Do you like the smell of freshly roasted coffee? Do you have a great sense of smell? Can you sniff out a newly poured cup of hot coffee from a few rooms away? If you answered yes to any of these questions, the King of Prussia has a job for you. For a brief six year period between 1781 and 1787, four hundred lucky souls were hired to prowl around the streets of Prussia, sniffing out coffee wherever it was hiding. They were paid surprisingly well for the honor of smelling coffee. These men were called coffee sniffers, and everyone hated them. Wouldn’t you?
Why did the king hire hundreds of people to use their noses for good? It was a form of tax collection tasked with smelling out illegal coffee.
The Great Coffee Tax
In 1781, Prussia found itself in an awkward situation. It was broke. Despite winning the Seven Years’ War, Prussia’s coffers were still empty nearly twenty years later. Prussia could not consolidate its newfound power on the continent without money, so the king of Prussia devised a plan to raise a large amount of taxes in a short period of time. He was going to tax the ever-living sh*t out of coffee.
The king who implemented the coffee tax was Frederick II. His father, Frederick I, had declared coffee a luxury good during his tenure. Many people drank coffee on a daily basis in Prussia, so Frederick II saw an opportunity to make some serious cash. He implemented a luxury tax that targeted fresh cups of coffee.
The coffee tax was raised to 150% of the sale price. Ouch.
Coffee went from a daily commodity to a hard-to-buy luxury overnight. The price of a cup of steaming joe now costs a day’s wages for a low-class worker.
As is natural in the face of any new taxes of this magnitude, people immediately started hiding their coffee. Beans were smuggled. Fresh pots of the brown goodness were brewed in secret and guzzled behind closed doors. Men quit their day jobs to work as grounds smugglers, black-market roasters, and bean brokers.
In response to the flare-up of illegal activity, the king enlisted the help of former soldiers to enforce the new taxes. Thus the coffee sniffers were born.
The Job Of a Coffee Sniffer
Coffee sniffers wore the uniforms of soldiers and carried the authority of the king. They patrolled the streets looking for potential tax evaders. If they caught sight of coffee or a whiff of the delicious scent, they would move in and demand proof of taxes paid. Coffee sniffers also had the authority to enter and search homes. If coffee was found, the owner had to produce the necessary paperwork proving they had paid the hefty taxes on the beans. If the taxes had not been paid, the duty was levied along with a hefty fine that had to be paid alongside the original tax.
These coffee sniffers were heavy-handed and persistent because they had a vested interest in catching the smugglers. They got a 25% cut of any coffee they busted. Between the fines and the taxes and the value of the coffee, it added up. A large bust brought in a lot of money. Good coffee sniffers were paid extremely well.
Due to their ability to enter premises, their immunity from scrutiny, and their persistence, the coffee sniffers quickly became despised by the common people. Anyone who gets between someone and their coffee is never garnering many friends.
Despite the fact that the coffee sniffer era only lasted six years, the hatred and derision towards the profession lingered in Prussia well into the 19th century.
So Was Coffee Sniffer The World’s Greatest Job?
Roaming around smelling coffee sounds great on paper, but it comes with a lot of risks. The biggest drawback was that everyone hated you. Coffee sniffers were no better than the much-maligned Roman tax collectors of the Bible.
The upsides were the fact that you were paid very well, had a relatively easy job, and had access to delicious black-market coffee whenever you made a bust. These freewheeling, freelancing tax enforcers had free range under the law and protection of the king.
If you care more about the smell of fresh coffee than you do about other people’s opinions of you, this might be the job for you. If you like to act with impunity under the law and force your way into well-heeled homes in search of perfectly roasted beans, you would have loved 18th-century Prussia.
Unfortunately, King Frederick II died in 1786, and his luxury tax enforcers were disbanded the following year in 1787. The reign of the coffee sniffers came to an end on the back of Frederick II’s corpse.
* The Coffee Book: Anatomy of an Industry from Crop to the Last Drop
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