Coffee Culture

Published 3:54 pm Friday, July 28, 2017

Written and photographed by Vincent Verrecchio

Once again I started another day in the dregs of my coffee cup with no clear recollection of how I got there. I vaguely remember the richly black liquid at the brim, steaming with psychoactive promise, and then suddenly, I was looking down into a tepid mouthful offering little incentive to finish.

Yet, oddly enough, there near the bottom, I felt renewed and ready for a day filled with possibilities, more alert than when I had started drinking. And this time, as I was tipping back to add another swallow to the estimated 2,282 gallons of my life, I had a better appreciation of what I was doing and why. Over a conservatively estimated 50 years of coffee drinking at an average of two 8-ounce cups per day, my body had filtered the equivalent of forty-two 55-gallon drums without ever fully understanding the ritual and habit of the caffeine kick. But now, future gallons will be enjoyed with greater knowledge, thanks to coffeehouse owner Adam Marcello, best-selling author Tom Standage, and my curiosity about the biochemistry of the bean and brain.

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If you agree with Johann Sebastian Bach, “Without my morning coffee I’m just a dried up piece of roast goat,” expect to be intrigued and entertained when Adam Marcello gets on a roll. I was with my wife on first meeting Adam at his Black Coffee café in Tryon. A former medical malpractice lawyer, he trained as a barista at Intelligentsia Coffee in New York City and is now a member of the Specialty Coffee Association. While precisely and gently preparing a cup for each of us, he regaled us with the history and artistry of coffee.

“Coffee originated in Ethiopia…the Arabica plant…first harvested before recorded time,” Adam expounded with enthusiasm. “The Dutch gave the French a gift of a single plant…the Noble Tree to be carefully nurtured in a Parisian greenhouse. From there, Arabica Typica spread across the world, accounting today for about 66 percent of all coffee consumed.”

During a subsequent visit, Adam talked about Robusta and Liberca developed later for higher production and lower price but sacrificing quality. His personal benchmark of quality is the Bourbon variety of Arabica bean grown by Aida Batlle in El Salvador. Bourbon is an island in the Indian Ocean (now known as Réunion Island), having nothing to do with whisky, where a French entrepreneur once gambled on plantings from France and succeeded with unexpected flavor. Aida imported stock from Bourbon and now grows and exports Adam’s favorite to Counter Culture Roasters in Durham, N.C.

Even if you agree more with author Edward Abbey that “Our culture runs on coffee and gasoline, the first often tasting like the second,” you still may enjoy hearing from Adam how a $30 billion a year industry in America started in 1773 with a splash of tea in Boston Harbor, and how coffee now touches more than 200 million Americans every morning with at least one of an average 587 million cups of coffee a day.

Recently, he shared with me the secret economics of the coffee trade.

“Farmers like Aida are getting squeezed by a few big international buyers that focus on quantity and cost for quick turns at grocery stories, fast food restaurants, and coffee chains. These companies offer one price per pound, say a dollar, for whatever the farmer can bring down off the mountain. Quality is not a criterion; it’s the same price per sack no matter the content.” According to Adam the incentive is to bag fast and frequently. Farmers may have ‘reserve’ plants but there is no incentive to export those beans beyond the region or even off the farm.

The more I learned from Adam, the more I wanted to know.

In “A History of the World in 6 Glasses,” author Tom Standage writes with wit and charm of how beer, wine, spirits, Coca-Cola, tea, and coffee influenced the course of civilization. He lightens the topic of “Coffee in the Age of Reason” with revelations, facts, and conclusions that transcend amusing trivia. I gained new appreciation for coffee in France and England, circa 1650s-60s, as “the great soberer, the drink of clear-headedness, the epitome of modernity and progress…” 

Under the strict Puritan rule of Oliver Cromwell, coffeehouses became popular as alternatives to taverns. From out of the exotic bean, grew local centers of discourse, debate, and camaraderie, forums for speculative exchange of minds and money, and retreats where one could read, write, eavesdrop, and ruminate while sipping.

In considering the patrons at Adam’s establishment and other local coffeehouses, I noted similarities and dissimilarities between then and now, and wondered if any patrons today would participate in discourse on the biochemistry of the bean and brain. Such a topic would not be surprising in the 1600s at Queens’ Lane Coffee House in old Oxford, one of the first “penny universities.” Enlightenment is still found there in every cup, but now prices have come far from a penny a serving and the magic of caffeine has been demystified through science.

While awake, your normal brain activity generates adenosine molecules that float around in search of specific brain receptors. When the molecules find the right fit and settle in, you feel sleepy. Caffeine molecules from your cup of coffee, however, fit in the same receptors, and if they get there first, the adenosine molecules wander on, cueing adrenalin as they go. In response to the rush, your body produces new receptors for the itinerant sleep-inducing adenosine. Consequently, to maintain alertness, more caffeine is needed to fill the added receptors.

“Coffee is essential to being productive…to give focus and mental energy,” states Adam. Son of a hard-working fisherman, raised in a Massachusetts home where coffee was a staple, he claims, “There was coffee in my baby bottle.” His matter-of-fact tone leaves you wondering if he’s kidding or not about the added cream and sugar.

According to Gertrude Stein, “Coffee is a lot more than just a drink; it’s something happening…like an event, a place to be.” To which I’ll add, that the place to be could be the bottom of your cup. •