Invigorating and calming beverages

Coffee and tea are tart, hops taste bitter. In both coffee and tea there is caffeine which is invigorating, while hop extract is calming and sleep inducing. Before hops were brought in to Sweden the Norsemen made mead from sweet gale and saffron. Also tea made from chamomile flowers have a calming effect.

Coffee – rat poison or miracle medicine?

The red berries, or, erroneously, coffee
beans of the coffee bush are rich in
caffeine and are roasted and used in
a rather bitter drink.
Photo: Fredrik Karlsson.

Coffee came to Sweden for the first time, somewhere around 1674. Only a small amount arrived, but that was just the beginning. Nowadays people in Sweden consume on average 11 kg coffee per person every year and this is only surpassed by the Finns who consume 12.8 kg.

In 2005 the world production of coffee was 7.7 million tons and Brazil produced more than a quarter of this. There are around seventy different kinds of coffee but the most important beans come from the bush Coffea arabica, which has 70% of the market.

Coffee breaks – an intellectual activity
Coffee houses began to appear in big cities, most significantly London, during the 17th and 18th centuries. They became the meeting places of men with intellectual interests. At that time coffee breaks were an all-male event. Coffee houses were important for spreading news. Politics, literature and science were discussed over a cup of coffee. Many radical thinkers, great philosophers and famous authors made their breakthroughs at these places.

At home Linnaeus considered himself a Turk!
Linnaeus realised that you had to behave like a Frenchman at the Royal Swedish Court, “but when we are at home, we live like Turks: a long and wide dressing gown, loose slippers, a big and white cap, we smoke our tobacco just like Turks; so that the Turks have taught us to dress at home and to drink coffee.”

The team leader of
Sweden’s first clinical trial
never saw the result of his

In general, Linnaeus considered that coffee was good for you and a bracing drink as long as it was taken in moderation and not too near bedtime. However, he also pondered over a French doctor’s declaration in 1715 that coffee shortened a man’s life. In this connection it can be noted that according to a story the King Gustav III should have carried out an experiment on two identical twins who were serving life sentences. He gave one of them three pots of coffee a day and the other tea, in order to see if the drinks affected their lifespan. This is jokingly referred to as the first Swedish clinical trial. Sadly Gustav III did not live to see the final result of his experiment, but the first twin died at the age of 83. The one who drank tea! The authenticity of the story has been questioned.

Coffee against sleep 
Coffee beans contain between 0.8 and 2.5% of the alkaloid caffeine. Studies have shown that coffee awakens one’s thoughts with lively associations and an increased ability to see combinations. The feeling is clearest when you are most tired. These are mainly subjective judgements but similar results have been obtained from more objective measurements. Coffee affects the heart by increasing the heart beat. It has been proved scientifically that it can take longer to go to sleep after having drunk coffee or taken caffeine. In addition it has been shown that the intake stimulates the acidity of the stomach. Nobody has been able to prove that coffee causes stomach ulcers although it can make existing ones worse. The tannic acids that are often found in coffee can be disguised with the help of milk. It is not just the diluting effect that leads to a more pleasant taste, it is also because the proteins in the milk bind the tannin. Both coffee and caffeine are potent diuretics.


Tea leaves contain more
caffeine than coffee
Photo: Gunnar Samuelsson.

Tea, in general, is a drink that consists of a hot water infusion of mainly leaves and flowers from various trees and herbs, but it can more specifically be from the leaves of the special tea tree, Camelia sinensis (previously Thea sinensis). Having been harvested, the leaves are dried. When crushed and fermented, enzymes are released that oxidise the tannic substances that occur in the tea leaves which become blackened. The caffeine content of the tea leaf is higher than in coffee beans: between 2.5 and 4.5%. In the actual drink, there is nearly twice the amount of caffeine in coffee as in tea. In addition, tea contains 0.02-0.04% theaflavin and about 0.05% teobromine.

Is black and bitter the main thing?

The root of chicory, or
serpent garlic, was earlier
used assurrogate coffee
in times of crises.
Photo: Håkan Tunón.

If you are not looking for the stimulating effects of caffeine, but you do want to drink something bitter and hot during your breaks, then there are local alternatives. Roasted roots of chicory, or serpent garlic, has a history of being a coffee substitute and was not unusual during the Second World War. Acorns and dandelion roots have also been used for similar purposes. In recent years health food stores have begun to sell chicory as a caffeine-free alternative to coffee.

Hops – not only a bitter in beer

The hop cones have long been
used in medicine and as a taste
agent for beer.
Photo: Håkan Tunón.

The reason hops started to be used in beer making was not simply for the taste, but because in the old times there were no good methods for preserving beer. Salt was used to conserve fish and meat. All the salty food made people very thirsty but both beer and wine went bad quickly.

Thus one began to add bitter plants to make the beer more long-lasting and to delay the souring process. It was probably not just for conservation but also to conceal a bad taste. In the Nordic Countries, it was first mostly sweet gale, wild rosemary and yarrow that were used but, in time, hops entered the picture.

Hops as a sedative

The cones of hops have a tranquilising and calming effect and were therefore put into pillowcases. “Hop pillows” were used in field hospitals during the First World War as tranquilisers and sedatives. You can also drink tea made of hops to make you go to sleep more easily. Medical studies have shown that you drop off to sleep more easily and sleep better after taking hop extract. Pharmacies used to sell hop cones, but now they mainly sell hop extracts. The major use of hops is within beer brewing. In 2005, approximately 100 000 tons of hop cones were harvested worldwide. However, picking hops is no easy business since the cones can give rise to allergies.

Hops have also been thought to reduce the sexual drive, be antiseptic, give relief from cramp, improve the appetite, be diuretic and be efficacious against intestinal worms. Linnaeus wrote in his book of herbs in 1725 that “Hops soaked in beer in a bandage around the cheeks can eliminate toothache. ….. For tumours and ache, for people as well as for animals, or, if a member has been broken, smashed, twisted or disjoined, you should boil the hops in old, rancid butter and bandage it across, like a plaster.” If, in addition you want “to chase flies away you should boil the hops in sweet milk and leave it for the flies; if they sip some of that they get dizzy, drunk and die.”

The Chemical Layer of the Glandular Hair

Liquid essential oils are found in the glandular hairs of the female cones’ petals. They contain 15-30 % resins which consist of bitter substances, among others, humulone and lupulone. These bitter substances contribute to the aroma, smell and flavour. It is these that give the hops their mild tranquilising, sedative and antiseptic effect as well as stimulating the appetite and digestion. It has long been known that bitter substances stimulate appetite and digestion which is why we drink aperitifs and bitters. Jägermeister, Enzian, absinth, schnapps, vermouth and Underberg are examples of drinks that increase the stomach’s secretions of acidity and stimulate intestinal movement. More recently it has been discovered that bitter substances can stimulate the immune defence.

As long ago as the old Scandinavians …

Sweet gale was probably used already during the bronze and iron ages in Denmark to spice fermented drinks. A bucket made of birch-bark has been found with the dried residue of a drink consisting of cranberries, some wheat, glandular hairs of sweet gale and seed flour of the lime tree. The quantity of pollen grains (from honey) suggest that the drink was something between mead, a berry wine and beer. Additional finds of similar vessels suggest that the drink was common during the older iron age (approx. 200 A.D.). It was no doubt drunk on special occasions.

Hops were probably grown in France and Central Europe in the 8th century in small amounts. A deed of gift from 768 A.D. has been found that mentions a hops farm but Holy Hildegard was the first, around 1160, to write about hops being used for flavouring beer.  During the 1230s only sweet gale is mentioned at the Danish court. Hops had probably still not gained popularity in the Nordic countries at that time. In Sweden hops are first named in the provincial laws of Uppland and Gotland at the end of the 13th century.  Then in the 14th century they are mentioned in the Södermanna, Västamanna and Hälsinge Laws as well as in Magnus Eriksson’s National Law. Hops were probably being used in Sweden around 1250.

Monks brewed beer and King Gustav Vasa drank

Hop bines.
Photo: Håkan Tunón.

Hops were cultivated early on in monasteries. There are stories that claim that monks introduced the calming hops as beer flavouring instead of the stimulants sweet gale and wild rosemary. Beer brewing in Belgium is still closely associated to monasteries. Hops were intended to calm down the quarrelsome Nordic men and promote a quiet and virtuous lifestyle. Hops were scarce in Sweden and so in Kristoffer’s national law of 1442, farmers were required to grow 40 poles of hops.

During King Gustav Vasa’s time people drank at least a pitcher (2.6 litres) of beer a day because of the salty food – both men and women. Even before the end of the 16th century the commoners drank sweet gale beer and other substitute beers while the king’s men drank beer made of hops.

An edict was promulgated in 1583 at Nyköping Castle that beer was to be made of malt and hops. The farmers cultivated hops which the crown then impounded leaving the farmers to drink small beer, sweet gale beer and a juniper brew.

In 1568 King Johan III gave the order to enclose a large herb garden in Stockholm. It was expanded in 1619 to become a royal hops garden and it can be found on the city maps from the beginning of the 17th century. The name is even mentioned (Humblegårdeen, humbelgårdeen) in 1621 when a hired hand Lasse Mattzsson slew the “Hops’ Master” Daniell. Queen Kristina replaced it in 1648 with a pleasure garden. But the name “Humlegården” (Hops Garden) lives on although the area was only used for growing hops for 29 years, more than 350 years ago.

Linnaeus wrote in his 1749 diary about beer and he returned to the subject in a publication by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1763. He says that hops preserve the beer from souring by its bitter taste, that they have in themselves no intoxicating effect and that they help against kidney stones. Linnaeus thought that water from a well was the best drink but that did not prevent him from claiming that all households should know certain elementary things such as how to bake bread and brew beer.

Chamomile for the stomach

Chamomile tea is a classic
calming product for people under
stress. It is also good for the
Photo: Håkan Tunón

Chamomile (Chamomilla recutita) is one of our oldest and most well-known medical plants. It has been used for healing since the time of the Ancient Greeks and it was included in the Stockholm Pharmacopoeia [1686] as well as in the Swedish pharmacopoeias from the first to the eighth edition [1775–1901]. Nowadays the chamomile flower has a place in the European pharmacopoeia.

Many different substances have been identified from chamomile over the years, but it is now thought that the effects are due to essential oils and flavonoids.

The flavonoids constitute the water-soluble, the non-volatile part of the chamomile’s active substances, whereas essential oils principally consist of substances which are hard to dissolve in water but easy to dissolve in alcohol and other organic solvents. Essential oils also have the property of accompanying the steam from a hot-water solution making the effect better from an alcohol infusion than from tea. Chamomile and its constituent substances have been the topics of many scientific studies and the medical effects are considered to be a result the various components which have both similar and partially different effects.

Among other things, chamomile has shown anti-inflammatory activity and to heal wounds. It has a mildly calming effect on mice and the substance apigenin inhibits panic and has a mildly sedative effect which also induces the relaxation of muscles. The calming effects are considered to result from a flavonoid binding to certain receptors in the brain and thus explains the relaxing effect of chamomile. Essential oils have demonstrated anti-inflammatory effects, the ability to reduce fever and act as antispasmodics, all of which are important for ailments of the stomach and intestinal tracts.

The anti-inflammatory effect is explained by the chamomile extract inhibiting the release of substances that causes inflammation. These effects are caused by essential oils and flavonoids. Chamomile tea is prepared from dried flowers and used for fortifying the stomach, the release of gases, strengthening nerves and for relieving cramp. Its main use is internal for stomach and intestinal problems as well as against menstrual discomfort, but it can also be used externally for inflammation and irritation of skin and mucous tissues.

Many different substances have been identified from chamomile over the years, but it is now thought that the effects are due to essential oils and flavonoids.

Last modified: 2021-11-29