There is a legend which tells of an ancient people who would customarily plant a coffee tree on the graves of their powerful sorcerers. The people believed that the first coffee bush sprang up from the tears shed by the god of heaven over the recently departed mystic. While coffee lovers worldwide might stop short of
attributing outright magic powers to their favorite beverage, most would agree that they don’t want to face the day without it.
About 83 percent of adults in America drink coffee. It is reported to be the either the second most-traded commodity in the world (after oil), or at least somewhere in the top 50. Regardless, coffee provides a living for more than 75 million people worldwide and coffee exporting alone is a $20 billion industry.
The word coffee is derived from the Turkish word kahve, which in turn evolved from the Arabic qahwa, traditionally held to have originally referred to a type of wine. Historians trace the “discovery” of coffee to 9th-century goat herders in Ethiopia who noticed how excited their goats became after eating coffee berries. But goats weren’t the only non-human species to feel the buzz, coffee plants also have an effect on pollinators such as bees. The active ingredient in coffee is caffeine, which is a stimulant and the most commonly consumed psychoactive substance in the world. Although the caffeine in coffee is toxic to slugs and other pests, scientists found that consuming caffeine helped bees to improve their long-term memories. The caffeine acts on the brain chemistry of bees in a way that makes the flowers more memorable, so the bees are more likely to return to plants of the same type.
Like chocolate and wine, coffee is made from the seeds of a fruit. Fruit is good, right? Coffee is brewed from ground, roasted beans, which are actually the seeds found inside the berries of the Coffea plant. Once ripe, the berries are picked and the green seeds (beans) are extracted and dried. The beans are roasted to varying degrees depending on the desired flavor of the drink. Coffee plants, which can be bushes or trees, are cultivated in over 70 countries primarily in the “coffee belt” of equatorial Latin America, Southeast Asia, India and Africa. Hawaii is the only U.S. state which commercially grows coffee.
The two most commonly grown Coffea plants are the highly-regarded arabica, and the less-sophisticated but stronger-flavored and more hardy robusta. Also like wine, coffee flavor varies by growing region, depending on varieties of plant, climate and processing methods.
Coffees from Central America, although varying in acidity, generally exhibit a soft sweetness. “Balance” is a word often used to describe these coffees, with fruit-like qualities as a mild backdrop to cocoa and spice flavors. South American coffees, specifically those from Columbia, combine a mellow acidity and a strong caramel sweetness, perhaps with nutty undertones. They have the most recognizable coffee flavor to most North American drinkers. Brazil is a huge producer, and its output varies widely. Some Brazilian beans have a pronounced peanutty quality and heavy body that makes them common components in espresso blends. Chocolate and some spice is typical, and the coffees tend to linger a bit in the mouth. Ethiopian coffees also have a wide spectrum of flavor due to the thousands of varieties grown there and differing processing methods. Some have a syrupy body with a densely sweet berry flavor, while others express jasmine or lemongrass characteristics and are lighter and drier on the palate. Tropical-tasting Kenyan varieties are often called big, bold and juicy, with a savory-sweet characteristic that sometimes manifests as a tomato-like acidity, other times as a black-currant tartness. Many coffee professionals will admit that they are a favorite. Coffees from Indonesia tend to have a deep, dark earthiness. Sumatran coffees are often smoky and toasty. Some have a mushroom-like complexity that is both savory and herbaceous. These coffees seem to inspire love or hate in equal measures.
Coffee from Hawaii, the best known variety being Kona, is nurtured by volcanic soil, afternoon shade and just the right amount of rain. Hawaiian Kona, one of the most expensive coffees in the world, is aromatic and richly flavored, with vanilla, brown sugar and subtle wine undertones. Jamaican coffee, specifically Blue Mountain, another of the world’s most expensive varieties, is a mellow, low-acid, sweet variety with subtle tobacco notes.
While roasting techniques also affect the resulting flavor of coffee, experts agree that no amount of skillful roasting can rescue bad raw material, so using high quality beans is essential for ideal taste. Roasting styles enhance the natural characteristics of the beans. In general, roasting affects the acidity, body, aroma and complexity of the resulting brew. A light roast leaves the bean’s acidity intact and produces a tarter, milder-bodied drink, while gradually increasing aroma and complexity. A medium roast results in peak aroma and complexity, leaves some acidity, and increases richness (consistancy) and color. Medium roasting brings more flavor oils captured in the center of the bean to the surface, increasing the complexity of the coffee flavor. Deeper roasting, such as in espresso, Italian or French roasts, burns off the acidity of the bean and results in a thicker, darker, aromatic brew. As acidity decreases, the tart or high notes of coffee are roasted out of the bean, replaced by the pungency desired by espresso drinkers. Some complexity of flavor is lost as some of the oils are burned off the bean.
Scientists and physicians have long debated the positive versus negative health effects of coffee and its component caffeine. The majority of recent research suggests that moderate coffee consumption is beneficial in most healthy adults. According to the website Authority Nutrition, caffeine potently blocks an inhibitor neurotransmitter in the brain, leading to a net stimulant effect, improving mood, reaction time, memory, vigilance and general cognitive function. In addition, it can increase metabolic rates, helping burn fat and enhance physical performance. It only takes ten minutes from the first sip of coffee for the effects of caffeine to kick in.
Many of the nutrients in coffee beans make it into the final drink. Coffee contains a significant amount of B vitamins and minerals like riboflavin (vitamin B2), pantothenic acid (vitamin B5), manganese, potassium, niacin and magnesium — all disease-fighting antioxidants. As a result, coffee drinkers can be at a lower risk for diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, as well as diabetes, heart and liver ailments. In fact, Authority Nutrition boldly proclaims coffee to be the biggest source of antioxidants in an average Western diet, outranking both fruits and vegetables.
With all this good news about coffee, it’s still worth mentioning that while consumption in sensible amounts is probably beneficial, copious quantities can lead to negative effects like jitters, heart palpitations, addiction and even psychosis. Since individuals vary in their coffee tolerance and sensitivity, a balanced approach is probably wise. So drink to your health; but keep your wits about you.
A side note: The French philosopher Voltaire, prolific Enlightenment writer and thinker on matters of freedom, was said to have consumed 50 cups of coffee a day. A lethal dose of caffeine would require about 100 cups of coffee (that much water would be lethal before the caffeine). So obviously the difference between genius and death is 50 cups of coffee. No worries for most of us.