Coffee and beer have several dozen similarities worth appreciating and they work as natural complements to one another, opposite sides of the coin that we insert to alter our perception, cognitive abilities, and mood. There is no need to pretend as if either are not mind altering beverages. Let us get that out first, front and center, when it comes to reciting commonalities. One upper, one downer, both over the counter, bar and barista, that in moderation make life tremendously more enjoyable but taken to extreme devalue it.
Appreciating a fine cup of Joe requires many of the same considerations as enjoying a good pint of beer. From the appearance, to the feel, the smell, to the taste and resulting flavors, a quality cup of either leaves a ton to investigate and cherish.
Among the things to cherish is the bitterness. Despite a natural aversion to this taste (many poisons are bitter) we have learned to seek it out as “we realize[d] that many bitter foods, like coffee, bitter alcohols, and chocolate, stimulate our nervous system in ways we enjoy, so we actively seek them out. Over time we have also discovered that many bitter foods contain compounds that can protect us against illness, and positively influence our health.” Moreover, bitterness affords as the opportunity to balance our meals, offsetting sweetness for instance, providing greater complexity to and appreciation for our food. (McLagan)
Data Source: Giulian Frisoni
Beyond the appreciation of taste and flavors we may also investigate the histories of these liquids, juxtapose them against one another, to get a better idea of their origins, creation, evolution, and ourselves. Certainly we stand to be enlightened about our society and species for better understanding how and why a seemingly insignificant cherry pit from the east coast of Africa came to span the globe and dominate the attentions of billions for the centuries.
Speaking of origins
- Coffee begins, is discovered and cultivated, in 10th century Ethiopia; makes its way across the Red Sea to Yemen, most likely during the ~50 year reign of Ethiopians; Arab merchants, expansion, and tastes help spread it through the region, though its export is closely regulated and restricted out of Yemen’s trading port, Mocka; the plant seeds are eventually smuggled to India; the Dutch spread it to Java and the East Indies; Europe is introduced to the brew from the 17th century, mostly by way of Turkish influence, including their reversal at Vienna; coffee is initially seen as a miracle drug, something to worry about, and taken to by the upper classes as in earlier places; gradually it takes hold across the continent, nowhere more so than in England, at least until the conquest of India and their general switch to tea; coffee sobers up Europe, powers the industrial revolution, and serves as both energy boost and appetite suppressant for the poor working class; the Dutch, French and Portuguese spread it to the Caribbean and South America, most notably Brazil.
- The beginnings of beer are a bit murkier. There is a bread versus beer debate as to which was the original motivation for hunter gatherers settling down. Either way, beer has the much longer history, possibly being one of the catalysts for humans settling down to cultivate land and by extension offer a foundation for settlements and civilization itself. In short, the origins of beer span back to prehistory. It was an important part of life throughout the fertile crescent and Egypt (the pyramid builders/slaves were paid in beer).
- Beer got us to settle down and coffee picked us up.
- Both coffee and beer are primarily plant products.
- Environmental characteristics such as climate, temperature, daylight and latitude have a large impact on the crops of hops and coffee beans both.
- Interestingly, there is a parallel disparity between the locations and economies of where hops and coffee beans are/can be grown; northern versus southern hemisphere economies breakdown; this hints at some of the sad and tortuous history of coffee expansion of the past several hundred years
- “[F]our basic components … blend to create the perfect cup: aroma, body, acidity, and flavor. The aroma is familiar and obvious enough—that fragrance that often promises more than the taste delivers. Body refers to the feel or “weight” of the coffee in the mouth, how it rolls around the tongue and fills the throat on the way down. Acidity refers to a sparkle, a brightness, a tang that adds zest to the cup. Finally, flavor is the evanescent, subtle taste that explodes in the mouth, then lingers as a gustatory memory. (Pendergrast)” Sound familiar?
- The predominant taste characteristic, bitter:
- Bitterness in coffee comes from the pit of the cherry and it’s caffeine, for beer from the hops (European influence)
- Coffee gets only a small amount of its bitterness from the caffeine; most of it depends on how the beans are roasted and the method used for brewing it. (McLagan)
- Bitter, both an appetite stimulant and a digestive [think IPA].
Two basic varieties (an oversimplification)
- arabica and robusta beans
- ale and lager
- The enlightenment had an influence on each, coffee in the ascendant and beer eclipsed (probably for the best, if we’re being honest)
- As perishable goods they had built in limits as to how quickly the respective industries could be consolidated.
- Modernity in all its forms
- Industrialization saw a commoditization of the product and a concentration of businesses
- “broader themes as well: the importance of advertising, development of assembly line mass production, urbanization, women’s issues, concentration and consolidation of national markets, the rise of the supermarket, automobile, radio, television, ‘instant’ gratification, technological innovation, multinational conglomerates, market segmentation, commodity control schemes, and just-in-time inventories. (Pendergrast)”
- Commodity crises:
- Hop harvest crisis US, early 2000’s
- Coffee commodity crisis 1999-2004
- Modern preparation/incarnation of the beverages
- “It probably wasn’t until sometime in the fifteenth century that someone roasted the beans, ground them, and made an infusion. Ah! Coffee as we know it (or a variety thereof) finally came into being. (Pendergrast)”
- Introduction of hops in European beer over the past 1000 years.
- Commodity ingredients unfortunately leading to commodity products; undifferentiated products compete on price with predictable outcomes to quality and consumer choice
- “coffee had entered the vortex of a downward spiral. To stay in business you had to cut prices. To cut prices you had to narrow profit margins. To maintain profitability you had to cut quality.” (Pendergrast)
- Both used marketing, advertising, technology, mechanization, and buyouts to draw down prices, ratchet up competition and drive competitors out
- “It comes in uniform jars, which we buy loyally according to which radio program hires the best writers, so that whether the label is green or scarlet the contents are safely alike, safely middling.” - M. F. K. Fisher (food writer, 1945)
- Robusta as a metaphor for lager taking over; modernity and mechanization, technology really, sets its own agenda; consumers seek to be/appear modern, for less: mass produced, price slashed, commoditized goods: Wonder Bread, people!
- Historically, jealous protection of coffee (Ethiopia, Yemen, France) and brewing techniques and recipes (Burton-on-Trent)
- Early on, each civilization that got its hands on coffee attempted to control it: Ethiopians, Arabs in Yemen, the Dutch, and French. By the time it set root in Brazil it was clear how futile the attempt was to believe something so desired could be withheld.
- Beer: business/trade/industrial espionage and intrigue parallel to Gabriel Sedlmayr (Munich) and Anton Dreher’s (Vienna) touring of Burton brewhouses (1833) and smuggling out beer and wort in hollowed out walking canes; with chemical analysis, light malts and cold fermentation created the lager style
- The old world enlivens the new and the new reinvigorates (remixes) the old: the influence of Europe and the re-pollination of taste when it comes to both beer and coffee.
- The West Coast as epicenter/capital of both in the US.
- “Folgers bought lots of Brazils, Central American standards, and robustas. I couldn’t understand why in the richest country in the world they were drinking such poor quality coffee.” - Alfred Peet
- Dwindling consumption unstopped by advertising.
- Varieties a plenty, as with the craft beer boom:
- traditional arabica beans such as bourbon and typica varieties; “modern” arabica varieties such as caturra, catuai, or catimor; different varieties and regions of arabica, just as with hops.
- Is the coffee industry or barometer for what craft can expect?
- In the US during the second half of the 20th century both beverages saw a resurgence of interest with respect to quality and variety; this started earlier with coffee, no doubt the lingering effects of prohibition, and different legalization hurdles, playing some influence.
- Global appeal and spread
- “Those modest luxuries most of us can still afford.” -Knutsen (Pendergrast)
- “Millions of bags more than consumers are willing to drink… what the world wants is more quality coffee”… farmers can grow less, charge more, make a living; consumers, farmers and wildlife (organic growth) are all happy; win-win-win, sound familiar?? (Fichman)
The above are just notes and a glimpse to the “fascinating interconnection between the disciplines of history, anthropology, sociology, psychology, medicine, and business, and offers a way to follow the interactions that have formed a global economy. Though this history has concentrated solely on coffee, similar stories could be told for other products. (Pendergrast)”
Today there endless places and opportunities to enjoy coffee. At home, the office, at the library late at night, on a date when you want to pretend you do not spend all of your free time in bars. Go ahead little fibber, put your best foot forward but eventually you will have to show them the real you. Smart to do this gradually, so sip away on your mocha latte cinnamon double decaf espresso milkshake.
Fichman, I (Producer), & Lilienheim Angelico, I (Director). (2007). Black Coffee: The Irresistible Bean [TV Movie]. National Film Board of Canada (NFB).
McLagan, J. (2014). Bitter: A Taste of the World’s Most Dangerous Flavor, with Recipes [Kindle iOS version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com
Pendergrast, M. (2010). Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World [Kindle iOS version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com