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  • Writer's pictureFrank DiGiovanni

The nectar of the gods

On a day like this, dreary, wet and rainy, and on a day when I have nothing to teach, I find myself wondering what the next topic of the blog is going to be and I'm often struck with random ideas based on whatever's around or suddenly pops into my mind. As I sat here, feeling my eyes droop down, I wondered if I should have some caffeine, even though I'd already had cup of coffee and nursed it for a few hours earlier in the day... I realized I probably shouldn't, but it suddenly became the next idea: coffee.

As strange as it might sound, coffee, as we know it today, dates back to the 1700s when travelers to the Near East brought back stories of a strange, dark beverage. The origins of coffee date back even further to the 9th century and a heard of goats and the herder named Kaldi who noticed that his flock was acting very energetically after eating these strange, red berries. Kaldi also is said to have brought some of these berries back to his place of worship after chewing on them himself, creating his own feeling of exhilaration. And, despite this positive experience, the local monk declared these berries the "devil's work" and threw the berries in the fire, creating a powerful, room-filling aroma...The one we know so well. While the idea that the fire was quenched, the berry/water mixture was saved to preserve the smell can probably be written off as apocryphal, we can confirm that by the 15th century, coffee was being cultivated on the Arabian peninsula, specifically Yemen and a century later it was known in Turkey (now known as Türkiye), Syria, and Egypt.

It would take another century for this dark brown liquid to find its way to Europe where it would encounter both condemnation and approval. It was Pope Clement VIII who was given this liquid at the behest of the local clergy, who claimed to have said this beverage was a "bitter invention of Satan". While we cannot prove this, it was the Pope who, in 1615, gave his papal approval and the beverage would continue its rise into the culture of Europe. The experts at the website of the National Coffee Association of U.S.A (NCAUSA) give their knowledge about its rise across Europe:

Despite such controversy, coffee houses were quickly becoming centers of social activity and communication in the major cities of England, Austria, France, Germany and Holland. In England “penny universities” sprang up, so called because for the price of a penny one could purchase a cup of coffee and engage in stimulating conversation.

Coffee began to replace the common breakfast drink beverages of the time — beer and wine. Those who drank coffee instead of alcohol began the day alert and energized, and not surprisingly, the quality of their work was greatly improved.

This meteoric rise in popularity is partially due to the "buzz" that we feel after/while drinking it and thanks to chemistry, we know why: caffeine.

Ball-and-stick model of the caffeine molecule. Color code: Carbon, C: black; Hydrogen, H: white; Nitrogen, N: blue; Oxygen, O: red | Wikimedia Commons

It is important to know that coffee is a mixture of over 1,000 different chemicals, caffeine being one of them. The experts at the T.H. Chan School of Public Health at Harvard University lend their vast knowledge here. While we have all felt that boost after having a cup (or two) there are other reasons to enjoy this beverage. "The bottom line: A large body of evidence suggests that consumption of caffeinated coffee does not increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases and cancers. In fact, consumption of 3 to 5 standard cups of coffee daily has been consistently associated with a reduced risk of several chronic diseases." Don't start pounding coffee now, there can be a feeling of anxiety, restlessness, insomnia, and increased heart rate if too much caffeine is ingested. And if you've ever had a double espresso, and you're not a big or regular coffee drinker, you probably know what I'm talking about; coffee jitters are a real thing.

With all this newfound knowledge, we've yet to discuss the very reason you might be sipping on that iced macchiato or regular cup-of-joe: the coffee tree. Once again, we rely on the experts at NCAUSA for their vast knowledge. Coffee trees belong to a genus of plants called Coffea; within this genus are over 6,000 species of tropical plants and between 25-100 species of just coffee plants! If you recall your Biology at all, it was Carolus Linneaus who first described and classified it but in modern coffee, you're either drinking Arabica or Robusta coffee. Once again, NCAUSA's website, gives the information we require: "Coffea Arabica is descended from the original coffee trees discovered in Ethiopia. These trees produce a fine, mild, aromatic coffee and represent approximately 70% of the world's coffee production. The beans are flatter and more elongated than Robusta and lower in caffeine.' Most of the world's Robusta is grown in Central and Western Africa, parts of Southeast Asia, including Indonesia and Vietnam, and in Brazil. Production of Robusta is increasing, though it accounts for only about 30% of the world market. Robusta is primarily used in blends and for instant coffees. The Robusta bean itself tends to be slightly rounder and smaller than an Arabica bean."

Roasted coffee beans | Wikimedia Commons

These beans, or a "coffee cherry" as they're known, is a fruit in the classical sense; a seed wrapped in a pulp, designed to be eaten, digested and expelled. And while it's a little strange to think of the delicious beans we grind up and pour hot water over, as a "cherry" or a "stone fruit", it is, botanically speaking, exactly what they are. The journey from seed to cup is explained, in depth by the NCAUSA's website about it, which I encourage you to read, once you're done here, of course. The journey the NCAUSA takes you on will show you just how interesting it is and what it takes for you to get that cappuccino you ordered with dessert.

Once coffee crossed the Atlantic to the Caribbean, South and Central America, the plants found their new home. While we don't THINK of coffee plants as "invasive", any non-native plant gets that moniker. Regardless, these areas of the world now produce the a significant percentage of the coffee grown in the world with Brazil exporting about 45% of ALL coffee!! However, Mexico Vietnam, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Ethiopia rank among the top 20 largest producers of coffee.

I'm going leave you with these "really cool" facts, because well, who doesn't love learning cool stuff? T.H. Chan School of Public Health's website, once again, provides the "ooh, cool" facts. While the last fact might make you a little grossed out, sometimes Science is gross and we must learn to deal with that fact.

  • One 8-ounce cup of brewed coffee contains about 95 mg of caffeine. A moderate amount of coffee is generally defined as 3-5 cups a day, or on average 400 mg of caffeine, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

  • It is a myth that darker roasts contain a higher level of caffeine than lighter roasts. Lighter roasts actually have a slightly higher concentration!

  • Coffee grinds should not be brewed more than once. Brewed grinds taste bitter and may no longer produce a pleasant coffee flavor.

  • While water is always the best choice for quenching your thirst, coffee can count towards your daily fluid goals. Although caffeine has a mild diuretic effect, it is offset by the total amount of fluid from the coffee.

After all, it was a Friday afternoon when I wrote this, and I didn't have to be up early on Saturday so, why not? Okay, maybe I'll go make that cup... Light and sweet with half & half, two Splenda please.

Plain, black coffee | Wikimedia Commons.


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