One legend gives the credit to Kaldi, a goatherd in Ethiopia. One day in 850 A.D. Kaldi noticed his goats, after feeding on the berries of a certain evergreen bush, began to act strangely. Enough so to make Kaldi try the beans himself. After eating a few, he was sure of a real find. Exhilarated and exuberant, he ran home to tell the villagers about his discovery of a new high.
The method for ingesting those coffee beans had changed somewhat, but the excitement has not. Today Americans consume 3 times more coffee than soft drinks. Four times more coffee than beer. And 50 times more coffee than liquor. Altogether, about 10 billion pounds per year is consumed on Earth. That constitutes the second largest item of world trade.
Certainly coffee is part of the American lifestyle. We wake up to it, coffeebreak around it, afterdinner it, coffee cake it, and decaffeinate it for late nights.
Caffeine is the star of the show. It receives the publicity, the research, the interest. Whether you avoid it or crave it, you can pretty much find what you are looking for.
The caffeine content of coffees differs greatly: between the two major species used in commercial production (Arabica and Robusta), between coffees produced in different regions, between grades of beans and between roast colors. In general, Arabica coffees have a lower caffeine content than Robusta coffees, and among them, the higher grades have even less. What that amounts to is that higher-quality coffees (and higher-priced ones) have less caffeine than lower quality coffees.
But along with that caffeine, a cup of coffee brings you more than a hundred other chemical components. A list of key components in only the aroma of coffee consists of 43 chemicals. About some, very little is known.
What about our well-being? In the pile of reports and studies relating to coffee on my desk, there is no easy answer. In fact, there is no answer at all. Certain individuals are more sensitive to caffeine than others. Some absolutely get the shakes from it. Coffee is no cure for peptic ulcers and lethal in hundred cup doses. But from the evidence so far, it probably doesn’t cause cancer, is not a major suspect in the heart disease case, and provides little danger of causing birth defects. Who knows?
Few people would recommend a daily dose of twenty cups of coffee. But few can determine the unspoken value of the drink to our well-being.
Coffee is more than chemical. I think it is a likely candidate for “soul food” classification, be that for better or worse. It is, for some, comfort. Its aroma, home. Its ritual, hospitality. Its variations and adaptations, one of the welcomed intricacies of everyday life.
As long as well-being is more than absence of sickness neither proscriptions nor prescriptions are required. If you enjoy it, drink it. Be aware of it. Be moderate. Most of all, enjoy it.