“So great a Universitie, I think there ne’er was any;
In which you may a Scholar be, for spending of a Penny.”
–Anon., 17th Century London
The first coffee house in England opened for business in Oxford in 1652 and by 1739, there were 550 in London alone. They soon became the internet blogs and discussion boards of their day.
For the penny price of a cup, you could take in the latest news and gossip, sit in on lectures on science and the humanities, listen to debates on all manner of topics …and of course, conduct business.
The London Stock Exchange, for example, got its start at Jonathan’s Coffee House in 1698 and the noted insurance company, Lloyds of London, picked up its name from its origin in Lloyds Coffee House.
Yet, by all accounts, the flavor of the coffee in these early establishments was nothing short of hideous.
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Well, for one thing, the water in urban areas of the time was far from safe to drink. However, the boiling water used to brew coffee, along with its natural acidity, made it one of the most potable drinks available and, unlike the alcohol served at public houses, coffee didn’t cloud the reasoning of the speaker or his audience.
Quite the opposite, in fact. It seemed to have something in it that actually perked up one’s energy, sharpened his thinking (women were not allowed in coffee houses) and, after a few weeks, led a fellow to positively crave its bitter bite.
That something was of course caffeine, a naturally produced herbicide found in the seeds, leaves and fruits of some 30 species of plants from tropical areas of Africa, East Asia, and South America.
Interestingly, the plants providing us with coffee, tea and cocoa separately evolved the ability to produce caffeine. Mature tea leaves contain 3.5% caffeine compared to a coffee bean’s 1.1-2.2%.
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However it takes more beans and hotter water to make a cup of coffee, so an 8 ounce cup of black tea will typically have about 14-70 mg of caffeine while a same-sized cup of regular coffee will have 95-200 mg. A mug of hot cocoa contains about 7.4.
Caffeine works its wizardry on us by triggering stimulation, pleasure and — there’s no getting around it —addiction. It is the world’s most widely used psychoactive agent (consciousness-altering drug), legal and largely unregulated in all countries.
The USDA reports that over 80% of American adults take some form of caffeine every day. (A 12 oz. can of Coca-Cola Classic has 34 mg of the alkaloid, so even many non-drinkers of coffee or tea, including children, frequently consume it.)
Not that this is necessarily so bad. Besides its obvious effects of enhancing alertness and physical performance while reducing sleepiness, moderate consumption of caffeine (say 3 to 4 cups a day) has been shown to lower the risk of Alzheimer’s Disease, Type II Diabetes and Parkinson’s Disease; to help protect against cirrhosis of the liver, colorectal and liver cancer (it’s a strong antioxidant); and combat depression.
In fact in 2008, researchers at Harvard reported over an 18- to 24-year period, drinking coffee was associated with 20% reduced risk of death in men and 26% reduced risk of death in women.
On the other hand, overindulgence can lead to irritability, anxiety, sleep disorders, headaches and, counter-intuitively, drowsiness. Pregnant women, people with heart disease, are prone to headaches or take certain medications are commonly advised to limit their intake.
Stimulation: Caffeine is an “adenosine receptor antagonist,” meaning it interferes with the action of adenosine, a hormone that helps trigger sleepiness. It also enhances the production of adrenaline.
Pleasure: Caffeine stimulates the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain that leads to pleasant feelings and a sense of euphoria. It also has been found to stimulate the same parts of the brain that marijuana affects, adding further pleasure to your morning cup.
So together, the stimulation and pleasant sensations triggered by caffeine soon override its bitter taste, allowing us to identify and appreciate the more subtle flavors associated with the wide diversity of coffee varieties and blends on the market.
Like all potent drugs, such positive reinforcements can lead to a level of dependency that varies with a person’s physiology and psychology. Over time, our bodies acclimate to the presence of caffeine. The liver becomes more efficient at eliminating it from our circulation and the nervous system will require higher concentration of caffeine to achieve desired effects.
Then too, Ohio State University Emeritus Professor Gary Wenk has emphasized the enormous social benefits of drinking coffee. We typically take our first horrible sip in mimicry of our parents and so initiate our admission into that little coffee klatch at the table.
My final column in this three-part series on coffee will consider some of the complex effects that supplying the world’s appetite for the drink has on the tropical ecosystems where it is cultivated and the people who grow it for our benefit.
Ken Baker is a retired professor of biology and environmental studies. If you have a natural history topic you would like Dr. Baker to consider for an upcoming column, please email your idea to [email protected]
“So great a Universitie, I think there ne’er was any;