Caffeine: the world’s favourite drug.
Well, I recently read something that has changed my whole perception of coffee and its stimulant effects. Whilst the caffeine ‘buzz’ is quite evidently a real phenomenon (drink a double espresso every 20 minutes for an hour: you’ll get what I’m talking about), the fatigue-fighting power of caffeine would – if this article is to be believed – appear to work in a manner that is the very antithesis of how most of us believe it to operate.
According to this article, the real power of caffeine lies in the way it’s able to mimic a substance already found within the brain; something called adenosine.
Adenosine is produced within the brain each time a neuron fires – a natural by-product, if you like – with levels steadily increasing as the day goes on. So, as the brain goes about its normal job of controlling pretty much everything, tiny amounts of adenosine are constantly being produced. Receptors inside the brain monitor these growing adenosine levels in order to gauge whether and when the brain (and other vital organs) are in need of rest. Once adenosine levels reach a certain point, the receptors trigger the brain to induce a feeling of tiredness, prompting the body to rest and recover.
It kind of works in the same way as the stop-cock in your toilet cistern, I suppose, but in reverse: whereas in your loo the stopcock monitors a fall in the water level before triggering the water feed to activate, re-filling the cistern, the adenosine receptors wait until the adenosine levels in the brain reach a set high-point before triggering the brain to rest, thus avoiding a mental burn-out.
But caffeine is a tricky little shit.
It does such a good job of mimicking adenosine that it can actually bond to the receptors, reducing their ability to monitor true adenosine levels, which means they’re less able to trigger the shut-down mechanism of tiredness. So the brain’s own stimulants can then continue to function for a longer period of time before the brain goes into recovery mode. Caffeine is not so much an accelerator pedal to the brain, but rather limits the application of the brake.
Now, I’ve always valued my coffee for its performance-enhancing stimulation. During those long, hot, artificially-lit 18 hour kitchen shifts it’s sometimes the only thing that can keep my old bones moving; and then the following, sleep-deprived morning, as I crawl downstairs with my under eyes dragging along the carpet, I know that everything will be just fine once I’ve chugged a gallon of wakey-juice from my favourite mug. But if I understand this article correctly, downing coffee will do bugger all to nullify the effects of sleep deprivation; if I’m tired, I will remain tired, it’s just that the caffeine is stubbornly refusing to tell my brain that fact. So really, the only effect of a cheeky mid-service espresso will be to make it that much harder for me to sleep once my head hits the pillow.
Caffeine understood in this way could, of course, still be used to one’s advantage: a well rested, healthy mind could be pushed to work for that precious while longer before heading to the land of nod. But used on a tired (possibly hungover) mind, it would only briefly stave off the inevitable and do nothing to enhance performance in the interim. So, my belief that the consumption of gallon upon gallon of coffee would in some way enhance my ability to produce quality work is complete bunkum.
So yeah, coffee, it would seem, is far more complex than I had ever thought. Not just in taste and aroma, but on a chemical level too. And so, spurred on by this revelation, I thought I’d delve a little further into the world of coffee to see what other nuggets of truth I could uncover (hello, Google).
Depending upon which sources you choose to believe, a regular intake of coffee can: reduce the risk of skin cancer, liver disease, and gallstones; stave off depression, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s disease; lead to a reduction in the body’s ability to absorb calcium, resulting in overly-brittle bones; and can cause anxiety, muscle twitching, flushing of the skin, and diarrhoea. A mixed bag there, I think you’ll agree.
But it is also a well-documented fact that those substances we find particularly pleasurable to consume, be they deemed healthy or otherwise, affect us in this way because they trigger the release of endorphins; just consider chocolate, and the sense of pleasure and indulgence classically associated with it. Chillies are said to have the same effect, as is exercise, alcohol, sex, laughter, and a multitude of other triggers, including coffee. Which can only lead me to surmise that the single greatest pleasure any human being can experience is to pleasure oneself with a hollowed-out jalapeño, whilst sitting on an exercise bike, watching an episode of Fawlty Towers and gorging on a box of Tia Maria chocolates.
Okay, back to coffee…
It would seem a logical assumption, then, that to drink a poor quality cup of coffee would be of lesser benefit, endorphin-wise, than to drink a good quality brew. But what constitutes a good quality brew? Does one go the latte route? Plenty of milk but light on the black stuff (it may help to combat the brittle-bone problem). Or is hairy-chested espresso the way forward? Small, intense, and packing a punch – the Joe Pesci of the coffee world. And then there’s the question of the bean: is it Arabica or Robusta? Do you Java Lava or Monsooned Malabar? Bourbon or Peaberry? You can even choose whether your coffee beans have been vomited by a civet or excreted by a weasel. No, seriously – you actually can.
To be honest, I have no idea. But if coffee can be at once beneficial and harmful to the person doing the quaffing, then perhaps the most important factor to consider if you’re actually going to drink the stuff is the taste. If it’s good, it’s good; if it’s bad, walk away. It would be easier to count the number of times I’ve been given a good espresso than to attempt to count the number of cloudy, bitter, flat shots of luke-warm ditchwater I’ve been presented with over the years.
They say that the perfect espresso follows a simple mantra: 25ml of coffee extracted in 25 to 30 seconds. If done properly, this should result in a rich, complex coffee with a nutty brown head, or crema. Not so difficult, eh?
Yes. Very difficult.
You see, it’s not just about chucking coffee in a machine and pressing a button. To draw a good, Italian-style espresso (which is the base for almost all of the drinks we throw down our throats in Starbucks, Costa, Nero, et al) takes real skill, and that skill only comes through a true understanding of the techniques being practised.
So why, if the price is premium, is the product not? The crema, the lack of which I have already bemoaned, is primarily created by CO2 trapped inside of each coffee bean: the fresher the bean, the more CO2 is present. As beans age, their CO2 levels fall, which is the main reason why so many bad espressos are poured: the beans have simply lost their freshness. Now I’m sure that if presented with a pint of flat-looking, headless, cloudy beer at your local bar you would send it back immediately; but when it comes to coffee we put up with it. Why?
I like my coffee. I need my coffee. It may do nothing to aid my working prowess, but it sure as hell makes me feel good. It could be killing or curing me – I have no idea – but if I’m going to keep on drinking it I’m sure as hell going to make sure it’s the good stuff.
And so should you.
Life, my friends, is too short for bad beans. Make a stand; it’s time for a coffee revolution.