Coffee grounds: Sunergos, Jesus, Yarmuth … and Schivelbusch.


Yesterday’s hyperbolic local social media culture war over Christian caffeine led me straight to one of the most influential books I’ve ever read, Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s Tastes of Paradise: A social history of spices, stimulants and intoxicants.

In a moment, a key passage about coffee from the book. First, what the most recent fuss is all about. For the Sunergos side of the story, visit with Sara Havens here.

Dark coffee: LEO’s expulsion from Sunergos, the facts and why you should care, by Aaron Yarmuth (Louisville Ecentric Observer)

This is one of those reasons LEO was started in 1990.

On Monday, Sunergos Coffee called LEO to ask that the paper no longer be distributed at its shops. The business has since cited the “family-friendly” environment of its shops and “the increasingly sexually explicit content and advertising.” The call was made before we published our Valentine’s Day issue, featuring four recently-married couples. On the cover was a beautiful picture of one couple, two women, kissing. It embodied the story inside.

So, it is unfortunate that the shops’ customers will miss the story of these beautiful families.

LEO’s removal has sparked a public controversy on Facebook and Twitter, as people wondered whether the coffee shop was reacting to our Valentine’s Day story. This is intended to provide facts and context.

We’ve been thrown out of plenty of establishments before, and we will undoubtedly be tossed out again. But we definitely won’t stop printing stories and photographs that reflect the community, and those that provoke discussions on important issues. We also will not stop running ads from legal businesses, including those that provide adult entertainment. LEO has been running those since its first issues. In fact, LEO runs significantly fewer adult-oriented ads today than it has in the past (much to our dismay).

While we disagree and are disappointed with the coffee business’ decision, we feel it is important to defend its right to carry, or not carry, any publication it chooses. We also want to make sure that the business is not unjustly criticized for dropping us because of this issue, or the beautiful cover.

There. That’s the story …

As an aside, Yarmuth correctly observes, complaints about LEO’s adult advertising content have occurred from the start, and historically, they seem to have been equally divided between preachers and feminists. These ads are undeniably tacky, though I’ve never been as offended by them as those purchased by Budweiser.

On Friday, numerous individuals on social media were busy surveying the extent of Christian influence on local coffee. Had they been paying attention, it would have been recalled that not even three years ago (July 23, 2014), Gabe Bullard got there first.

How Christianity Shapes Louisville’s Coffee Culture, (WFPL-89.3)

… It may not have converted anyone, but nearly every serious coffee drinker in Louisville has been affected in some way by the actions of Christians behind the counter. Many of the early purveyors of pourover brewing, latte art and various techniques of the so-called Third Wave of coffee have been either devout Christians or employed by devout Christians. And the attraction to coffee isn’t driven by scripture. Rather, it’s scripture that inspires the quality of the drinks.

More recently, conspiracy theorists will note that Caitlin Bowling’s Insider Louisville story about the advent of New Albany’s new 410 Bakery (it serves Sunergos coffee, by the way) includes the owner’s explanation of the name.

While 410 Bakery may seem odd for a business with the address number 140, (Emily) Butts said she came up with it because it is the address of her current Patrol Road space and also corresponds to one of her favorite Bible verses, 1 Peter 4:10: “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.”

In this long but essential excerpt from a 1997 review of the book by David Denborough (Dulwich Centre Newsletter), Schivelbusch is seen to demonstrate that the connection between Christianity (in the beginning, stemming from the Protestant Refromation) can be traced much further back in Western history than the more recent founding of Sojourn Church.

Obviously, none of these linkages have ever stopped this particular atheist from enjoying coffee, a beverage brought to Christian Europe by invading Muslim Turks.

At any rate, as you’re about to see, coffee turns out to have been about sex (or its absence) all along. Take it away, David and Wolfgang.

The birth of Puritanism

When the Reformation tried to redefine the relationship between the individual and God, it also sought to regulate the relationship between individuals and alcohol. Schivelbusch argues that these attempts were ‘laying an essential foundation in both realms for the development of capitalism’ (p.34). It was the Protestant work ethic that sought initially to alter relationships with alcohol. From that time on, attempts to work on issues of alcohol and other drug-related problems have often been influenced by the moral prescriptions of Puritanism. What do these histories mean for those of us wanting to find collaborative ways of working on such problems today?

According to Schivelbusch the social drinking habits and relationships of pre-industrial Europe were very strong and it therefore took more than Puritan ideology to condemn ‘Demon Alcohol’ (p.34). Attempts to prohibit toasting rituals repeatedly failed to achieve desired results. The way Schivelbusch describes it, alcohol consumption only dropped when broader changes occurred in the society – changes that came:

With a more highly developed society and economy … a higher degree of work discipline – and also a new group of beverages that could replace the old ones. For without substitute the existing traditions would not disappear … These requirements were fulfilled by the new hot beverages that reached Europe in the 17th Century – above all, coffee, (p.34)


Coffee functioned as a historically significant drug. It spread through the body and achieved chemically and pharmacologically what rationalism and the Protestant ethic sought to fulfill spiritually and ideologically. With coffee, the principle of rationality entered human psychology, transforming it to conform with its own requirements. The result was a body which functioned in accord with the new demands – a rationalistic, middle-class, forward-looking body. (p.39)

Schivelbusch writes of the social meanings that are to be found in the rise in popularity of coffee as the drug of choice in 17th century. With the rise of Puritanism, coffee began to be seen as ‘awakening a drowsy humanity from its alcoholic stupor to middle-class commonsense and industry’ (p.34). Schivelbusch describes the ways in which the effects of caffeine, including the ways in which it enhances mental activity and speeds perception and judgement, make coffee ‘the beverage of the modern bourgeois age’ (p.34).

Coffee promised to lengthen and intensify the time available for work and what’s more it was seen as anti-erotic. It replaced ‘sexual arousal with stimulation of the intellect’ (p.37). This combination, according to Schivelbusch, made coffee the ideal Puritan drink: ‘Coffee as the beverage of sobriety and coffee as the means of curbing the sexual urges, it is not hard to recognise the ideological forces behind this reorientation’ (p.37). There developed a moral imperative, in the minds of some, to drink coffee rather than alcohol.

Schivelbusch also briefly touches upon how coffee houses became centres for communication, and how these centres were often exclusively male. He describes how the increasing use of coffee and the exclusion of women was protested:

In 1764 a broadside caused a great sensation in London. Its title: ‘The Women’s Petition Against Coffee.’ … The text expressed in no uncertain terms the fear that coffee would make ‘men [as] unfruitful as those deserts whence that unhappy berry is said to be brought’. It is easy to identify the sociopolitical impulse behind this complaint: the English coffeehouses of this period excluded women, and in their pamphlet the women were rebelling against the increasing patriarchalisation of society. That this opposition should use the argument that coffee makes men impotent shows, on the one hand how powerful this notion was at the time, and on the other, how unpuritannical, indeed how anti-puritannical, the women of this time were, (p.37)