Imagine the following: You are still sitting slightly sleepy and unsuspecting at your morning coffee. Suddenly your door is pushed open and uniformed gentlemen turn your house upside down and sniff at everything that comes under their noses. Fortunately, you have been able to quickly down the remains of your coffee and throw the packet of beans out of the window – because that is exactly what the gentlemen are looking for: Coffee!
That could have been your lot in Prussia at the beginning of the 1780s. But let’s start from the beginning: Contrary to all prejudices and concerns about the beverage, which we can hardly imagine our everyday life without, coffee initially established itself in the select circles of society in the course of the 18th century. But the beverage also enjoyed increasing popularity among large sections of the common population. Despite the instruction that the common people should rather drink beer and thus boost the domestic economy, coffee also gained acceptance in Prussia.
The Prussian treasury was severely strapped by wars, crop failures and other problems in the early 1780s. King Frederick II, also known as “Frederick the Great,” was forced to levy various luxury taxes on salt, tobacco, wigs and also coffee. Particularly in the case of coffee, the problem for him was that vast amounts of money were flowing abroad and not into the domestic coffers. But the taxation, which amounted to up to 150 percent of the actual price of coffee, proved to be insufficient: smuggling flourished! Even small quantities of unroasted coffee beans brought in so much money that coffee smuggling became more lucrative for many people than pursuing their actual professions.
Of course, the king could not tolerate these unpleasant developments, so he monopolized the coffee trade by edict on January 21, 1781, following the example of England. There, coffee had been heavily taxed for some time, subjected to drastic import duties and could only be sold roasted. But even that was not enough for the great Frederick: from then on, roasting in Prussia was only allowed in places designated by him, except for the nobility, the military, the clergy, higher officials and other persons favored by him. Roasted coffee could only be sold to the people at licensed places in Berlin and the provinces – but there, of course, at completely inflated prices!
But because these measures were not enough to counteract the widespread smuggling of coffee, the king unceremoniously hired 400 veterans of the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) who, as war invalids, had no employment. These uniformed gentlemen were very well paid and were supposed to sniff out illegally roasted coffee, turn in smugglers and collect heavy fines. Popularly known as “coffee sniffers,” they were even authorized to search homes and conduct body searches. The very unpopular snoopers were in action until 1787, blowing up the occasional coffee party and getting to the bottom of unsuspecting people. However, they were unable to put a significant stop to smuggling.
Coffee was only taxed less after the death of Frederick II and became affordable again for large parts of the population. Only this measure finally increased the longed-for tax revenues – but by then it was already too late for His Majesty.