Caffeine: The Easy Attractor
Scientists recently discovered a handful of species that produce caffeine in their nectar, which is the last place you would expect a plant to serve up a poisonous beverage. These plants have discovered that they can attract pollinators by offering them a small shot of caffeine; even better, that caffeine has been shown to sharpen the memories of bees, making them more faithful, efficient, and hardworking pollinators. Pretty much what caffeine does for us.
Coffee & the Tyranny of Choice
I remember when ordering coffee was easy. There were really only two decisions—regular or decaf, and black or cream and sugar. Today, ordering coffee feels like applying for a bank loan. There are literally thousands of options available. Some celebrate this as progress—the market providing more choices to fit each consumer’s taste. Others lament it for contributing to the tyranny of choice which complicates modern life.
When you take a sip of coffee, you drink in hundreds of years of history. And not just insipid, teacher-droning-on-endlessly-in-a-monotone history but a tale rich with thrilling stories that delight and inspire. It all begins with a wonderful, apocryphal account that involves ancient Muslims and dancing goats. Like most legends, it’s been passed down for many years, and the precise origin is unclear. At the center stands a young ninth-century Ethiopian goat herder named Kaldi. One day Kaldi took a short midday nap, as he was wont to do, and when he awoke, the goats in his care had disappeared.
Panicked, he raced up the hill toward a clearing and observed something remarkable: the goats were dancing! Upon closer inspection he noticed they were eating some bright red berries. Amazed, he stuck a handful in his pocket, regained control of his flock, and headed straight to the local monastery to share the miraculous story with the head monk. Intrigued but dubious, the monk—well, let’s let Faustus Naironi, the seventeenth-century Italian coffee historian, take it from here:
“He resolv’d to try the virtues of these berries himself; thereupon, boiling them in water, and drinking thereof, he found by experience, it kept him awake in the night. Hence it happen’d, that he enjoin’d his Monastery the daily use of it, for this procuring watchfulness made them more readily and surely attend their devotions which they were obliged to perform in the night.”
…Unfortunately, a few problems exist with the Kaldi story, including the fact that no monasteries existed in the Islamic world at the time. (Monks were considered unnatural since they rejected marriage and procreation.) Nonetheless, it is generally agreed upon that coffee was first discovered in Ethiopia by devout Muslims who used it to enhance their prayer lives.
First Hating, then Loving, Coffee
When the Venetian botanist Prospero Alpini introduced the use of coffee to Europe from Egypt, the Vatican advocated against its infernal influence. That is, until Pope Clement VIII tried the foreign brew, loved it, and gave coffee his blessing. (In the end, the Italians turned out to be pretty big fans.)
If you have a wild idea and a burning desire to make it a reality, never expect a warm welcome. Change of any kind threatens the establishment, and the greater the change, the greater the resistance. So think ahead: Who are the key players? Who stands to lose if you gain? The impact of a new product can be hard to predict. It can lead to unexpected, far-reaching consequences. Before you take a single step, map the battlefield thoroughly. Make sure you really understand the size of the fight you’re about to start.
“Grounds” for Divorce
In a clear demonstration of the drink’s surging popularity, a covenant introduced into the marriage contract in Cairo bound husbands to keep an adequate supply of coffee in the home for the use of their wives. Failing to keep this covenant was grounds for divorce.
What’s in a Name?
These days you need an advanced degree in linguistics to comprehend the typical menu at a decent coffee shop. From latte to cappuccino to macchiato to cortado to espresso, a whole range of insider language gets thrown around between baristas and discerning customers. And this is before deciphering the fake coffee vocabulary created by Starbucks. Whenever I find myself at one, usually when I’m desperate and in an airport, I take great pride in ordering a “medium black coffee,” rather than using their pseudo-Italian jargon.
“You mean a grande?” they ask. “Uh, no. I mean a medium.” It’s just my little way of sticking it to The Man. Never mind that the woman in front of me just ordered a triple, venti, half-sweet, nonfat, caramel macchiato. Granted, all this lingo talk is rich coming from a member of the clergy. Around the altar, we don’t use common terms for anything. A cup? No, it’s a chalice. Oh, you think that’s a plate? It’s a paten. Robe? Ha. It’s an alb. At its worst, this insider language confuses visitors and obscures the message. It does, however, set apart ritual objects as holy and special, and suddenly everyday items take on deeper meaning. Language matters and perhaps this coffee-shop vocabulary points to the often transcendent relationship we have with our coffee drinks.