that “coffee… is not essential for life.”

No wonder you’re frothing at the mouth!

Why would I not? Try telling that to any filter kaapi addict in South India, for whom the day is not deigned to have dawned until the aromatic, caffeinated brew has been ingested in the right fashion: by tossing it from davara to tumbler, and whipping up a frothy concoction...

Don’t you mean ‘decoction’?

You jest, but the Swiss government’s observations, which have stirred up coffee lovers badly, are nothing to laugh about.

Why, what did it say?

Explaining its rationale for the end of stockpiling, it said that coffee has “almost no calories”, and subsequently “does not contribute, from the physiological perspective, to safeguarding nutrition.”

Is that a flawed understanding?

If you knew of coffee’s colourful history, you wouldn’t say that.

So, tell me more.

According to folklore, the pleasures of coffee were brought unto this world when an Ethiopian goatherd noticed that his herd became extraordinarily frisky after eating a certain berry. Given its roots in Arabic culture, coffee found itself at the centre of a religious war in the 16th century.


Christian priests wanted the ‘Muslim drink’ banned because it was breeding a curious addiction among their flock. But Pope Clement VIII, after a sip of the “Satan’s drink”, pronounced it so delicious “that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it.” He then ordained that the coffee be “baptised” and made a “truly Christian beverage” so as to “fool Satan”.

A crafty move!

In the 17th century, coffee, to which Europeans had taken a fondness, was the focus of numerous pseudo-scientific studies; some attributed miraculous healing powers to it, while others asserted that it caused paralysis and impotence. One Parisian doctor, who had evidently ingested the coffee in non-traditional ways, prescribed “coffee enemas” to “sweeten” the lower bowel and impart a glow to one’s complexion.

And to this day, actress Gwyneth Paltrow, who runs a lifestyle business, promotes a coffee enema that can be administered at home.

I did not need to know that!

Okay, to change the subject, the Swiss move is significant for the global ‘coffee economy’ for many reasons. Almost 90 per cent of coffee cultivation happens in developing economies, whereas the consumers are predominantly in developed countries. And price declines (of the sort that might be triggered when countries do away with stockpiles) are ruinous for farmers. After oil, coffee is the most valued export commodity, but as the 2006 documentary film Black Gold noted, the trade is in the grip of multinational coffee companies, to whom farmers lose out. Worse, as political scientist Isaac A Kamola argued in a 2007 paper, the 1994 genocide in Rwanda was as much rooted in the exploitative global coffee economy as on ethnic fault-lines.


There may be a storm brewing in your coffee cup.

A weekly column that helps you ask the right questions

Published on April 17, 2019

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