People who read this blog with any regularity know that I’m a Brit. And Brits, as everyone knows drink gallons of tea, made according to absurdly complex rules about water temperature, warming the teapot first, mathematical formulae to calculate the amount of tea to put in the pot and so on. They are famous for stopping in the middle of battles or air raids, or during some critical time for an enterprise, because it’s time for tea.
Well, guilty as charged. But this month is the anniversary of when things changed. Shirley went off as she does every year to visit relatives in Arizona and places west, this time for a couple of months. She left me a comprehensive and helpful list of things to do, and not do, so that there would still be a house for her to return to instead of a smouldering ruin, with a red hot empty kettle still on the stove, emitting powerful radiations over the charred remnants of the happy home.
Yes, I have more than once put the kettle on and then got sucked into the computer, to find some time later that there was a cherry red kettle on the stove and the smell of hot metal pervading the house. The kettle would pulsate with heat rather as our local black Camarro with tinted windows pulsates with rock music as it hurtles by at twice the speed limit.
But sometimes at home, when Shirley made herself some coffee with a complex machine, I would have a cup. In restaurants I always had water with no ice, or coffee, because nobody in restaurants has the faintest idea of how to brew tea. Shirley always grinds the beans to make the coffee, with another machine. She calls her coffee ‘beginner’s coffee’ because apparently it is less strong than the coffee our visitors are used to.
Now I was no stranger to caffeine. Though I never drank real coffee in England. My first major was in chemistry, and when at college I would regularly go round to the studies on my floor and collect the used tea leaves…there were no such things as tea bags then. To help the student community my job was to go to the laboratory and extract from those used tea leaves the considerable amount of caffeine still in them. Yes, tea contains a lot of caffeine.
Caffeine crystals are beautiful. They are like clear quartz in colour and spear shaped like the last half inch or so of a very fine sewing needle. When exams came up, or hangovers interfered with essential activities, I would get requests for the 100% caffeine crystals. One or two would usually do the trick. We always took them in a ritual fashion saying ‘Celestial Surgeon’ as we did so. This referred to the poem The Celestial Surgeon by RLS, and the line that says, “Lord, Thy most pointed pleasure take, and stab my spirit broad awake.” Which is what those crystals did, and almost instantaneously. Caffeine has almost no taste, just a slightly bitter tang, rather like cyanide but without the unfortunate side effects.
So forward wind over fifty years. One of our frequent visitors, who is a drinker of powerful coffee brought a gift of a bag of Intelligentsia coffee beans to the house just before Shirley left. And just after she left, one of her Indian friends brought round a very large plastic bag of coffee beans from a local plantation near her home in India.
So, I put both bags of beans into the freezer, thanked her, and suddenly realized that I actually knew nothing about coffee. I felt like a person who had always had a chauffeur and never learned how to drive, and now needed to. What did I have to do to make a cup of coffee, and what is coffee anyhow?
Now ignorance is never a disgrace to me. Everyone is ignorant about many things. But continuing to be ignorant when knowledge seems to be necessary, and is available, is a disgrace. I realized that I didn’t know how Shirley ground her coffee beans, and all I knew about the mechanicall monster on the counter was that she put filter papers in it. I did know about filter papers from my chemical past. She also used a little plastic scoop that was kept somewhere in the kitchen.
So, I did the 21st century thing and got on the Internet and learned about coffee. Totally fascinating! I got books from the library while waiting for my Internet orders. My first book on coffee arrived quickly from amazon.com., Home Coffee Roasting by Kenneth Davids. Even more fascinating.
I learned about the chemistry of coffee, which I shan’t regale you with in detail, except to say that there are over 800 different factors in the oils that come from a roasted bean that contribute to the flavour of the brew. Chemists can’t yet replicate the flavour of coffee synthetically. It’s far too complex. Coffee flavouring is made from de-caffeinated coffee beans.
After learning about the different grinds and roasts and how they affected the flavour, I read about the history and geography of coffee, some of which is so neat that I just have to share it with you.
It was not until the 17th and 18th centuries that coffee drinking spread from the Middle East westward into Europe and eastward into India and Asia.
Apparently some Moslem pilgrim took it to India, and some Europeans took it into Java and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). From Java it was taken by the Dutch to the indoor botanical gardens of Amsterdam and Paris, and then as a money making crop to the Caribbean and South America.
History is full of some really neat paradoxes if you look at it closely. When I was arguing rather intensely with a Jesuit priest in Canada, about the Indians we were both trying to help, I made the point that when one culture messed with what another culture thought was sacred, there was always trouble.
The Native Americans and Canadians treated tobacco as sacred and used it in their sacred rituals and to pay for healing. When Westerners got hold of it they turned it into a crassly commercial racket responsible for thousands of deaths annually. Those same Europeans used wine in their sacred ritual, it even represented the blood of one of their sacred beings. When the Indians got hold of it they became almost instant addicts because of the genetic difference in their metabolism of B vitamins. Wine was used against them as a weapon by the white traders. Over 90% of the people on the colony where I taught in Canada were alcoholics, or borderline alcoholics. And that included the children.
A similar “Every coin has two sides” situation occurred with coffee. Coffee and sugar spread across the world together. They were sister crops in the tropics and sister commodities in the coffee houses of Europe.
But even as the plantation system mercilessly exploited the dark skinned workers in the tropics, so it was in the coffee houses of Europe that the intellectuals and political activists planned the revolutions to free the workers and peasants from the rule of an elite and corrupt class. Just about every historical upheaval or novelty originated from a coffee house. They were even the first clearing houses for banks. Bank messengers would meet at the coffee house and exchange their bags instead of going to the banks.
And then there is latté. I had my first one ever in February 2004 from Caffè Milan, an Intelligentsia Coffee House on Route 30 in Frankfort, Illinois. (The accent in Caffè is correct because the word is Italian not French.) And how latté came to be is a story of great entrepreneurial ingenuity. The Turks besieged Vienna in 1683. When they withdrew in a rush, they left behind a lot of Turkish coffee in their deserted camp. A clever man named Franz Kolschitzky started Vienna’s first coffee house with that unexpected windfall.
But he knew that the black syrup of Turkish coffee, drunk unfiltered by the Turks and Middle Easterners, would not appeal to the Viennese who drank room temperature beer for breakfast. So he did two new things. He filtered the coffee grounds out and added milk.
And that’s how it started, and how it still stands today. There is a clear line on the map of Europe dividing those that strain or filter their coffee and serve it with milk, from those who drink it syrupy black and with as much sugar as it can dissolve. It’s the same line in the historical atlases that divide the Ottoman Empire from the European Christians.
I still remember my first experience of Middle Eastern coffee. When I was senior editor in a text book publishing house in Chicago I would walk around the cubicles to see if anyone needed help. During lunch break one day I wandered into a row of cubicles from another department, and there I saw a dark skinned man reading a book in Arabic. I recognized some of the diagrams on the pages from my own studies in alchemy and asked him if he was an alchemist. He treated me as though I was an angel sent from whoever he worshipped at the time.
In a frenzy of hospitality and friendship he asked me to drink coffee with him to celebrate the meeting of two alchemists in such an unlikely place. I agreed, and was very surprised to be given a tiny cup, suitable for doll’s house furniture. He poured from his flask a steaming black syrup that looked rather like very old diesel oil, or maybe asphalt. He told me it was already sugared and we clinked cups and I sipped mine. I did stop when I began to taste the gravel at the bottom of the cup and was VERY wide awake for much longer than usual. After that I had a cup of the stuff with him every day, and in the end even began to look forward to it. But it was an acquired taste. Stimulating it certainly was. No wonder the alchemists could study for such long hours.
Well, back to my kitchen. Having become an instant expert on coffee, courtesy of Google and Amazon, I learned how to use the coffee grinder and how to blend coffees, made from specific beans, from specific countries, and sometimes from specific plantations.
When my coffee drinking friend came to visit later on in the month he drank the coffee I prepared for him and said the magic words, “This is stronger than Starbucks,” and it was, and it had no acidity, and I enjoyed it before going to bed, to sleep.
Taste and chemistry partially dealt with I had a look at the scientific research associated with coffee as a food item and was pleasantly surprised. I really hadn’t bothered about it before because I was a dyed in the wool tea drinker; we usually have about thirty kinds of tea in our house, and I knew that tea had some really sterling qualities. To my great surprise, and probably to your delight, I found that coffee trounced tea in many important areas.
MODERATE coffee drinking has been found to lower the risk of cirrhosis of the liver, colon cancer, diabetes, gallstones and Parkinson’s disease. Asthma attacks are reduced by moderate coffee drinking as is depression. Those who have read that wonderful novel about the War between the States, Across Five Aprils, will remember that the only thing that relieved the mother’s headaches was strong coffee.
Green tea is touted everywhere now as a major source of cancer fighting anti-oxidants. So it is. But freshly ground, filtered coffee contains four times as much as green tea, on average. People don’t call green tea a drug. They call it a stimulant…in this case a herbal stimulant. The same is true about coffee.
Metabolism speeds up after coffee. Weight watchers please note. Circulation is stimulated. Those with cold hands and feet please note. The effect on the brain circulation translates into an improvement in mental abilities, speed of thought and memory. Students please note, and if you’re a teen, remember ‘moderate’ doesn’t mean six cups, one after the other, three times a day. The effect on the kidneys and adrenals is an increased energy level. And it doesn’t stay in the body for days like so many drugs.
When the totally unappetizing green Arabica coffee bean is roasted, water is forced out of it, and several chemical reactions occur. These get rid of some of the volatile ingredients of the bean, including some of the caffeine, and then caramelise the bean’s sugars so that they become the oils that produce the flavours. Those of you who caramelise ordinary sugar for your sweet potatoes and candies will get the idea.
The chemical names of the components after roasting would only be loved by a chemist. They have names like aldehydes, ketones, esters and have among them organic acids like acetic, butyric and valeric acids. But it is the transformed sugars, these oils, and traces of the bitter trigonellic acid and some nicotinic acid, not to mention the 1% caffeine that add up to the coffee experience. And embedded in this list, and containing some of them as sub groups are the stimulants, the xanthenes.
These are the things that raise your metabolic rate at the same time as they suppress the appetite. Weight watchers note again. And these are the components that enhance mental and physical activities. And what is more, as the ads say, they help to relax tense muscles and have diuretic properties, as trips to the restaurant rest rooms testify.
Put all these properties together and it’s clear that MODERATE amounts of coffee will help those with some common health problems.
The Journal of the AMA reported on a study from Finland. It made a direct link between coffee drinking and type 2 diabetes. It involved close to 7000 men. The research showed clearly that those who drank 3 or 4 cups of coffee a day had a 27% decrease of the risk of getting type 2 diabetes. Drinking 10 cups a day lowered the risk by 55%.
That coffee reduced the risk was clear. The hows and whys were not. But another study at Harvard also found the same correlation of coffee drinking and decreased risk. And Frank Hu, M.D. PhD., who is an associate professor of nutrition and epidemiology there ventured the opinion that ingredients in coffee other than the caffeine are responsible for the protection. He pointed out that coffee contains anti-oxidants and minerals like magnesium that benefit blood sugar metabolism and insulin sensitivity. And then there is the effect on body weight of the increased energy expenditure and increased metabolism.
Then is also a Parkinson’s connection. There are now several studies indicating that people who drink coffee on a regular basis are up to 80% less likely to develop Parkinson’s. The newest Parkinson’s drugs actually contain a derivative of caffeine, though they are of course even more expensive than Starbuck’s coffees.
Cancer of the colon is the second highest cause of cancer related deaths in this country. The European Journal of Cancer Prevention reports a study that shows how the incidence of colorectal cancer was 24% lower among those who drank four or more cups of coffee per day, than among those who seldom drank coffee. Apparently the effect is due to the metabolic stimulus I mentioned before. There is also a possibility that the presence of the coffee inhibits mutations among the microorganisms in the colon.
Well, as a health writer for some decades I was now on a roll, and kicking myself for ignoring coffee for so long. I read about the gall stones situation. Harvard conducted a ten year study of over 45,000 men. The conclusions were that men drinking one cup a day lowered their risk of gallstone problems by 13%. Those drinking two or three cups had a 21% reduction, and those drinking four or more had a 33% reduction.
How about asthma, another biggie? Well, caffeine is a natural bronchodilator. Coffee also happens to contain theophyline and similar compounds. For quite a long time theophyline was the prime component in expensive medications to help asthmatics. It seems that three or more cups of coffee a day can help relieve the symptoms of asthma.
Coffee does not seem to be a factor in developing heart problems. It isn’t what makes your blood pressure go through the ceiling. MODERATE coffee drinking isn’t a threat to health and has many benefits, according to the oceans of research that I read. Please note that I’m talking about straight coffee made from freshly ground beans, not coffee with dozens of chemical additives to ‘enhance’ the taste. The additives in the fancy coffee based drinks do not help any health problems. And the fresher you drink the coffee the better it is for you. Grinding before drinking is better than buying ground coffee. Organic of course is better than straight commercial.
We now drink coffee ground from the beans and get the beans from Intelligentsia, or Trader Joes, or Whole Foods, with their emphasis on organic everything. And Shirley is expert at finding wonderful coffees on the Web from places like the Galapagos Islands where the trees are a couple of centuries old, and from small plantations that harvest monsoon coffee.
So, there’s my account of becoming just a little more Americanised than before. Hope it helped in some way. Everything is interesting if you dig. Blessings from a Born again Coffetarian.