Caffeine and Coffee are often synonymous in people’s minds, but in reality, we don’t often know all that much about this elusive relationship. In this months article, Ben Bicknell, our Coffee Quality Specialist, sheds a bit more light on the involvement of this common drug in our everyday fix.
Stumbling out of bed in the morning, the first thing many people do is drag themselves to their plunger, drip filter or espresso machine and make themselves a steamin’ cup-o-joe. With what feels like the elixir of life flowing through their veins, they’re suddenly ready to face the world. Whether it’s part of your waking up ritual, you’re savouring the unique flavours of your latest single origin or actively seeking whatever stimulant you can lay your hands on, usually your morning beverage will contain some caffeine.
What kind of coffee bean you’re using and how you’re brewing it will certainly affect the level of stimulation. There are two main species of the Coffea plant — Arabica and Canephora (commonly known as Robusta). Arabica is recognised as being of much higher quality, with distinguished aromatics and complex flavours, while Robusta tends towards woody, leathery and flat flavours. The Robusta plant naturally contains approximately twice the amount of caffeine as Arabica coffee. As the name would suggest, Robusta coffee is a much more robust species — it is more resistant to pests and diseases, crops more often and is easier to grow. Because of these characteristics, Robusta is often used as a filler in cheap instant coffees and large international brand blends you find on most supermarket shelves. Almost all coffee used in Australian cafes is 100% Arabica. As such, better quality specialty coffee will not only taste better — but be lower in caffeine as well.
Of course, there is the option of decaffeinated coffee beans. To be certified as decaf, coffee needs to have 97% of the caffeine removed from the bean. There are two primary methods of decaffeination — the ‘Natural’ or citric acid method and the Swiss Water Decaf method. Neither of these processes use any harmful chemicals and both attempt to maintain the coffee’s natural flavour.
The brewing process, particularly the steeping time, has a big impact on the amount of caffeine extracted. A single shot of espresso has approximately 40mg of caffeine — the average usage in a 8oz takeaway cup. An 8oz cup of drip coffee has 145mg of caffeine buzzing around inside. For a comprehensive list of caffeine concentrations in a wide variety of beverages, check out Energy Fiend. If some of these numbers surprise you, remember to take into account the sugar content, which can add to your perceived buzz.
Coffee contains hundreds of different chemicals of which caffeine is just one. Caffeine is properly one of a class of xanthine compounds. By blocking the binding between a neurotransmitter and the receptors in the brain which would normally cause sedation, these xanthines stimulate brain activity1. Caffeine is found in over 60 plant species, including the most commonly known, cocoa beans, tea leaves and, obviously, coffee.
Although caffeine is considered a fairly mild drug, it has a number of different effects on the human brain and physiology, primarily stimulating the central nervous system, resulting in a more alert mind and reduced fatigue. Obviously, increased consumption of coffee — over five cups, for instance — can have adverse effects, including an increase in heart rate and breathing, anxiety and light-headedness. As most coffee enthusiasts have noticed on their rare trips away from a source of their regular beverage, caffeine also creates a certain level of dependence, with a splitting headache occurring around a day after the last fix.
Obviously, as with everything else in life, consumption in moderation is the key to enjoying your daily coffee. While the aim of specialty coffee is to keep a focus firmly on the flavours and culinary aspect in the cup, there is no doubt that caffeine is an integral part of our cultural interaction with this beverage. From social stimulant to fatigue battler, or as a side effect of your gourmet explorations, the caffeine in our coffee means different things to different people, but will forever be a part of the rich culture surrounding coffee.
Visit the Coffee Section of our website for our full range of decaffeinated and regular coffees.
1Digum, G. & Luttinger, N., The Coffee Book: Anatomy of An Industry, New York, 1999, pg 116