Note: I wrote this blog post before Christmas 2020 and never got around to publishing it at the time.
I find the whole process of coffee production and brewing fascinating. Although my experience is mainly with home brewing, I have spent a lot of time this year learning about what goes on at the farms, in roasters, and at other points in the supply chain. Books have been my biggest source of knowledge. I recently picked up Coffee: From Bean to Barista, a book written by Robert Thurston, to satisfy my interest in learning more about the journey coffee takes.
This book starts by looking at coffee from an agricultural perspective. Thurston discusses the growing conditions of coffee in more depth than many books I have read. He talks about organic and synthetic growing and the trade-offs between these two methods. Many farms use organic growing practices because it works best for them – owing to how synthetic chemicals are more expensive – but not all of them are certified organic. Certification requires audits which are not practical for all farms. Thurston reminded me that there are some chemicals that are allowed on farms but that do not impact certification. But most of the chemicals used do not make their way into the beans; there are many layers of protection between the beans and the seeds.
Later in the first chapter, Thurston looks at how coffee is grown. I knew that coffee was grown in nurseries but this book goes so much deeper. I learned that coffee trees need to be pruned after every harvest to cut dead branches and ensure the trees are ready to grow for the next year. I learned that aid from coffee organisations helps some farmers ensure that they can cover costs incurred due to diseased crops. Although, of course, this aid is not available for everyone. I also learned that coffee farming looks different depending on the wealth of the farmers (a fact that is obvious but took a while for me fully comprehend). Some farmers can use complex information systems to determine which plants need the most attention, for example.
I was struck by Thurston’s analysis of the coffee supply chain. There are so many people involved – from importers to farmers to exporters to roasters – and everyone needs to get a cut of the money made from a final sale. Because everyone past the farm has their own markup, much of the money we spend on coffee does not go to the farmers. But yet without this markup there would not be the middlepeople who are often necessary to get a crop from a farm to a roaster and to the consumer.
Later, Thurston talks about climate change, an issue that will become even more important in future years. Scientists may cultivate plants which are more resistant in different climates but the fact remains that climate change has a real impact on farmers. The people who will get caught out most by climate change are those in the middle: not the people who command very high prices for great-quality coffee, nor those who produce very low quality coffee who can beat everyone on price. And coffee has other issues, too: rust disease, berry borers, and a lack of genetic diversity.
Thurston turns his focus to coffee consumption. He spends some time talking about the science behind tasting. He collects research which suggests that humans are only capable of detecting so many aromas and flavours in a coffee. I do wonder why coffee roasters sometimes go over the top with their descriptions. He talks about how flavours in coffee are described and how coffee is graded. This reminds me that earlier in the book Thurston talks about defects in green beans, with reference to diagrams of defective beans. I knew that coffee was inspected for its quality during processing but this book made it clear exactly how beans are graded for quality.
This book ends with a chapter on coffee, health and society. He talks about the numerous attempts to ban coffee. I learned that the attempts to ban coffee were not so much down to its ability to affect the human mind but rather due to what it caused people to do. People who consumed coffee would often go to coffeehouses to do so, where alcohol was less accessible. Citizens would chat about their lives and the political issues of the day. Many London periodicals found their roots in coffeehouses, owing to the conversations going on in such places.
Leaders throughout history did not like people gathering to discuss politics and many expressed concerns about how coffee houses could cause uprisings. But leaders did benefit from coffee: in some places, such as England, coffee meant money was flowing through the economy. Some royalty placed taxes on coffee around Europe so as to raise money.
Thurston aggregated research reports from many respected sources, such as the New England Journal of Medicine, as well as other sources – such as industry scientists – to see the extent to which coffee affected health. Advertising in the early 1900s by people like Post, the owner of Postum, a coffee substitute, did claim coffee had ill health benefits. Recent science has been unable to substantiate many claims, at least from unbiased sources. Very little is known about the exact effects coffee has on human health, but it has been reported by many reputable sources that coffee, consumed moderately, does not adversely affect human health in most people. Further research is still needed.
Thurston’s analysis on caffeine talks about exactly how this chemical affects the nervous system. I learned that high levels of caffeine cause the brain to create new adenosine receptors, which is why we can develop a tolerance to caffeine. I learned about how coffee can cross the brain-blood barrier, which is why adenosine receptors in the brain can absorb caffeine molecules. Everyone absorbs caffeine in a different way.
This book refers to numerous research papers and scientific sources, with references throughout. I like the quotes from other sources. When combined with analysis and other sources, each individual source gains value; a broader picture is painted overall of the subject matter. This was definitely the case in the chapter on coffee and health, which reads as well-researched without being overly scientific.
Coffee faces a number of challenges. It is hard to believe we can drink coffee. Farmers are often not paid enough. There are seed banks that keep species of coffee plants in case of another rust outbreak, but many coffee research facilities are underfunded. Rust can decimate a crop; berry borers can infest a farm, leaving farmers with significantly fewer beans to sell, if any at all. As I mentioned earlier, climate change presents yet another issue. I do not think these issues are insurmountable, but clearly there are challenges ahead.
This book is an excellent read for anyone passionate about coffee, from home brewers to baristas. I’d also recommend this book to those interested in the agriculture behind coffee, as this book presents one of the best agricultural descriptions of coffee growing I have read to-date.