Coffee culture

the piece below appeared in the June 2010 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine

“Ah!  How sweet coffee tastes!  Lovelier than a thousand kisses, sweeter far than muscatel wine!”  JS Bach

When I visit towns like Bridport and Dorchester I am struck by the coffee culture.  There are many cafés, some with tables spilling out on to the pavement.  Drinking coffee has become an enormously popular social activity and over the recent years the quality of coffee available has changed.    Good espresso is now as easy to get in Dorset as in Milan and “milky coffee” is no longer a drink you like but daren’t admit; call it Café Latte and it’s almost fashionable.  We owe a lot to Niles and Frasier at the Café Nervosa.

But coffee isn’t just for socialising; another reason for the early morning popularity of coffee is its energising effect.  Legend has it that an Ethiopian goatherd named Kaldi discovered this energising effect.  He noticed his goats becoming frisky when they ate fruit from the coffee plant.  He tried some himself, did a little dance, and the story of coffee had begun.  Coffee drinking became very popular in the Muslim world and from the 16th century many coffee houses were set up in cities such as Damascus and Istanbul.  Eventually the practice spread to other countries with the first coffee houses opening in the UK in Oxford in 1650 and London in 1652.  In the 18th century, the coffee houses were known as “penny universities”.  For a penny you could enter the coffee house and gain access not only to coffee but also to the company of others with discussion, gossip, news, newspapers, pamphlets etc.  The coffee houses became social and business centres and for example Lloyds of London started as Edward Lloyd’s coffee house.  Coffee drinking is now hugely popular throughout the world.  In this country, the past 20 years has seen an explosion in the number of coffee shops, the number of coffees drunk and the quality of the coffee available.

Coffee comes from the seeds (beans) of the coffee plant, native to Ethiopia although it is now grown in many countries.  The plant has sweetly smelling flowers and after these have died, red or purple fruit known as cherries appear; these cherries contain the beans.  Once harvested the beans are roasted at temperatures of 200oC or more.  During the roasting the green beans acquire their rich brown colour and chemical reactions occur in the beans augmenting the flavour, acidity, aftertaste and body of the coffee.  The time and temperature for roasting have to be carefully regulated and will be a major factor in the flavour of the coffee produced.  A light roast will allow the intrinsic flavour of the bean to come through whereas a dark roast will be dominated by stronger flavours produced at the higher temperature.  The knowledge and skill of the coffee roaster will be very important at this stage.   The coffee is then ground and prepared; the method of preparation (filter, cafetiere, espresso etc) will also determine the final nature of the drink.

Let’s now return to the energising effect of coffee, what is happening here?  Coffee has been shown to reduce fatigue and restore mental alertness.  This suggests the presence of a stimulant chemical in coffee and analysis of coffee beans has pinpointed the chemical caffeine.  Caffeine is also found at significant levels in tea and in some soft drinks such as colas and energy drinks, contributing to the “refreshing” effects of these beverages. 

When you take a caffeinated drink, the caffeine present is absorbed quite quickly and the stimulant effect results from inhibition of the actions of a chemical called adenosine in the brain.  Adenosine normally calms the activity of the brain and caffeine prevents adenosine from binding to its target sites so leading to a stimulant effect.  Caffeine, therefore, alters brain activity.  It is very widely used; about 90% of Americans consume caffeine each day and caffeine has been described as the most widely used psychoactive drug.  Regular coffee drinkers develop some tolerance to the effects of the caffeine and if they abstain they may experience headaches, fatigue and drowsiness.  These effects can be counteracted by drinking more coffee.   Although caffeine is a drug, regular moderate coffee consumption does not seem to do any harm, indeed claims have been made about the health benefits of coffee.  Limits have been proposed on caffeine consumption during pregnancy (

Coffee is extremely popular and most of us are happy to pay a few pounds for our favourite espresso, mocha or latte but how much would you be prepared to pay for a very special coffee?  This April, during Coffee Week, a coffee shop in Birmingham was offering an Indonesian coffee, Kopi Luwak, with one cup setting you back £8.95.   Kopi Luwak is the most expensive and exclusive coffee in the world and is produced with the help of civet cats.  The helpful civet cats eat coffee cherries and the beans pass in to their digestive tracts.  The beans emerge unscathed in the dung and after a good wash and a light roasting, a unique coffee is produced lacking the bitterness of ordinary coffee and with a unique soft flavour.  It seems that the enzymes in the digestive juices of the animals penetrate the beans and change their chemical composition.   I think I’ll stick to my usual latte!

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