[This article was published in Your Health (now defunct) in 2001]
Ever since an Ethiopian goat herder named Kaldi stumbled on the coffee berries that made his goats frisky when they fed on them, coffee has been inextricably linked to our culture.
Artists, writers and composers through the ages have all populated cafes, and so have lovers, boulevardiers and philosophers. Not just to drink coffee, once prized as a safe stimulant without the side effects of, say, alcohol, but to produce works of art about it, not least the great Johann Sebastian Bach who actually composed a Coffee Cantata, a humorous piece based on a family's passion for the brew.
In the last couple of decades, official opinions about coffee have yo-yo'd back and forth from linking coffee to some cancers, to then unlinking it, and finally reinstating it to its previous safe status. In an amazing turnaround, a recent study suggested that people who drink three to four cups of coffee a day are less likely to commit suicide, and just so that we don't too complacent, another study has warned that ingesting any caffeine before exercising can give you dangerously high blood pressure. Following the initial scare, a host of decafs hit the market, but they too were eventually and inevitably attacked on the grounds that the decaffeination process wasn't healthy. However, any links with cancer, and even suicide prevention, have never been proven, and the cancer risk was in fact nullified by later studies. The only thing a healthy person can reasonably be certain of is that in moderation -- about three cups a day, maximum -- coffee can be enjoyed safely.
For all of this, the passion for coffee continues. Moving light years away from the old electric coffee percolator, cafes and coffee purveyors covered the Canadian landscape; espresso machines shrunk in size and found their way from cafes and restaurants to the home kitchen; "gourmet" blends began migrating from specialty shops to corner variety stores. Cyberspace has been well and truly caffeinated with more information on the subject than you would think possible, and even the friendly skies have become coffee-conscious with United Airlines switching to Starbucks coffee for their inflight brew.
According to Fritz Kugler, roasting plant manager for Timothy's Coffees of the World, Canadians' preferences run to the lighter roasts; only about 30 percent of Canadians like the darker roasts, sometimes referred to as French roast. It's probably just a matter of taste, but there are also some fallacies clinging on, the most common being that strong-tasting coffee (dark roast) delivers far more caffeine than all the cups of weak coffee guzzled all day long in the offices of the land, and that instant coffee has less caffeine than other coffees. In truth, the caffeine content of coffee beans varies considerably: instant coffees, usually made from the robusta beans, contain the most caffeine, while the better quality arabica beans contain less. If anything, a dark-roast coffee contains slightly less caffeine than lighter roasts, but because the higher the roast, the less acidic the coffee, the resulting taste is stronger. Some people complain that coffee -- both regular and decaf -- upsets their stomach. Now, says Kugler, clinical studies are showing that it may not so much be the caffeine but some component in the bean's skin that is indigestible, and they have introduced a light, mild roast in both regular and decaffeinated, involving a process in which the skins are removed. Only time will tell.
Meanwhile our love affair with coffee continues unabated.