Tag Archives: Science

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.

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 & Babies

Tracked as a potential contributor to a low birth weight in babies, caffeine is among the 3,508 other things mothers are encouraged not to ingest during pregnancy. OK, we grabbed that number out of the air but it’s, like, a lot. (No brie? Really?! Inhuman.) But caffeine does function as an effective respiratory stimulant, and so has often been used during neonatal care in hospitals for newborns with respiratory issues.

That may end, however, if this recent Canadian study is corroborated. Scientists dosed infant rats with caffeine and then tracked how it affected them as they grew into adulthood. Comparison trends in the rats who had been dosed with caffeine in infancy showed signs of sleeping disorders as adults: reduced sleeping time, a longer time to reach the first stage of sleep and fragmented non-REM sleep. Additionally, the rats that weren’t treated with caffeine had higher breathing at rest than those that were treated with caffeine.

The study reviewers indicated that it is a cause for concern and there will likely be more testing to analyze and determine just what type of neurological and/or developmental effect caffeine has on babies. Since breathing problems are one of the main reasons newborn babies are hospitalized and a primary cause of their death, we hope that determining how caffeine therapy effects the developing brain and then figuring out alternate treatments if necessary is a fairly high priority.

And when they’re done with that, they should figure out how to get brie back on the expectant mother menu.

Coffee & Climate Change

Last November, we wrote about how the excessive rains in India were adjusting the forecast coffee exports from that country, and they have now reported a 21% decrease in exportable coffee during the 2008 – 2009 growing season. But it’s mostly about when the rains hit — they reported in June of this year that heavy summer rains will likely result in a 17% increase in coffee exports for the 2009 – 2010 growing season that begins on October 1st.

Because we’re working with an agricultural product, the flavor nuances and fluctuations created by the weather really do inform the more artistic elements of coffee overall. The ‘third wave’ of the espresso industry (which Eric from Seattle Espresso Machine Co. and Sam of Equal Exchange talk about in this video) was largely brought about by the ability to source very specific beans from estates around the world. Instead of buying huge blended batches of beans from an exporter, roasters started to go to the plantations themselves and trying different coffee beans, charting how they changed over time — sometimes the plantations produced an amazing coffee, other times they would maybe be just good or not-so-great.

Obviously, the specific plants and the altitude/growing style, as well as how the coffee is processed, will inform the flavor, but a big unknown every year is how the weather impacts the growing cycle. Similarly to how wine vintages are known for having a particularly good weather year, imbuing the grapes with the perfect balance of sugar and acids to make a great bottle of wine, the coffee cherries themselves produce different flavors every year depending on how the weather was in a particular region. This is why a blend you loved a few years ago may have changed in flavor over time — and why there is often a little bit more art than science involved with making really great espresso.

The Fair Trade/Direct Trade movements over the past few decades have helped bring about the opportunity to appreciate coffee on this very micro level, but while they have done a lot to contribute to the sustainable and cultural development of farming communities around the world, this excellent article by The Guardian outlines how contending with global climate change will require a more comprehensive, orchestrated approach. Last year, the rains hit India at the wrong time — a long drought resulted in intense flooding once the rains finally came — and this year they arrived at just the right time. That’s not always going to be the case; in fact, the global climate change projections indicate that this bust-then-boom weather is likely to increase.

Given that coffee is the top tropical commodity in the world, and given that most of the farmers who grow it already spend a few months of year in poverty — despite Fair Trade/Direct Trade/sustainable movements — this is not a pretty picture on the horizon.

Another Feather in the Cap of Shade Grown Coffee

A recent report released by the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) indicates that climate change may cause an increase in the pest known as the coffee berry borer. ICIPE studied plantations in Colombia, Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia, discovering that the projected increase in global temperature would make sub-tropical regions more susceptible to one of the most devastating pests to coffee crops.

The solution? Revert to cultivating the plants as an understory crop beneath taller forest trees. This was the traditional method for growing the plants, and is how coffee plants are often found in the wild– the forest canopy not only protects them from direct temperature changes, but it also supports a host of wildlife which are predators of the coffee berry borer pest, among others.

In fact, this isn’t the first biological threat to coffee that has come as a result of moving coffee out from under the forest: Over a hundred years ago, the fungus known as coffee rust eradicated many of the coffee plantations throughout Asia, resulting in that region’s heavy adoption of alternative crops such as tea and rubber (the move in India and Sri Lanka to cultivate tea is largely responsible for its ongoing popularity in the UK). Historians have theorized that the voracious spread of this fungus was largely due to the deforestation practices that coffee plantation owners underwent in order to increase their available crop space. The fungus’ spores are easily transported on wind currents, and not having any protection to block the winds from affecting them resulted in a widespread blight.

ICIPE is recommending that coffee farmers transition to the traditional shade-grown method to limit the impact this pest has on their crops as the global climate changes. Growing coffee in this manner, however, decreases the available crop yield and so can result in more expensive products down the line. Whether or not larger plantations begin to adopt these practices before nature forces their hand remains to be seen.

Health Watch: Caffeine & Weight Loss

While we might find caffeine in myriad weight loss treatments — from wraps in the spa to popping pills to colonics (ouch!) — there is not a ton of reliable evidence that indicates it really is an effective method of weight management or loss. In fact, according to the Mayo Clinic’s nutritionist Catherine Zeratsky, many of the studies that have been performed on how caffeine impacts metabolism have been with animals or of a quality that didn’t create statistically viable evidence. In fact, studies involving decaffeinated coffee also showed some positive impact on weight loss, suggesting that something other than caffeine in coffee contributes to losing weight.

However, some of us have had anecdotal experiences with caffeine helping us lose weight, and Zeratsky says that effect could be attributed to appetite suppression, calorie burning or water loss. Keep in mind, however, that if you’re drinking your triple grande breve frappuccino, there ain’t no amount of caffeine that will balance that excess in caloric intake!

You’ve Got Great Taste: Coffee Flavor Profiles

The world of coffee sometimes seems a little bit overwhelming — even to us! When we’re working with folks to pick the right machine to meet their needs or discussing the different coffee flavors inherent to different bean blends, we often hear the refrain that many people just want coffee to taste “good.”

Like any vague and subjective descriptor, “good” is defined differently by each of us, and how we achieve that “good” flavor is going to be similarly unique. Finding the blueberry or jasmine in a particular blend of coffee doesn’t have to involve pretension as much as it involves your particular sense of smell. Since flavor itself is defined as the combination of two sensory experiences — that of taste and smell — then your unique anatomical make-up regarding these two sensory systems will define your experiences of all foods, including coffee.

Continue reading You’ve Got Great Taste: Coffee Flavor Profiles

Java Jersey

Bringing new meaning to the phrase ‘wearing your food,’ Tawainese fabric manufacturer Singtex has developed a new cloth that utilizes waste coffee grounds as its basic fibers. Quite fascinating!

Identifying a rich waste source that is often headed straight to the land fill, the firm spent three years working on a way to use coffee grounds clothing manufacturing. The result was S.Cafe, an eco-friendly fabric (it’s renewed and it doesn’t require detergent to wash) that drys quickly, controls odors and provides UV protection. Heck, this sounds like the makings of the world’s greatest travel gear! We couldn’t find a distributor outside of Taiwan at present, but we’ll be keeping our eye out for one.

Health Watch: Coffee & Bad Breath

A recent study at Tel Aviv University revealed that as-yet-undetermined compounds in coffee actually prevent the development of bad breath. This totally seems contrary to us, having been on both ends of some pretty heinous coffee breath, and even the researchers themselves had originally sought to find the link between coffee and increased halitosis.

Their experiments revealed that three different brands of coffee had the same effect of slowing the growth of the bacteria partially responsible for stinky mouths. They also found that the gases released by the bacteria were significantly decreased, as well — another component of bad breath. While they’re not sure quite yet just what elements of coffee are contributing to this effect, they are continuing to study it in hopes of finding something that can be used in future breath fresheners.