Category Archives: Science

Field Trip: Hario USA – Coffee: Acidity vs. Bitterness vs. Rancid Oils

Folks will often ask us for info on coffee that has less acidity because they have a real problem with that and their GI tract. So when we visited Edwin Martinez at Hario USA, we posed this question to him because we figured that someone with his extensive end-to-end knowledge of the coffee world might have some good recommendations.

What we learned was that it might just be that folks are working under the misconception that bitterness is the flavor of acidity. In this video Edwin talks about acidity vs. bitterness — and how the culprit may also be rancid coffee oils. Yeech.

Vroom Vroom Vroom

With a lot of recent scientific data pointing to the adverse impact our reliance on fossil fuels is having on the environment, inventors, universities and entrepreneurs the world over have been tackling the issue of alternative energy in different manners. As we wrote about in 2008, the University of Reno had successfully developed a method for converting used coffee grounds into a form of biodiesel. At the time, the results weren’t mind-blowing — yes, it was feasible, but was it scalable?

Over a year later, the BBC1 show Bang Goes the Theory took the idea of turning coffee into a more explicit form of fuel by converting a 1988 Volkswagen Scirocco to use coffee as it test drives 210 miles from Manchester to London. Dubbed the ‘car-puccino,’ the project was taken on to accentuate the importance of experimenting with alternative energy. The catch, however, is the fact that the cost of the trip is between 25 – 50 times that what it would cost if petrol was used instead of coffee. Depending on coffee quality, the cost of the trip could be anywhere between about $1400 and $2800, compared to about $55 for a journey fueled by gas.

So, obviously, this may be a fun idea, but really not a great solution. Add to that the recent assessment by the International Coffee Organization that climate change has begun to severely impact the coffee growing regions around the world — which is contributing to the noticeable increase in the cost of coffee — and the idea of using java to power our favorite transport, digs and gadgets is even more ludicrous. But, we won’t slight them for trying — even if it was ultimately just a publicity stunt.

A Different Kind of Buzz

Addiction can be a lonely place. Whether we hide our vices or not — stealing a secret cigarette while the wife isn’t looking, sipping a sly cocktail at the end of the bar by ourselves or knocking back a few shots of espresso despite our doctor’s orders — it  can sometimes feel isolating. But we should take some comfort in the fact that we are, in fact, not alone. At least, not in nature.

Joining the ranks of our friendly Russian drunk chimpanzee Rostov (who was recently sent to rehab to break his boozing and smoking ways) are our favorite little pollinators: Bees! A study conducted by the University of Haifa found that bees had a preference for nectar that included trace amounts of caffeine and/or nicotine in it. When we first ran across this story, we thought, ‘of course, coffee cherry flowers would have caffeine in them’ but we were surprised to learn that nicotine and caffeine chemicals are found in the flowers of many fruits — even grapefruit (which has some of the highest concentration around)!

Scientists created synthetic nectar (which is comprised of sugars) that was neutral, had caffeine or had nicotine and then let the bees loose. They were able to then track the bees’ preference for the nectar with the caffeine or nicotine over the neutral, sugar-only nectar. The assumption is that this evolutionary development on behalf of the flowers in question was to create an addictive relationship, thus spurring the bees to visit often and spread the pollen far and wide.

So there you have it — the next time you’re ruing your addiction to caffeine, know that you are in great company.

(And, while it’s not often we wish we were a talented illustrator, this story should have been accompanied by an illustration of a greasy looking bee with a five o’clock shadow, a cup of coffee and a cigarette hanging out of its mouth. If you are a talented illustrator, there’s a free bag of Velton’s Bonsai Blend in it for you if you can draft something and send it our way.)

Field Trip: Hario USA – Coffee Processing Experiment @ Finca Vista Hermosa

Edwin Martinez is not only the US representative of the Hario products, he’s also a third-generation coffee farmer from Guatemala. While we visited him last month, he talked to us about a coffee processing experiment that he undertook with some of his roasting customers who were looking to change the base flavor of the coffee before they got their hands on it. This video covers the experiment and talks about coffee processing in general, as well as how what is done to the coffee at the plantation effects the end flavor of what will end up in your cup.

Field Trip: Hario USA – Edwin Demos a Halogen Bar

As magical as it is tasty, commercial grade halogen bars are configurable to brew at a flatline temperature, which is fairly unique amongst coffee brewing methods. When we visited Hario USA, Edwin Martinez showed us how this awesome machine works — and while it would be rare to use these at home (or even to see them in cafes in the US, actually), we thought the mad science + brewing tips shed some great light on making great coffee in general.

Newswatch: Caffeine & Alcohol

Let’s face it: Life can be a little rough around the edges sometimes — and we’re not afraid to smooth out said edges by administering a well-crafted cocktail. We’ve written in the past about a delicious stout that incorporates espresso and about one of our favorite espresso and hazelnut-infused vodkas on the market, so you can imagine our concern when we started reading news last fall that the FDA was examining whether or not the combination of caffeine and alcohol was safe for public consumption.

In November of 2009, the FDA sent out requests to manufacturers who have been producing drinks that have both caffeine and alcohol in them, asking that the companies provide evidence that the combination can be safely ingested. Included in this investigation, however, were a few smaller breweries and distilleries that were incorporating coffee into their drinks.

With health agencies around the world examining the energy drink market because of the adverse impact it has had on the health of some populations (specifically college students), it’s no surprise that alcoholic beverages with an additive of caffeine might also come under scrutiny. But will the FDA’s inquiries lead to the discontinuation of the gourmet microbrews and distilled spirits that have a little kick in their step?

We followed up with PR rep Michael Herndon of the FDA to see where the investigation was at, and what type of impact — if any — the ruling may have on our favorite java stouts and coffee vodkas. According to him, none. “This FDA action is not directed at products that are flavored with coffee.  At this time, the FDA is focusing its attention on products in which caffeine has been intentionally added to alcoholic beverages by the manufacturers.” As of this writing, only 19 of the total 27 inquiries have received responses, and the next step is to review any scientific data on the subject. While there is no specific timeline in regard to when the FDA will make its final ruling on the subject, Herndon noted that it is a high priority at the agency.

Health Watch: Caffeine & Brain Cancer

A recent study by a group of South Korean researchers indicates that the amount of caffeine present in coffee and green tea may have a positive impact on the development and growth of brain cancer causing cells.

Collecting the data through unidentified animal testing, the researchers found that the caffeine equivalent of two to five cups of coffee or green tea per day suppressed the growth of inositol trisphosphate receptors IP3R), which are closely linked to the most common and aggressive type of brain tumor in humans, the glioblastoma. The researchers note that calcium plays a part in spreading these tumor cells, but the caffeine counteracts it.

Health Watch: Caffeine & Hepatitis C

A recent study published this month in the journal Hepatalogy indicates that a daily intake of about 308mg of caffeine (equal to what’s found in 2.25 cups of regular coffee) had a positive impact on liver fibrosis.

Based on behavioral questionnaires combined with the regular test results of 177 patients with liver disease, the study found that people with a lower level of the scarring that can lead to cirrhosis had a higher level of caffeine intake via coffee. But while the data suggests that coffee itself might have some kind of hand in it as well, the numbers of the study are low enough to question the reliability of the data, given that 71% of those studied were coffee drinkers. Further analysis is required to determine if caffeine therapy on its own is beneficial, or if there is an additional element present in coffee that also plays a part.

Comparing Single Boiler Espresso Machines – Round One

Continuing our series of general comparison videos between different machines in a class, we took a look at some of the lower cost options available on the market. In this video, Gail gives us the basic rundown — pros, cons, likes, dislikes — on a few different single boiler machines, including the Ascaso Dream, Gaggia Color, Francis Francis! X7, Saeco Aroma and Breville Die Cast.

Silky Microfoam on the Saeco Aroma? Really?

We often get requests for tips on how someone can achieve a silky, super-fine textured microfoam on a Saeco Aroma. Doing so is less a technique issue than an equipment issue: The Aroma’s stock panarello wand/sleeve are designed to automatically incorporate air into the milk during frothing, creating a fluffy foam. The benefit of this is that someone can get a nice foamy milk without a lot of skill or technique involved; however, the texture of the milk is more fluffy and airy — with larger air bubbles — than most people like, so it’s not ideal if you’re interested in achieving that shaving cream-like texture you often find at the hands of a pro barista.

So we went back to the drawing board and tried to modify the wand so that it would suck in less air during steaming. We tried duck tape, we tried epoxy, we even tried using the wand without the sleeve but it was just too short to really do a good job.

Eventually, Gail stumbled upon the stainless steel panarello steam wand replacements that we sell. These feature a tiny pinhole opening which pulls in significantly less air, so she tried putting it on the Aroma and it worked! By replacing the entire stock wand with the stainless steel version, we were able to successfully create a silky microfoam milk without requiring any type of skill or technique. Watch Gail below as she shows how the different wands compare and steams milk with each of them.

If you’re interested in picking up one of these steam wands, you can do so here.