On the Coffee Trail to Constantinople

I like taking detours. It’s the liberating, unscripted sense of seizing the moment and flying in the face of a predetermined itinerary. After all, I’ve committed myself to follow the bean wherever it will take me and this was to be no exception…

So when I took the short boat trip from Europe (Lesvos, Greece) to Asia Minor (Ayvalik, Turkey), my original plan was to push on south to the Mediterranean coast; until I reached the historic town of Bergama – or Pergamon as it was known in Ancient Greece – that is. Waking up at daybreak in a campsite-come-car-park to the sound of the call to prayer rising from the ruins of the Basilica opposite, now a Mosque, the words ‘Coffee’ and ‘Constantinople’ drifted across my caffeine-starved brain. My decision was made. Soon after a timid attempt at preparing my first Turkish coffee (with dubious success) on the stove for the two helpful boys who ran the car wash opposite, I packed up the gear and turned my wheels in the opposite direction towards Istanbul, and back into Europe.

Three days later and 300 kms through rolling hills, pine forests, more dramatic electric storms, remote villages and the occasional feral dog giving a half-hearted chase, I made it to the harbour town of Bandirma. Acting on the advice of fellow cycle tourers not to enter Istanbul by bike unless you have a death wish, I opted to take the boat. Soon enough, the sight of the soaring 17th century spires of the imperial Sultenhamet Mosque – or the Blue Mosque as it is often referred to – emerged from the haze of the Marmara Denizi (Sea of Mamara) horizon. Hardly able to contain my excitement at reaching the shores of this thriving megalopolis that has been a geographical and cultural ‘bridge’ between the East and West for so long, I completely forgot my fear of the chaotic traffic and hopped onto the bike to join the cacophony of car horns. My mission? To better understand the introduction of coffee to the city and its ‘conquest’ of the Ottoman Empire, many centuries ago. Oh, and to learn how to make a decent cup of Turkish Coffee.

The Wine of the Islamic World

Istanbul – formerly Constantinople – can lay claim to some pretty special world firsts as far as coffee is concerned. Evidence suggests that coffee was first brought to the  city by the Arabs from Yemen around the 14th century where the coffee’s dried hulls and beans were roasted using metal or earthenware dishes heated over an open fire. By the 15th century, there were so many people drinking coffee in the city that the world’s first kahveh kane (coffee house), Kiva Han, opened its doors in 1475. In the same year, it was made legal for a woman to divorce her husband if he failed to provide her with her daily quota of coffee. In fact, Ottoman enthusiasm for the custom of drinking coffee was such that in 1511, Khair Bey, the corrupt governor of Mecca, prohibited coffee consumption fearing that its mysterious power might ferment public resistance to his rule. The fatwa effectively shut down the coffee trade in Constantinople. After a week-long ‘reign of terror’ by the merchants, the Sultan of Cairo decided that coffee was a blessed drink and had the governor subsequently executed. It seems that with the spread of Islam, the bean soon followed in hot pursuit and nothing – or nobody – could stand in its way.

Here’s an early account of coffee in Constantinople by Francis Bacon in 1627:

‘They have in Turkey, a Drinke called Coffa, made of a Berry of the same Name, as Blacke as Soot, and of a strong Sent, but not Aromaticall;
Which they take, beaten into Powder, in Water, as Hot as they can Drinke it;
And they take it, and sit in their Coffa-Houses, which are like our Tavernes.
This Drinke comforteth the Braine, and Heart, and helpeth Digestion’.

Coffee had indeed become the ‘wine’ of Islam.

A vital clue as to how much coffee is now ingrained in the life of Turkish culture can be found in the language. For example, the word for ‘breakfast’ (khvalti) literally means ‘before coffee’ whilst the word for ‘brown’ (kahverengi) refers to ‘the colour of coffee’. Even in matrimonial matters, the bride will prepare Turkish Coffee for her guests and will use salt instead of sugar to season the groom’s ceremonial beverage. If he drinks the coffee without sign of displeasure or complaint, then he is regarded as a husband of good nature and temperament. Husbands-to-be, beware!

Now herein lies the paradox: Whilst fresh coffee still holds an exceptional place in Turkish culture and custom, the reality is that instant coffee is fast becoming a popular caffeinated beverage of choice for the younger generation especially, after çay (tea). Looking to buy some Turkish Coffee for my newly purchased cesve (coffee pot), It’s not uncommon to see the instant variety (sorry, but I just can’t bring myself to call it coffee!) in pride-of-place next to the counter. Yet there is no ground coffee in sight. Scanning the shelves a little closer, I’ve even discovered it relegated to the bottom shelf next to the Ajax and toilet cleaner. It was such a sight for sore eyes that I almost wept. Sadly, convenience (and big marketing budgets) yet again triumphs over taste and tradition.

Keeping the Coffee House flame Alive

To find a good coffee house, you only have to follow your nose. My first lead was a recommendation from an American whom I had met whilst we enjoyed a tasty roadside kebap. Early next day, I headed across the Bosphorus in search of the one of the few speciality micro-roasters in town. Despite becoming hopelessly lost in the side streets and back alleys of the bohemian area around the Galata Tower and Taksim, it was actually the warm inviting smell of freshly roasted beans that eve ntually guided me in. Finally, my tired legs were at the threshold of Cherrybean Coffees. Inside, traditional cezves and other coffee-related paraphernalia were decoratively arranged along one side of the cafe. Behind the jelly beans, almond dragee, assorted chocolates and homemade cake-laden counter stood a gleaming 10kg Toper coffee roasting machine ready for the next batch. Rhythmic blues and rock n’roll was the soundtrack to two middle-aged women locked in a fierce game of Scrabble, whilst books and magazines were strewn across the small round tables. The atmosphere was relaxed and easy-going; the perfect setting to while away the time with a good novel or engage in conversation, and drink coffee. On the side of each cup is the motto ‘şehirde taze kahve var…’ (there’s fresh coffee in the city). This was my kind of place.

Ali and Efe were the two expert, friendly Baristas running the establishment, owned by Ali’s sister Sehriban. We soon struck up conversation after I had managed to fend off my fatigue with a slice of their delicious cinnamon and vanilla homemade cake washed down with a rich double macchiato of their ‘Fancy’ blend (South American and Kenyan AA). Having opened for busines two years ago, Cherrybean Coffees is at the vanguard of the fledgling speciality coffee scene in Istanbul and is one of the few independent coffee houses that roasts its beans on-site; according to demand so as to ensure it is always served fresh.

In addition to the variety of blends for filter coffee and espresso, they also prepare their own special blends of Turkish Coffee in two varieties: the Keyif (medium) and the full, high-octane, roasted Tiryaki – Turkish for ‘addictive’. Judging from the aroma alone, it’s easy to see why. Sworn to secrecy not to disclose the secret of the blend’s origins, Efe patiently went through the stages of how to make a good Turkish coffee with me before dashing behind the counter to prepare a brew of his own. Eager to taste, I reached straight for the coffee as soon as he had set the cup and saucer onto the table. This prompted both of them to cry out for me to ‘Stop!’ as if I was just about to commit a cardinal sin. Lesson number one: Turkish coffee is always taken with a glass of water and the first rite of coffee drinking in Turkey is to clear the palate with a small sip. Only then can the full and wholesome flavour of the bean be appreciated. It was accompanied with a piece of their own homemade pistachio double roasted Turkish Delight. The combination was an epiphany for the taste buds! But as the sun hung low over the Bosphorus it was time to reluctantly cross the choppy straights once more. Before saying our farewells, I stocked up on a fresh bag of the nutty ‘Fancy’ blend with which to prime the Bialetti. In a gesture of typical Turkish generosity that I’m starting to become humbly accustomed to, Ali offered me a gift of Keyif Turkish Coffee to savour and help hone my Turkish Coffee making skills on the road.

Turkish Coffee: From the Palace to the Bazaar

To fully appreciate the significance of coffee in Turkish culture, I think you would have to travel back in time to the days of the Ottoman Empire. Falling short of procuring a time machine or a chance encounter with The Doctor, the next best thing was to visit the Palace Collections Museum that houses historical items from the Dolmabahçe Palace. Like a jewel bestriding the Bosphorus rivaling Versailles for its opulence and fusion of Rococo, Baroque and Neoclassical styles blended with Ottoman architecture, the grande gates of the palace were firmly closed shut. Yet, despite all warnings to the contrary at the information desk, my luck held out and sure enough, the Art Gallery was not only open but did not charge a tourist tax in the form of an admission fee either. The exhibition, wistfully entitled, Sarayda Bir Fincan Kahve (A Cup of Coffee in the Palace in Memory of Old Times), displays objects that were used in coffee ceremonies during the reign of the Sultans until the abolition of the Caliphate in 1924.

Studying the objects on display, it becomes clear that the Turks gave coffee a unique identity all of its own by their distinctive means of preparation, serving and the rituals surrounding the beverage’s consumption. Coffee culture had clearly reached a stage of supreme development during this era. In the palaces, harems and kiosks of the well healed, the experience of drinking coffee had evolved into a visual feast to complement and tantalize the rest of the senses. During the Ottoman period, coffee became one of the most important rituals in daily life and special occasions. The serving of coffee often started with sweets such as Turkish delight and sherbet. This was followed by the smoking of a water pipe with fragrant apple or cherry-infused tobacco. The beverage itself was served by the brazier (sili), cups and cup holders (zarl) which were some of the best works of art to survive from that period. The chief Coffee Master (khaveci başi) responsible for serving the coffee also had to take care of the ornate paraphernalia associated with the ceremony. This included the coffee cups, holders, sili sets, sumptuous ceremonial coffee clothes and ornate ibriks (vessels) for serving rosewater. The drink was served on an exquisitely embroided circular cloth (puşide) that was detailed with gold or silver flowers and pearls. The exhibition also displays some stunning sets of coffee cups and holders crafted from finely cut crystal that catch the eye with a bright sparkle under the dim glow of the halogen lights. Unfortunately, taking photographs in the exhibition was prohibited so you’ll just have to take my word for it!

For centuries, coffee was purchased as a green bean and taken home to be roasted in pans and grinded in mortars or hand-operated mills. It was not until 1871 when Kurukahveci Mehmet Efendi (Kurukahveci means ‘dealer in roasted coffee beans and ground coffee’) first established his enterprise of commercially mass-producing ground, roasted coffee. The family business is now run by his grandsons and has become such a success that Mehmet Efendi is now synonymous with Turkish Coffee.

Egyptian Spice Market in the Grand Bazaar, Istanbul

A venture through the bustling labyrinth of streets in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar is an unforgettable assault on the senses. One of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, the vast, sprawling roofed complex provides shelter and storage for sellers of jewellery, antiquities, leather, clothes and spices amongst other goods. The persistence of the salesmen and their sales skills are such that I am seriously convinced they could sell ice to an Eskimo. Again, I only had to follow my nose though the spice market to find the historic Kurukahveci Mehmet Efendi coffee shop. The establishment was obviously doing a roaring trade and the queue stretched far into the distant throng of shoppers. It is an incredible sight to behold. Nine or so teenaged young men form a conveyor belt along the window-fronted shop. From the weighing of the ground Brazilian (unwashed) Arabica bean, to the various stages of packing and final transaction with the customer, each is responsible for a specific task whilst the only legally aged adult in the shop keeps a watchful eye over the whole frantically paced process. The speed and dexterity in which the boys’ hands packaging the coffee into their respective weights (40g, 100g, 250, 500g and 1kg) is truly astonishing. You’ll see what I mean if you view the short clip here. Meanwhile, three large floor-mounted grinders hum continually in the background, fed by three large metal chutes from the ceiling above. The specialization, division of labour and industrial speed in which the coffee is packaged is a fascinating scene to watch. I am sure it would have made Adam Smith smile with pride if it were not for his concern with pins.

This, sadly, is where the coffee trail in Istanbul ends (for now) and I’m taking the detour back into Asia Minor once again. But the rich history of the city during the days of the Ottamans it has given me a richer, deeper understanding of the important role that coffee plays in establishing and strengthening the bonds of friendship in Turkish culture.

A paragraph from the exhibition’s brochure sums it up for me perfectly. It reads:

‘Coffee once shared has implications that outlive the coffee itself: its suggests peace, friendship, love and respect. This sentiment is crystallised in the Turkish expression which says ‘the memory of a single cup of coffee lasts forty years’.

I’ll drink (Turkish Coffee) to that.

Water is Life

Let’s face it, coffee is a thirsty business. Along with cocoa, cotton, palm oil, soya, maize and rice, coffee is one of the most water-intensive commodities traded globally today.

The huge amounts of water required to ‘de-pulp’ the coffee berry depends heavily on the specific washing process employed after the harvesting of the fruit. The wet fully washed processing method, widely preferred to prepare the coffee Arabica bean for export, is the most intensive by far.

Although washing techniques have improved over the years with greater use of water reuse, up to one to six cubic metres per tonne of fresh coffee cherry is still needed. Without reuse, nearly a staggering 20 cubic metres per tonne is required. To put it another way, on average 140 litres of clean water is required in the production of coffee for every cup.

And it is a sad but inescapable fact that coffee production takes place in some of the most water stressed regions in the world, namely Africa and Asia.

In total, it is estimated that the world’s population currently requires about 110 billion cubic metres of water per year to satisfy our unquenchable thirst for coffee. This is the equivalent to one and a half times the amount of the Rhine’s annual runoff.

Now, I’m not suggesting we should all stop drinking coffee (far from it) as there are more sustainable and less water intensive alternatives available such as the dry or semi-washed method; but what if our need for a daily fresh cup of the black stuff was replaced by a much more pressing – and life saving – concern?

Last week, on Tuesday 22nd March, World Water Day was a crucial moment in the fight against the global sanitation and water crisis.

In recognition of one of the most pressing global issues in the 21st century, the theme for this year is Water for Cities: Responding to the Urban Challenge. For the first time in human history, we now inhabit a world where the majority of the world’s population live in cities – 3.3 billion people – and the urban landscape continues to grow. Exponentially.

Compounded by the impacts of climate change, conflict and lack of economic opportunity, the migration from rural to urban areas is gathering pace. Ninety five percent of urban growth will take place in the developing world over the coming decades. By 2030 around 60% of all the people in the world will be urban dwellers; of which many are living in slums conditions lacking the basic services that we in more developed countries take for granted.

This explosion in population and urban growth all points to one overriding factor; increasing demand for clean drinking water and safe sanitation.

Did you know that?

  • More people have mobile phones than a toilet
  • The urban poor pay up to 50 times more for a litre of water than their richer neighbours, since they often have to buy their water from private vendors
  • 828 million people live in slum conditions, lacking basic services. This number grows by 6 million each year
  • Households in rural Africa spend about a quarter of their working day collecting water
  • Pakistan spends 47 times more on the military than on water and sanitation – it is not alone; many countries spend more on guns than on water taps
  • Just one flush of a toilet uses more water than most Africans have to use in a day
  • Half of all hospital beds in the developing world are full with people suffering from water and sanitation related diseases such as malaria, cholera and diarrhoea
  • Diarrhoea caused by unsafe water, inadequate sanitation and insufficient hygiene needlessly kills 4,000 children every day

Of course, it is easy to feel depressed and at times helpless in the face of these stark statistics but the crucial point is that this global crisis can be tackled through practical, sustainable solutions. One international NGO leading the fight to provide clean water, safe sanitation and hygiene education to the world’s poorest people is Water Aid.

Today, you can help to save lives in tackling this global crisis by either visiting the Virgin Money Giving sponsorship page or going to the Water Aid website to find out more about their work, and how to get involved.

There is an old African proverb which says that – unlike the coffee berry – ‘water cannot be washed’. Enough said.

Brewing up the Perfect Storm

The price of coffee is soaring.

Price Index (US cents/lb) from 4th Jan'10 - 7th Feb'11 Source: International Coffee Organization (ICO)

When you consider that coffee is second in value only to oil as a source of foreign exchange in terms of world trade and provides employment for hundreds of millions of people worldwide, the ramifications on a domestic and global scale are huge.

In the past eight months alone, the cost of high-quality washed Arabica beans has increased by more than 80 percent on the London and New York exchanges, representing a 13-year high.

Unpredictable weather patterns and a fragile supply/demand balance are largely cited as being responsible for this surge.

Colombia, the world’s second largest producer of hand-picked Arabica beans after Brazil, has been hit particularly hard. Extreme shifts in climatic conditions have devastated once reliable harvests. Successive years of drought and heavy rainfall have resulted in a steep drop in production from its peak production of 17m bags in 1992 to 8.9m last year.

Rising humidity is also having an impact with crop diseases such as Coffee Leaf Rust and insect infestations like the Broca Beetle reaching epidemic levels. As a result, family growers who have been in the business for generations are now diversifying into farming plantain, avocados and oranges from the rich volcanic soils of their plantations to soften the blow, and ensure their future sustainability.

It is of course true that growers will always welcome a high price for their lucrative cash crop. In India, where unseasonably heavy monsoons have reduced coffee yields in recent years, a BBC report highlights that smaller harvests do not necessarily have to translate into less profit when coffee fetches a premium. However, pressure to produce high quality Arabica beans in the face of climatic change and hyper-volatility of the markets continues to be a concern for growers.

The Fairtrade Foundation are already introducing measures to help mitigate the impact of climate change affecting small scale co-operatives like those in the Mbale region of Uganda. It is feared that the increase in average temperature could cease Arabica bean production entirely within the next decade. When more than half of the country’s GDP is derived from coffee production, the devastation to the economy and livelihoods of millions of Ugandans’ would be nothing short of a catastrophe.

Elsewhere, production is on the up. In Nepal, a relative newcomer as an emerging exporter of Arabica beans, the quantity of  coffee parchments has jumped four-fold in the last five years; partly due to the increase of farmers establishing plantations in the high altitude pastures of the Himalaya. The vast majority of Nepali coffee is also organically grown which is increasingly in demand. Realising this economic potential, the government has introduced measures to further double production in the next three years. Whether this will be fairly traded or not remains to be seen.

As global demand for coffee consumption increases at a steady one to two percent every year without any sign of abating, there is no reason to see why prices will fall anytime soon. The latest forecast in last month’s International Coffee Organization’s (ICO) report estimates a 9.5 percent increase in global production this year (2010/11). Strong exports from countries like Brazil and emerging markets have helped to reverse the 1.2 percent drop in production from the year previously, which means that global stocks will remain low for the foreseeable future. Ominously, the report goes on to conclude that ‘unfavourable weather conditions in major coffee producing regions continue to increase uncertainties.

So what does all this mean for the retailer and customer at the other end of the supply chain?

For specialist independent coffee retailers who are dedicated to selling honestly priced freshly roasted coffee, this could spell difficult times ahead as they struggle to absorb the rising cost of the bean.

'Anyone for a litre of coffee?'

For global coffee chain giants such as the Seattle-based Starbucks – who recently announced a 44 percent increase in profits in the last quarter from a year-ago – the upward trend in the cost of coffee is, relatively speaking, small beer.

Just don’t be surprised when the price of their super-sized 31oz Trenta portion of skinny-latte soon goes up to inflict further damage to the wallet, and the bladder.

The price of coffee may be at a thirteen year high but right from the soil to the sip, it appears that a ‘perfect storm’ is brewing.

A Shining Light for Generations of Coffee Lovers

Cafés El Magnífico
Carrer de l’Argenteria
Beans on the Menu: More than forty different varieties and blends worldwide to suit the most discerning of palettes plus a wide variety of speciality tea
Crutch Compatibility:
Sins muletas, con cojera (without crutches, with limp)
Caffeine delivery method:
Freshly roasted Tunki filter coffee. Also purchased: 250g Espresso Virtuoso Mezcla (Brazil, Nicaragua, Colombia, India), 250g Ethiopian Harrar Boldgrain
Hit to the wallet:
Music Playing: No jukebox required
Website: www.cafeselmagnifico.com

Señor Salvador Sans is a fast-talking Catalan who is serious about coffee. You could say that it runs through the veins. Well it certainly has been running in the bloodline for generations since his grandfather first started to roast coffee on the streets of the Barrio El Born district back in 1919. But during the three decades of Franco’s dictatorship (1939-1975), coffee was sadly a luxury only enjoyed by the extremely wealthy and the business of roasting and selling coffee was banned under the regime. Yet, the time-honoured skills and knowledge were defiantly – and bravely – passed down from one generation to the next. Now the third and current owner, Salvador, who inherited the business from his father in the early nineties, is faithfully keeping this family tradition alive.

From these humble beginnings that began on the corner of the narrow Carrer d’en Rosic almost a century ago, the family business has grown beyond recognition. Cafés El Magnífico now trades behind the warm glow of its stained glass window which delicately frames the shop front on the bustling L’Agenteria. Located near the magnificent lofty columns of the medieval Basilica Santa Maria del Mar, this welcoming boutique-like coffee shop serves and sells some of the – if not the – best beans in town.

“You want to see some coffee being roasted?” Salvador asks without giving a moment’s pause for a response. “Let me show you where it all first started,” he says before leading the way at a brisk enough pace for my, now crutch-unaided ankle, to just about keep up with. Within a few moments we arrive at the worn wooden doors of the old premises and he leads me down into the basement to introduce me to the Vittoria roasting machine which still bares the scars of a fire just three years-ago. Operated by roastmaster Iván from Cuba, it was just finishing off a morning batch of Arabica coffee beans from Timor. “They’re not ready yet,” said Salvador as he inspected the bag of newly roasted beans, “they need at least another 48 hours for the aroma to fully come through.”

Within a matter of minutes, we were on the street again and back on the pace towards the distribution ‘nerve-centre’ of the business. It is a spacious half-cum warehouse, half-cum art gallery with framed coffee sacks from all over the world hanging on the walls; each printed with the distinct ‘coffee art’ of the grower. Sacks from Papua New Guinea, India, Brazil, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama are just some of the artworks on display. The aroma inside the high-ceiling storehouse is infused with a heavenly mix of coffee and speciality teas that are carefully being hand packed and sealed, ready for delivery to the 200 plus – and growing – book of clients.

Without any diversion, Salvador heads straight to his favourite roasting machine; the 30 kilo Roure, dating back to 1960. As a testament to the unique character of any roaster, this gleaming behemoth with a cast-iron chamber at its heart is at its best when roasting Brazilian beans, he proudly maintains. The controls that can be programmed with multiple ‘profiles’ to exact the roaster’s requirements looked more befitting of a British Nuclear Fuels reactor instrument panel (circa-1989) than a coffee roasting machine; but that’s the science of roasting.

Yet beneath the evident pride in running a successful family coffee business that supplies a ton-and-a-half of freshly roasted coffee to cafes and restaurants in and around Barcelona each week, there is an underlying frustration. The reason, he laments, is that despite the prodigious amount of bars in the city (a staggering 15,000), that serve coffee, very few have the “loyalty, faithfulness, and professionalism” that is essential if coffee-across-the-counter is to achieve its full flavoursome potential. His startling but insightful analogy of an espresso machine being likened to a fruit gambler where the “owner doesn’t care what comes out the other end as long as it makes him money” immediately shatters my over-romanticised vision of the deft and meticulously trained Spanish (or Catalan) Barista in a single retort. “It is nothing short of a crime,” he sighs.

But Salvador and his dedicated team of 24 employees continue to keep this history-steeped family flame alive to ensure that excellent coffee remains a reality in Barcelona for years to come. For him, the essence underpinning the success of Cafés El Magnífico is the refrain of coffee-enthusiasts everywhere. Simply put: ‘Adoro Café’ (I love Coffee). Once the bills are paid, profit comes only after good coffee, he insists. And I believe him.

“I want coffee to shine, as a product and as a drink” he says passionately, as we enjoy a cup of the silky award-winning and organically certified Tunki (Peru) coffee with two customers in the back of the shop. Asked if he expects either of his two children to take over the business when he retires, he pauses for the first time since we met earlier that morning. Thoughtfully, he explains that his ten year-old son currently has only a passion for FC Barcelona. His sixteen-year old daughter however seems to be following assuredly in her father’s footsteps and already works in the shop at the weekend and during holidays.

“We’ll see, who knows what the future will hold,” he responds with a philosophical, paternal beam. If the past – and present – is anything to go by, I don’t think Salvador has much to worry about.

Bean on a Limp rating: 5/5 stars

Caffeine on the Brain

It is estimated that more than two billion cups of coffee worldwide are drank everyday. Add the delightfully restorative drink ‘tea’ into the equation and no other mood-altering stimulant is consumed on such a potentially global jitter-inducing scale.

So, what exactly is caffeine?

Firstly, caffeine comes from an organic family of nitrogenous compounds called xanthine alkaloids that, when consumed, give rise to marked physiological – and psychoactive – effects on the human body. Other sources known to contain this powerful compound include the Gurana berry, Cocao bean, Kola nut, Yaupon Holly tree, and South American Yerba mate, amongst many others (so far, up to 60 plants are known to contain the compound caffeine).

But for the purposes of this post, I trust that you will forgive me if we stick to coffee.

The 'Father' of Caffeine? Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge

In 1820, caffeine was first isolated from coffee by the German chemist Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge, apparently at the behest of Johan Wolfgang von Goethe. The following year, the French chemist Pierre Joseph Pelletier, coined the word ‘cafeine’ after the French derivation for the word coffee; café. However, it was not until the end of the 19th century that its complete chemical structure was discovered by Hermann Ermil Fischer, who was the first person to achieve its total synthesis. Fishcher was later awarded the Nobel Prize in 1902 for his work in this field of organic chemistry.

Pure Caffeine Powder

Caffeine, or to use its laboratory name – 1,3,7-trimethylxanthine – manifests itself in its purist from as a white crystalline solid. Yet to the human brain, it is one of the most effective ‘cuckoo’ compounds in the chemical world.

Here’s why…

Throughout the day, the neurotransmitter adenosine is naturally created in the brain and builds up to a level that eventually helps to bring about the onset of that deep, regenerative state we know as sleep. It binds to the receptors resulting in a feeling of drowsiness by slowing down nerve cell activity whilst the blood cells dilate to allow more oxygen to the brain.

Caffeine: The primary antagonist of adenosine receptors in the brain

Now, as far as your average nerve cell is concerned, caffeine, with its chemical structure – C8H10N4O2 – looks suspiciously like adenosine – C10H13N5O4 – thereby allowing this chemical ‘master of disguise’ to bind to the adenosine receptors. But the psychoactive result is the exact opposite. Instead of inducing a feeling of drowsiness, the chemical composition of caffeine encourages the nerve impulses to speed up.

This build up of chemical mimicry prevents the real adenosine from binding to its own receptors. Consequently, the brain is kick-started into a state of arousal and becomes more alert. The stimulating effects of caffeine on the central nervous system also dramatically increases the amount of the ‘happy’ neurotransmitter dopamine to be produced. These heightened levels are coupled with feelings of well-being and improved mood. It is in fact the psychoactive effect of dopamine that makes caffeine so addictive.

Now things start to get really interesting.

As the brain experiences a speeding up of nerve cell activity caused by the neuro-pathways firing on all cylinders, the body goes into ‘fight or flight’ mode. It is at this juncture that the pituitary gland steps into the proceedings, and sensing an emergency, sends a signal to the adrenal glands to produce more of the hormone epinephrine, also known as adrenaline.

We all know what happens next.

With the body now in a state of heightened alert, the all-too-familiar symptoms of increased heart rate; raised blood pressure; sweaty palms; a ‘spike’ in levels of blood sugar produced by the liver to provide extra energy; dilated pupils; suppressed appetite; and a tensing of the muscles; are just some of the side-effects of this biological ‘code red’. Once the perceived ’emergency’ is over, the body’s adrenaline and dopamine levels start to return back to normal, coupled with a slowing of nerve cell activity as the adenosine begins to bind to the receptors once again. It takes approximately ten hours for caffeine to fully leave the system.

Caffeinated Spiderweb

Like anything consumed in excess, too much caffeine can prove fatal. Just 10g is considered a lethal dose. Fortunately, an average espresso contains a mere 100-150mg so seriously herculean quantities of the stuff would have to be consumed in a single sitting to bring on death.

This cannot be said of spiders…

In the final analysis, we all have to make our own personal judgement about the pros and cons of caffeine consumption, once in full possession of the facts.

But before you reach for the decaf (which still contains caffeine – just a reduced amount), stop and spare a moment to consider this mysterious but potent ‘cuckoo’ of the chemical world, and its powerful effects.

For good or for bad, it is without equivocation that caffeine on the brain changes the body’s chemistry.

In more ways than one.

The Science (and Art) of Roasting Coffee

It is said that coffee roasting is ‘part science, part art, and part magic.’ This indeed is true. In fact, the science involved in the process of roasting coffee beans is nothing short of astonishing.

Witnessing the process for the very first time, this is my personal account of what happens. Now, I do have a confession to make. In no way do I claim to be knowledgeable or experienced in this fascinating field (far from it) but the following description is a humble attempt to record my observations and what I have learned so far. So here goes…

“It takes 400 man hours for every pound of unroasted beans to reach this point. Now is not the time to get it wrong”, said artisan roaster, Ian, as he excitedly fires up the trusty 14lb (in old money) capacity Uno. With a ‘pop’ and a ‘whoosh’, the blue flame from its DNA-like helical gas burner breathes into life. Allowing time for the post-war roasting machine to warm up, he methodically inspects the six kilo batch of hard, tasteless Ethiopian Yirgacheffe (produced in the lush, deep soils of the high-rolling mountains of the Sidamo region, southern Ethiopia) for any ‘offenders’ that do not make the grade and could potentially spoil the entire process.

To the nose, the beans give off a delicate profusion of freshly mown hay or the smell of the earth just when the first raindrops fall on the dry, sun-kissed ground in summer. Only when the roaster is completely satisfied with the overall consistency in quality and size, does the Uno’s vintage belt-driven motor hum into action. The beans are then carefully poured into its horizontal-axis chamber. To a soft percussive rhythm, the lightly green and blue-hued beans become a blur as they brush the insides of the rotating drum.

As each second passes, the unhurried alchemy of extracting the delightful flavour from the coffee gradually reveals itself.

In a seeming state of perpetual free fall, the – as yet – unroasted beans begin to absorb the heat from the Uno’s centrifugal fire. Five-or-so expectant minutes pass. Nothing much of note happens to the untrained eye during this preliminary ‘drying off’ phase. And then, the first wisp of a feint smoky aroma, like the smell of toast, begins to emanate; a sensory prologue to the action that is to follow.

At this point the core temperature inside the coffee bean has broken through the threshold of 150-160 degrees centigrade, and is steadily climbing. At the molecular level, this magical moment is coupled with an explosion of cellular activity as the bean’s very chemical composition starts to dramatically change in a series of volatile runaway reactions. In physical terms, this metamorphosis is the transition from an endothermic (to take in heat energy) state to becoming exothermic (to give out heat energy).

It is shortly after this stage when the first ‘crack’ – not dissimilar to the sound of the popping or splitting of popcorn – of the coffee bean occurs and the effects of the increased energy inside the bean becomes visible. By now, they are starting to release their hidden aromatic oils that have been conspicuously concealed so well since their early days of infancy as an unripened green berry on the bush. In the following minutes, the temperature rises further to approximately 220 degrees. The pressure increases too; creating the optimum conditions for the necessary exogenous chemical reactions to take place.

Cascading inside the Uno’s spinning drum, the beans take on a yellow-orange colour as they start to give up their locked-in moisture. Water vapour and carbon dioxide is released in extraordinary quantities through the ‘fissure’ which  runs through the centre line of the bean. This leads to a rapid expansion in volume (up to twice the bean’s original size), accompanied by a marked loss in weight and density. In the parlance of the chemistry class, it is known as the Maillard Reaction. From a personal perspective, it is as though the beans are bursting back into life after a suspended period of deep hibernation.

The temperature still rising, further complex chemical reactions occur between the amino acids, carbohydrate and sucrose compounds (more than 800 hundred have been identified so far). By now, the beans have turned to a light brown colour signaling the ‘carimalisation’ of the natural oils and sugars that give the coffee bean its distinctive colour and rich flavour.

The skill – or ‘art’ to be more exact – of the speciality roaster is the intuitive use of his or her senses. Without a temperature gauge or timer in sight, the roaster falls into a spell of intense concentration as the final critical moments approach. Like a Michelin-starred chef or master wine blender, he is using all his senses to bring out and enhance the best characteristics that the Yirgacheffe has to offer. Meanwhile, the beans take on a dark chestnut colour as the premises of J. Atkinson & Co. fill with their delicious, almost floral, nutty aroma.

Asked if he is ever afraid of the beans catching fire, Ian enigmatically responds, “every roaster is christened with his first fire at some stage, I decided to get mine in early”.

It only takes a mesmerising 12 minutes from start to finish. With a final flourish of the roaster’s hand to bring the Uno’s rhythmic mechanical overture to a close; the drum comes to a stop, the helix flame is extinguished and the roasted Ethiopian Yirgacheffe beans spill out into the perforated cooling tray below. Lightly coated with their natural coffee-flavoured oils, they glisten in the low mid-afternoon sun, as they are patiently stirred to bring their temperature back down to an ambient level.

Stages of Roast

Depending on the specific roast desired (low, medium, high; full roast, double roast), the bean can go through a further two or three ‘cracks’ until the roaster decides to terminate the process. Done with expert split-second timing, this is to ensure that the balance of flavour, complexity of taste and acidity levels all add up to the holy grail of the experienced Roastmaster: Perfection.

Coffee roasting is a centuries-old craft. In today’s age of impressive scientific discovery, we still do not fully understand the massive thermodynamic changes that roasting brings about inside the bean. One thing is for sure however, I now understand why its is affectionately referred to as an ‘art’.

And what about the ‘magic’ I hear you ask?

Well, all I can say is that you only have to taste the sublime Ethiopian Yirgacheffe coffee for yourself to discover the answer.

A Cup Above the Rest

In many respects, this journey did not start in London. It began in Lancaster. And where better than to embark on a coffee-inspired bike ride to Ethiopia other than the historic premises of master tea blenders and coffee roasters, J. Atkinson & Co.?

Established in 1837 as the Grasshopper Tea Warehouse, J. Atkinson & Co. has traded from its China Street premises since 1901 and is undoubtedly the jewel in the crown of the city’s illustrious heritage. Walk into the welcoming premises of this family-run business and the first thing that greets you is the warm, enticing aroma of the artisan roasted coffee bean.

Pause for a moment, and the delicate fragrance of expertly blended tea complements the sensory experience.

Inside, every aspect has been lovingly restored back to its former glory. In one corner stands the ‘Uno’, the stalwart coffee roasting machine which dates back to 1945 and continues to fill the street outside with its delicious aroma – as it has done for generations. The mouth-watering menu of more 80 different varieties of coffee and blends spanning the globe, each with a unique provinence of their own, are all carefully ground to your own requirements; if that is what you prefer. Similarly, bell jars of blended tea from the subtle to the exotic adorn the shelves; just waiting to release their heavenly infusion. It is clear to see that trade is brisk but the pace behind the old vintage counter is measured, almost reverential, in respect of a special kind of alchemy that takes place on these premises daily.

Prior to being waved off by artisan roaster, Ian, on a bitingly cold December afternoon with my gift of unroasted Ethiopian Yirgacheffe beans concealed in the bike frame, I was privileged to be given the opportunity to familiarise myself with the time-honoured art of the Roaster and Barista. A debt of gratitude is owed to proprietors Ian and Sue Steel for their generosity of knowledge and who effortlessly accommodated my endless questions on that busy, but special day.

A further highlight was the chance to spend some time with Barista-par-excellence, Caspar, who has taken out a Gap Year to run the contemporary Music Room Cafe. Like an expert craftsman or artist who’s smooth and precise movements belie years’ of training, creativity and dedication, he introduced me to the sublime profession of Latte Art. Respect.

A truly inspiring, humbling and unforgettable experience.

In an age of rampant globalisation, outstanding establishments like J.Atkinson & Co. – who play their play their part in the wider global community by ethically sourcing the very highest quality of tea and coffee – are hard to come by.

In a word? Passion.

In the Beginning…

It is told that the rejuvenating and stimulating effects of the coffee bean plant were first discovered in Ethiopia by an Abyssinian goat herder, named Kaldi, back in the 9th century.

One day, while Kaldi was tending to his goats, he grew tired and decided to take a quick nap. He later awoke to find his goats dancing gleefully around him.

Kaldi decided to investigate what was causing his goats to behave so energetically. Following them, he was led to a certain bush that produced an abundance of bright red, yellow and green berries.

After tasting a small handful, Kaldi began to experience a similar elation that he had observed in his goats earlier that day. He took them back to his village and presented the berries to the village elder in a state of excitement. The elder, skeptical of Kaldi’s discovery, threw them into the fire. Minutes later, a rich enticing aroma filled the air. The roasted beans were quickly raked from the embers of the fire, ground up, and placed into a bowl of steaming hot water.

And so legend has it, that high up in the in the Ethiopian province of Kaffa many centuries ago, the world’s first cup of coffee was made. The rest, as they say, is history.