“Coffee is a lot more than just a drink; it’s something happening. Not as in hip, but like an event, a place to be, but not like a location, but like somewhere within yourself. It gives you time, but not actual hours or minutes, but a chance to be, like be yourself, and have a second cup.”
~ Gertrude Stein, Selected Writings
For many, coffee is an essential part of the waking process. It vivifies and rejuvenates, it smells delicious and steams the cobwebs out of your head, putting a bit more bounce in your step than you might be able to muster without it. While coffee’s stimulant properties are widely known and often relied upon, there is so much more to that cup of Joe than you may know.
The history of human coffee use stretches back into the realm of legend. It is said that coffee’s magical properties were first discovered by an Ethiopian goatherd named Kaldi who noticed one day that his goats had more pep in their step after eating berries from a particular tree. He told a local abbot about it, and the abbot brewed the berries into a drink that helped him stay up through long hours of prayer, and he told someone who told someone else, and so on. By the 15th century, coffee was being cultivated, traded, and savored throughout the Arabian Peninsula, and by the 16th century, it was being enjoyed in the European coffee houses that famously fomented, nurtured, and birthed the Enlightenment.
“Coffee—the favorite drink of the civilized world.”
Overall Health Benefits
Coffee’s uplifting and rejuvenating properties go beyond simply helping clear our sleepy heads and lifting Western civilization out of the Dark Ages, it may also reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, help to treat Parkinson’s disease, minimize suicidal ideation, lower the risk of stroke, and protect against cirrhosis. Coffee may also reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes, and a 2012 study that followed 400,000 men and women ages 50–71 for more than 10 years found that coffee drinkers had a lower overall risk of death (3.2% and 1.8% for men and women, respectively).
One of the most expensive coffees in the world is known as kopi luwak. It can cost upward of $600/pound. The process that gives kopi luwak its unique flavor takes place in the gut of the luwak, or Indonesian palm civet. Unfortunately, the urge to capitalize on their priceless poop has led to inhumane conditions on the plantations where they are kept.
If you wish to spend even more for a pre-digested brew that professes to be humane and even beneficial to its non-human employees, you could opt instead for a $50 cup of Black Ivory coffee. The process is similar to that of kopi luwak, though the mammalian distilleries involved in Black Ivory production are much, much larger.
“It is inhumane, in my opinion, to force people who have a genuine medical need for coffee to wait in line behind people who apparently view it as some kind of recreational activity.”
Coffee and Cancer
The relationship between coffee and cancer is complex and often the subject of scientific studies. While there appears to be a correlation between coffee consumption and a reduced risk of some types of cancer, the reverse is also true for other types. Coffee is rich in antioxidants, but the roasting process also introduces the carcinogen, acrylamide, which recently led a California judge to rule that coffee companies must provide cancer warnings on the coffees they sell.
Below is a sampling of the research, both positive and negative.
Coffee consumption has been linked to a lower risk of colorectal cancer (CRC). A study published in March of 2018 looked at the pre-and post-diagnostic coffee intake of 1599 CRC patients, and found an inverse relationship between coffee intake and CRC mortality among those who drank four or more cups of coffee/day. The effect was particularly pronounced for patients who had reached stage III.
Evidence is mounting that coffee consumption can reduce the risk of liver cancer, and several studies over the last decade have borne this out. Among them, a Japanese large-scale, population-based study published in 2005 concluded that habitual coffee drinking may be associated with reduced risk of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), at least within the Japanese population. A 2007 meta-analysis concurred, with reduced risk of HCC regardless of whether the coffee was caffeinated or decaffeinated, or if individuals had pre-existing liver disease.
While avoiding excessive sun exposure is the most surefire way to prevent malignant melanoma (MM), a 2015 study that looked at data including coffee consumption from 447,357 retirees over 10 years found a significant reduction in the number of subjects who developed MM among those who drank at least four cups of caffeinated coffee per day. The researchers postulated that caffeine may be the protective factor, or there may be another substance at work that is filtered out by the decaffeination process along with the caffeine.
In addition to caffeine, coffee contains phenolic acids and antioxidant compounds that can affect sex hormone levels and glucose metabolism, which may be associated with reduced risk of prostate cancer. To investigate, researchers followed the caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee intake of 47,900 men at 4‑year intervals beginning in 1986, and they found that men who consumed six or more cups of decaffeinated or caffeinated coffee per day had a reduced overall risk of developing prostate cancer. The effect was most pronounced in relation to lethal or metastatic cancers.
A pooled analysis of 10 European bladder cancer case-control studies looked at the relationship between coffee consumption and bladder cancer risk in non-smokers, and found a statistically significant excess risk of developing bladder cancer in male and female subjects who reported consuming more than 10 cups of coffee per day.
A 2008 study of 29,060 postmenopausal women found an increased risk of ovarian cancer in women who drank more than five cups of caffeinated coffee per day.
The Jury is Still Out
To further complicate things, a 10-year follow-up study of Norwegian 35–54-year-old men and women found no association between coffee consumption and overall cancer risk. A positive association was found between coffee consumption and lung cancer risk, though the researchers couldn’t rule out smoking and other lifestyle factors as confounding influences, and an inverse association was found between coffee consumption and cancers of the buccal cavity and pharynx, and with malignant melanoma (see above). This study also found no significant associations between coffee consumption and cancers of the pancreas or bladder.
Selection, Use, and Storage
Which Brew’s for You?
Numerous variables affect the flavor of your morning cuppa, including the country of origin (even the properties of the soil at a given plantation and the weather conditions the year the beans were harvested), the roast, the method of preparation, and as explained above, sometimes, very expensively, the animal in which the beans were fermented. Politics also come into play, with shade vs. fair trade, vs. Starbucks, vs. Folgers. There are entire books written about this stuff, but here we will give you a brief rundown of the basics.
Country of Origin
Coffee is a lot like wine, in that connoisseurs drill deeply into the details of the origin of a given bag of beans, though simply knowing where the beans were grown will go a long way toward determining what your sipping experience will be. So long as your choice of roast is on the lighter side and you aren’t a fan of flavored brews, country of origin will have the most impact on your coffee drinking experience.
Broadly, coffee flavors can be broken down into the general geographic regions where it is grown. South American beans tend to be on the acidic side with a bright, sharp taste; African coffees also tend toward the light and acidic, though with a subtle sweetness and sometimes chocolaty complexity; and the Indonesians tend to be low in acid, earthy, and rich. Among the outliers, high-end Jamaica Blue Mountain packs a powerful caffeine punch, while the Hawaiians have a sweeter take on a rich low-acid brew.
If you want to taste your coffee and not just the roast, go for a light or medium-roast, commonly known as cinnamon roast, though on the East Coast, you may also encounter New England roast, which is a tad darker. Light roasts retain the flavor of the bean and also more of the caffeine. Medium roasted coffees also contain more caffeine and more actual coffee flavor than the darker roasts.
Dark roasted coffees are more about the flavor of the roast than the bean, with French roast being darkest and having a low-caffeine, bitter, charred bite, while Italian roast is milder and smoother, and is the roast most commonly used in espresso (see Preparation below).
Like roasts and country of origin, there are more means of coffee preparation than we have space to detail here, but some common brewing techniques include drip, whether in a Mr. Coffee, a single cup Melitta filter, or a Chemex, which requires a medium grind and is the technique that most pre-ground coffee is intended for; French press, in which the coffee is steeped in a carafe and then the grounds are pressed to the bottom using a plunger; and espresso (enjoyable on its own or as the basis of a multitude of coffee drinks), which uses steam pressure to force the water through tightly packed grounds, resulting in a strong cup that stands up to milk and flavoring.
Coffee is considered safe for most adults, though drinking too much caffeinated coffee or drinking it late in the day/at night can lead to agitation, anxiety, and insomnia. There is some concern that excessive consumption can lead to heart problems or heart attack, and people who already have multiple risk factors for heart disease are cautioned against drastically increasing their intake of caffeine. Decaffeinated coffee is safe to consume, with continued drowsiness being its best known side effect.
Caffeinated coffee should never be used in enema form, as the practice has been linked to cases of severe side effects up to and including death.
Caffeinated coffee is safe for pregnant women when consumed in small quantities (2 cups/day or less). Drinking more than 2 cups/day (~200 mg of caffeine) has been linked to premature birth, miscarriage, and low birth weight.
People with osteoporosis should limit their intake of caffeinated coffee to 2–3 cups a day, as it can increase the amount of calcium that is excreted in the urine.
Drinking large amounts of caffeinated coffee can irritate the digestive tract, thereby increasing diarrhea symptoms, and possibly aggravate irritable bowel syndrome.
“…I have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons…”
~TS Eliot, from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock