The great elixir of productivity. The clarifying tonic of the mind. What is this magical bean!? I start every single day with a cup of coffee, and chances are, you do too. Worldwide consumption has grown well past 500 billion cups a year. Coffee is a fundamental part of the modern world. There’s a compelling historical argument connecting the rise of Western science and reason, The Enlightenment and democracy, stock markets and even insurance with the spread of coffee consumption.
Drinking coffee has become our chosen method for delivering the largest dose of the most widely consumed drug in the world, caffeine, which has made coffee the second most valuable legally traded global commodity, after petroleum of course. No surprise there, these two black fluids suffuse the very veins of modernity, oil fueling our machines and coffee fueling our minds, and it’s hard to imagine the pace of life coming anywhere close to its present speed without them. Oh, we’ll get into oil in a future episode. But in history, coffee came first, and so we too shall begin there.
It was once just an inconspicuous little cherry-bearing tree that grew off the beaten path in the highlands of Ethiopia. Now, more than 7 million tons of coffee is cultivated around the world each year, from Brazil and Columbia to Vietnam and Indonesia, whose growing, processing, distributing, roasting, grinding, branding, and serving employ more than 125 million people. What’s driving this unfathomably large commercial effort is our desire for something inside the bitter bean.
When removed from its sweet cherry casing, the bean is little more than a slippery white pod, but one that is utterly transformed through roasting into a cornucopia of olfactory enchantment, boasting over 800 separate aroma and flavor components that can intoxicate us even before coffee’s real psychoactive takes effect. But let’s not kid ourselves, it is in the bean’s caffeine, which makes up only about 3 percent of coffees’ dry weight, where its true power resides. Through many millions of years of evolution, caffeine emerged as a natural insecticide, protecting the coffee’s precious seeds by punishing bugs and birds who overindulged on them with an overstimulation of their central nervous system. In humans, on the other hand, moderate ingestion of the molecule has proven to induce quite a welcome experience, whose primary action is attributed to its antagonism of adenosine receptors in our brains. This triggers a cascade of secondary physio-chemical effects that make us feel more alert, energetic, focused, and even euphoric, if only for a few hours. That’s the real magic of the bean, the true potency of its pull, and arguably the chief chemical catalyst for the speed, endurance, and clarity of thought that propelled us from an age of agrarian languor to an age of industrious progress.
Literally trillions of cups have been consumed over the past few hundred years, and at such scale it is perhaps not surprising that, for all its power to lead us to great intellectual and productive heights, our coffee addiction has also led us through valleys of sin along the way, for which we have only recently attempted to atone. But, how did our courtship with coffee unfold to begin with? And how could such a simple beverage help catapult us from the medieval to the modern age?
I give you coffee, and how it began.