Friday, November 4, 2011


A cup of coffee, served "black."  Source.

I have long thought that I should write a post on my most beloved of beverages (but please don't tell Beer, Gin or Vodka, that's an awkward conversation I'm not ready to have), and, in typical fashion I have been bogged down thinking about how to properly explore it as a topic.  Whilst I may edit or otherwise reconstruct this post in the future, I shall dive in and attempt to share my interests.  I hope that you, my dearest, non-spambot reader will enjoy it all the same.

A brief aside: As always, my claims will be formally unsubstantiated, but I trust that a consultation with Google will either support or refute me.  If you do notice an error, please comment such that I will be able to remedy the situation as transparently as possible.

My historical knowledge of coffee is somewhat lacking, but I do recall a couple notes of interest.  It is said that coffee's rise was due in no small part to that of Islam.  While the consumption of alcohol was forbidden by the faith, coffee was seen as an acceptable substitute (must like cocaine-laden beverages were in the USA during prohibition).  In stark contrast, some European coffee-houses were banned in the 1600-1700s (universally in some countries), due to suspicions that they were used to conspire against the local monarchies.  For various reasons, a non-trivial contribution being the deliciousness of the beverage, I am certain, coffee persisted and became the beverage I know and love today.

The coffee plant persists only between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, an area which may be known as the "Coffee Belt".  The plant naturally grows largely in the shade of larger plants and on slopes, likely for drainage.  When you see coffee labelled as "organically shade-grown", this is to what they refer.  It is my understanding that this is the Arabica coffee which we drink.  The other variety, Robusta, was largely developed for the purposes of serving humanity's likely unhealthy dependence on the stuff.  Robusta coffee will grow in (on?) traditional cropland in full sun, but ultimately results in a poorer quality product.  At this point, I shall digress and recall a commercial for Nabob coffee.  The gentleman featured in the commercial detailed how much coffee was shade grown, how much was sustainable/fair trade/what-have-you, and said that of that shade grown/fair trade/what-have-you, Nabob beans accounted for only 10%.  He then smiled and asked that we make it 100%.  Terrible, I declare.  He should simply wish that sustainable/fair trade/what-have-you beans will become a larger share of total bean production, and potentially wish that Nabob will represent a larger portion of the aforementioned beans.  I cannot imagine why he would wish a monopoly on S/FT/WHY [interesting that "what have you" becomes WHY, I digress further] if he truly cared about sustainability.  But anyway...

The fruit of a coffee plant.  Source.
After the coffee has been grown, it must be roasted.  I am given to understand by an excellent comic by The Oatmeal on the subject that the green bean at the centre of the fruit will pop twice upon roasting.  The second popping of the bean indicates that it has finished roasting.  I assume it is at this point which "light" roast coffee beans are removed.  It is my understanding that the duration of roasting determines light v. dark classifications, as well as those in between.  It also determines the concentration of caffeine in the coffee beans.  Caffeine will undergo thermal degradation at roasting temperatures, so light roasts contain more caffeine than the dark counterparts.  Therefore, if one desires caffeine most from their coffee, one would chooses a light roast.  Alternatively, if flavour is paramount for a drinker, one would choose a dark roast (a wonderful example being the Continental from Second Cup).

Once the bean has been chosen, one must choose the grind and brewing method.  These go hand in hand, as the grind is determined by the time water will be in contact with the grinds.  In North America, we tend to use a grind labelled "coarse" and use a drip brewing method.  Here, water is heated to near its boiling point and dripped over coffee grounds housed in a basket.  The resultant extract of the coffee beans drips out the bottom of the basket and into a carafe.  The machine is relatively simple, requires little thought and, perhaps most importantly, is difficult to screw up.  This last feature is incredibly important when one considers that many of us are largely useless before the coffee has been brewed [in the interest of full disclosure, I am always vigilant in finding new and exciting ways to screw up the morning coffee].

The Bodum has enjoyed recent popularity, and is a method of coffee preparation utilizing a French press.  Freshly boiled water is poured over very coarsely ground coffee and kept there for several minutes within the cylindrical vessel.  Afterwards, a [metal grate] plunger is lowered which holds the grounds at the bottom, and allows the brewed coffee to be poured from the top.  I am told the finished product is rather nice, but I have never enjoyed coffee prepared with a French press.

An espresso maker with crema shown.  Source.

While the above two methods are really two ways of making brewed coffee, a slightly different product is espresso.  You will note this is not "expresso", but espresso.  I have often described this method as the end product of an engineer trying to make concentrated coffee.  It is as labour intensive as it is lovely.  One must use a very fine grind of coffee [the water is in contact with it for a very short time] and tamp it into a metal basket [using a tamp, able to press the grinds into the basket evenly].  YouTube videos recommending using roughly 30lbs of weight behind the tamp.  This basket is placed into a holder, which is then locked into the espresso machine.  In my personal machine, steam at ~15 atmospheres of pressure forces water into the basket, allowing the brewed espresso to flow through a pinhole at the bottom of the basket.  The shot is "pulled" for roughly 15-20 seconds before it is stopped.  At this point, the crema [with an accent so the e makes an "ay" sound] should be even, off-white and delightfully foamy. It is worth noting that espresso-ground coffee must either be purchased directly, or ground with a burr grinder.  A regular coffee grinder using a blade will not produce a fine enough particulate size for espresso.  A burr grinder is not unlike a mill stone with sharp burrs attached, and it may also be adjusted to allow for normal "coarse" grind coffee, or the very coarse grind required for French press brewing.  In a fun physics note, when grinding coffee to the finest of grinds, static charges result.  Then, when a very tired operator opens the vessel containing the grinds, they have a tendency of flying everywhere, the static forces easily overcoming gravity for small particles.

Naturally, with human beings consuming coffee the way we do, the health effects of ingesting this brew is continuously studied.  I shall not begin to speculate on all the potential benefits that have been preached, both because I feel I have not read enough into the possible decreased risk of Alzheimer's, prostate and other diseases.  Instead, I will touch on a few interesting notes which I have come across.  Regardless what health benefits one may be chasing [it is touted as having lots of antioxidants, among other things], one must be careful not to consume much more than three cups per day.  Too much caffeine will stress the human body, and ill health will result.  That being said, one may note that a lot of coffee is consumed by those who are thinking during work.  This is due to the fact that caffeine has been found to inhibit the chemical pathways which cause fatigue after mental exertion.  Not only that, but it has positive effects on physical performance as well.  In fact, Cracked has produced an article detailing the super powers bestowed upon mortals when they consume coffee.  Just try to keep it under three cups a day.

The benefits of consuming coffee lead me to wonder whether it is to us what Freud thought cocaine would be.  Freud was a large advocate of cocaine, thinking it a cure-all, and extolling other virtues.  I believe a couple were increasing chattiness and rosiness of the cheeks.  He only stopped when he saw how cocaine destroyed lives.  When working at a rather slow-paced job, I drank an awful lot of coffee. In some ways, I actually fit symptoms of drug dependent behaviour.  My sleep patterns suffered, and I was generally moody and irritable, likely a byproduct of stressing my system too much with caffeine.  Cutting down my consumption was difficult, but unlike with cocaine, my life was not at risk in doing so.  Maybe Freud was right, but he had the wrong substance.

It would seem that what was meant to be a brief discussion of coffee has become drawn out and rambling.  In any case, enjoy your coffee tomorrow.  I know I will.