Hanson, T. 2015 The Triumph of Seeds pg. 143-160 Basic Books Philadelphia
Most books about coffee that I choose to read are these long-winded, drawn-out history lessons that my mind wanders from now and then due to the disengaging content. This book has a history lesson in the section “The Cheeriest Beans”, but It displays it in a way that I can enjoy. The author tells the story of Gabriel-Mathieu de Clieu and the coffee tree he supposedly stole from the Paris botanical gardens and brought across the Atlantic Ocean, sharing his water ration with the travelling plant the entire way. Once his coffee tree fruited, he shared it with others, eventually turning coffee into the global multi-billion dollar industry we know today. Of course, Gabriel-Mathieu de Clieu is not responsible for all of this coffee, but It’s a nice little story of one person who brought coffee across the Atlantic that the author wished to share with us.
As with any book that contains chapters on biochemistry, I really enjoyed the bit where the production of caffeine was discussed. It turns out that caffeine is a very strong natural insecticide that can protect the plant against many species. I found it very interesting that the plant produces caffeine in its shoots as it grows, and when it fully matures, it converts all of the caffeine production to the things that matter most: the seeds, fruit, and flowers. I didn’t know that citrus plants produce caffeine either, until now. It’s strange how the coffee plant produces caffeine in its nectar, since this would ideally repel insects, thus reducing the amount of pollinators that visit each flower. According to Hanson, however, researchers have found that in the right dosage, caffeine doesn’t act as a repellant to some insects (honey bees in this case), but as an attractant. Is it possible that there are only a few insects that are resistant to the caffeine produced in the nectar of the flower? If so, that would be a very cool way of selectively choosing pollinator species for the coffee tree.
In the final section of the chapter, Hanson visits Slate Coffee Bar in Seattle, Washington, where he meets a head barista named Brandon Paul Weaver. I have nothing but the utmost respect for good dedicated baristas that take pride in their work, baristas who have a passionate artistic view of coffee and the complex nature of the plant. I think Brandon is the perfect example of one of these baristas that take coffee-making to the next level, so much so that he won top barista honors at the Northwest Brewers Cup in 2013. ‘“It’s like making toast,” explained head barista Brandon Paul Weaver. “White bread and whole wheat bread are very different, but if you burn them they taste exactly the same.”’ (pg. 158) I really loved this analogy as it shows how each coffee has different qualities, but if you burn the beans to a crisp, they hold none of that uniqueness that careful roasting brings out in the final product. Now I don’t mean to be in any way snobby or conceited; I enjoy a good cup of Nabob or whatever the hell I can grab on the busy mornings, but if watching world-class barista James Hoffmann (CEO of Square Mile Coffee Roasters) making coffee taught me anything, it is that when you have time, “Make the cup of coffee that you want rather than the cup of coffee that you need.” For people like me, that is the start to the perfect day. Grind, tamp, and pull the best shot of espresso that your abilities allow.