To Bean or not to bean?


When Roxy Music wrote their 1975 classic Love Is The Drug there is every possibility that they did so whilst under the influence of caffeine. An ironic thought, don’t you think? And whilst my last statement may be complete conjecture, were I a betting man (and were there some way of actually proving it) I would quite happily take the odds on it being true. For caffeine is, without any doubt the world’s single most popular mass-participation drug.

I’m bringing up the subject of caffeine, and specifically its most popular source, coffee, because I fear I may have an addiction. And as with most addictions the general consensus is that to discuss it is a good thing, especially when under the influence of one cup too many and suffering from twitchy fingers. Yes: my name is Gareth, and I am an addict.

However, I recently read an article that turned my whole notion of caffeine and its effects upon the human body upside down. If, like me, you value your daily coffee intake for its stimulant effect, then the following may come as a bit of a shock to you.

Caffeine, this article suggests, does not provide a stimulant buzz in the form that most of us have come to understand it. Rather, it mimics a substance already found within the brain known as adenosine. Adenosine is produced each time a neuron fires – a natural by-product, if you like – with levels building up throughout the day. Receptors inside the brain constantly monitor these growing levels in order to gauge activity and assess when the body is in need of rest. Once adenosine levels reach a certain point, the receptors trigger the brain to induce a feeling of tiredness in order to allow the body to rest and recover. Caffeine does such a good job of mimicking adenosine that it is able to bond to these receptors, reducing their ability to monitor true adenosine levels, and so hindering their ability to trigger the shut-down mechanism of tiredness. This means that the brain’s own stimulants can continue to function for a longer period of time before the brain goes into recovery mode. To paraphrase the words of the article, caffeine does not press the accelerator pedal to the brain, but rather limits the application of the brake.

Now, I have always valued my coffee for its study-enhancing stimulation. With exam time looming, I feel safe in the thought that should I choose to overindulge of an evening, I can always rely on a cup of wakey-juice to make my brain revision ready the following morning. But if I understand this article correctly, downing coffee will not allow me to nullify the effects of sleep deprivation and nocturnal reveries; if I’m tired, I will remain tired, and the only effect of a cheeky double espresso will be to make it that much harder for me to sleep. Caffeine understood in this way could, of course, still be used to one’s advantage: a well rested, healthy mind could be pushed to work for that precious while longer before heading to the land of nod. But used on a tired and hungover mind, it would only briefly stave off the inevitable and do nothing to enhance performance in the interim. So, my belief that the consumption of gallon upon gallon of coffee would in some way enhance my ability to revise is complete bunkum. Bummer.

On the back of this revelation, I thought I’d delve a little further into the world of coffee to see what other nuggets of truth I could uncover (and by delve I do of course mean ask Google).

Depending upon which sources you choose to believe, a regular intake of coffee can: reduce the risk of skin cancer, liver disease, and gallstones; stave off depression, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s disease; lead to a reduction in the body’s ability to absorb calcium, resulting in overly-brittle bones; and can cause anxiety, muscle twitching, flushing of the skin, and diarrhoea. A mixed bag there, I think you’ll agree. It is also a known fact that those substances we find particularly pleasurable to consume, be they deemed healthy or otherwise, we find so because they trigger the release of endorphins; just consider chocolate, and the sense of pleasure and indulgence classically associated with it. Chillies are said to have the same effect, as is exercise, alcohol, sex, laughter, and a multitude of other triggers, including coffee.

It would then seem a logical assumption that to drink a poor quality cup of coffee would be of lesser benefit, endorphin-wise, than to drink a good quality brew. But what constitutes a good quality brew? Does one go the latte route? Plenty of milk but light on the black stuff (it may help to combat the brittle-bone problem). Or is hairy-chested espresso the way forward? Small, intense, and packing a punch – the Joe Pesci of the coffee world. And then there’s the question of the bean: is it Arabica or Robusta? Do you Java Lava or Monsooned Malabar? Bourbon or Peaberry? You can even choose whether your coffee beans have been vomited by a civet or excreted by a weasel. No, seriously – you actually can.

Well, to be honest I have no idea. But if coffee can be at once beneficial and harmful to the person doing the quaffing, then perhaps the most important factor to consider if you’re actually going to drink the stuff is the taste. If it’s good, it’s good; if it’s bad, walk away. It would be easier to count the number of times I’ve been given a good espresso than to attempt to count the number of cloudy, bitter, flat shots of luke-warm ditchwater I’ve been presented with over the years.

They say that the perfect espresso follows a simple mantra: 25ml of coffee extracted in 25 to 30 seconds. If done properly, this should result in a rich, complex coffee with a nutty brown head, or crema. Not so difficult, you would think. But alas, it is a rare thing indeed inside of our fair city of Lancaster, and almost non-existent on campus. And yes, I know that a campus is a place for students, the domain of cheap coffee and jaffa cakes over boutique espresso and biscotti; but the coffee on campus is not cheap, it’s disproportionally expensive. The coffee, and tea, and everything, if we’re being honest, is no cheaper on campus than it would be on your average high street.

So why, if the price is premium, is the product not? The crema, the lack of which I have already bemoaned, is primarily created by CO2 trapped inside of each coffee bean: the fresher the bean, the more CO2 is present. As beans age, their CO2 levels fall, which is the main reason why so many bad espressos are poured: the beans have simply lost their freshness. Now I’m sure that if presented with a pint of flat-looking, headless, cloudy beer in any bar on campus or in town, most people would send it back immediately; but when it comes to coffee we put up with it. Why?

I like my coffee. I need my coffee. It may do nothing to aid my studying prowess, but it makes me feel good. It could be killing or curing me – I have no idea – but if I’m going to keep on drinking it I’m sure as hell going to make sure it’s the good stuff.

Life, my friends, is too short for bad beans. Make a stand; it’s time for a coffee revolution.

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