The pleasures and pains of coffee

honore-de-balzacEver since the age of the enlightenment, the literary canon is steeped in references to the seductive power of coffee to refresh the senses and stimulate mind. From Beethoven to Voltaire, the creative output of musicians and writers has been fuelled by its invigorating properties. But there is one particular writer who stands out in his legendary lust for a drop of the good stuff.

The prolific French writer and playwright, Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850), had a reputation for taking his coffee addiction very seriously, and often to extreme lengths. So serious was his desire to summon his mighty literary muse from a steaming cup of Joe that he would regularly undertake marathon coffee-fuelled writing sessions. Rumour has it that he would drink immeasurable cups over sleepless days and nights of creative output. Balzac describes how he regularly experimented with grind size and would even consider eating the freshly ground coffee if his extractions of increasing intensity did not adequately satisfy his unquenchable thirst.

But although the Parisian dandy was widely acknowledged as one of the founding fathers’ of literary realism – inspiring Wilde, Engels, Proust, Dickens, Dostoyevsky and Kerouac amongst others, he was not known for working at lightening speed. Instead, his stamina for long hours of focus and dedication were unsurpassed. In his lifetime, he toiled away to produce more than 40 published texts before he bought the proverbial farm at the tender age of 51 years-old. His magnum opus, Las Comédie Humaine, was a collection of short stories and novels that presented a kaleidoscope of colourful characters in a panoramic depiction of French life after the fall of Bonaparte Napoléon – another self-confessed coffee addict. Balzac’s preferred method of writing was to eat a light meal and then sleep until midnight before rising to write for many restless, nocturnal hours. Here, he talks about the creative impact of coffee on his caffeine-starved brain:

“Ideas quick-march into motion like battalions of a grand army to its legendary fighting ground, and the battle rages. Memories charge in, bright flags on high; the cavalry of metaphor deploys with a magnificent gallop; the artillery of logic rushes up with clattering wagons and cartridges; on imagination’s orders, sharpshooters sight and fire; forms and shapes and characters rear up; the paper is spread with ink – for the nightly labour begins and ends with torrents of this black water, as a battle opens and concludes with black powder”.

Balzac’s pleasures and pains of drinking coffee are well documented. His words resonate with such literary force that the words jump off the page like a shot of espresso which arrest the senses with a Herculean vice-like grip; loosening only after its volcanic effects have finally left the system. In his own words, coffee had found its victim – and it would appear that Balzac surrendered to its sublime physiological and psycho-active effects gladly. To a lesser or greater extent, maybe we do share common ground with Balzac in his thumping literary salute to the bewitching brew that has the power to awaken and stir the creative forces in all of us?

 

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.