Just A Cup
by Mollie Doyle
In Todd and Jennifer Christy’s charming Chilmark cottage, I am greeted by the usual mudroom pile of children’s shoes, jackets, books and lone mittens. But rather than resting on hooks or nestled in cubbies, these items are draped over giant tubs and tossed on bags of green, brown and black coffee beans. They are parents of three and the proprietors of Chilmark Coffee, the island’s only local and organic coffee-roasting business. “I had no idea what I was getting into,” Todd says of the coffee business. “But,” he smiles, “as I have learned in the last few years, when it comes to coffee, there is a lot to consider: the beans—where they are from, how they are grown, the cost of shipping… We almost wrecked our VW bus trying to haul 2,000 pounds of coffee from New Jersey ourselves.” He laughs. “And then there’s the roasting, packaging and selling side of things. But, I love it. I love coffee.”
Todd is not alone. More than 50 percent of Americans drink coffee on a daily basis, and most have mixed feelings about it. Coffee’s reputation seems to oscillate almost yearly from a healthy wonder-drink to a toxic poison. The debate is not new. Pope Clement VIII, who died in 1605, tasted coffee and declared: “Why, this Satan’s drink is so delicious that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it. We shall fool Satan by baptizing it and making it a truly Christian beverage.” Meanwhile, modern day health gurus Mark Hyman and Mehmet Oz disagree. Dr. Hyman says that “while certain populations of people may tolerate coffee and even enjoy some health benefits, it is evident that it is not for everyone”; Dr. Oz says that it’s the biggest source of antioxidants for Americans. So, what’s the truth?
I called Dr. Robert Van Dam, Harvard Assistant Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Harvard School of Public Health, one of the world’s leading researchers and experts on coffee. He and his team have found those who drink a regular and moderate amount of coffee see a reduced risk of Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, Type II Diabetes, gall stones, liver cancer, liver cirrhosis and a lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease. (Though Dr. Van Dam cautioned, “The studies in cardiovascular disease are in the early stages. More research needs to be done.”)
But even after 10 years of intensive study, Dr. Van Dam still can’t explain all the reasons why coffee has these potentially powerful health benefits. “Coffee is very complex,” he said. “There are more than 2,000 chemical compounds in the beans. We know that the chloragenic acid in coffee helps delay spikes in glucose-6-phosphatase, which is what works as a preventative measure against Type II diabetes, but we also know that it is not just the chloragenic acid, as chloragenic acid is not unique to coffee. Coffee is also rich in vitamins such as folate and choline and minerals such as calcium and magnesium.” But Dr. Van Dam acknowledges that it’s hard to isolate what in coffee makes it act positively on the body. He paused and said, “The most amazing thing is that we have looked at coffee drinkers around the world— from decaf drinkers to instant coffee drinkers to organic drinkers—and the benefits were the same even though the roasting and processing were vastly different.”
When asked about if he thinks drinking organic coffee is better, he replied, “Yes, of course. [Fewer] chemicals. Not just for the drinker, but the planet.” But, he cautioned, “I am not suggesting that people start drinking coffee as a health tonic. My message is more nuanced than that. I’m just saying that it is okay as a beverage choice.” Dr. Van Dam is careful to note that, when he talks about the benefits of coffee, he is speaking specifically about small cups of brewed black coffee, not the dolled up coffee drinks Americans have come to expect.
Island nutritionist Prudence Athearn echoed Dr. Van Dam: “It’s not the coffee that is bad, it’s what you put in it and how much you drink. You take something that has potential health benefits and then you add sugar (or even worse, sugar substitutes, which are filled with harmful chemicals), and cream to it and you have a high calorie, high fat, chemical drink… And, these days, our coffee mugs are not eight ounces. They are more like 16 or 20. So your morning cup of coffee is actually two or almost three cups.” And that increased caffeine leads to crashes, headaches, even insomnia—problems that people attempt to ameliorate with more coffee, creating a vicious cycle of dependence.
Prudence continues, “But because coffee brings people so much pleasure— the taste, the ritual of it, drinking it with a friend—I don’t generally recommend that people cut it out of their diet. I suggest that they practice moderation.”
Sitting in her cozy home office, island nutritionist Laura Denman smiles. “You can’t take people’s lattes away from them,” she says in her native Georgian twang. But she stresses the importance of thinking in terms of bio-individuality: “In other words, everyone’s body is different, reacts differently,” she says. “The standard is that caffeine from coffee stays in the system for about 3-5 hours, but some people can drink a cup of coffee at 7 AM and it will keep them up at night, whereas others can drink a cup of coffee at 7 PM and fall asleep two hours later. You’ve got to know and listen to
your body and what it needs.”
But whether we drink it or not, coffee affects us all.
According to the USDA, coffee is the second largest traded commodity in the world, behind oil. The world consumes roughly 500 billion cups a year, making it a $100 billion dollar global business.
No one knows exactly how or when coffee, officially the coffea plant, was discovered, but the favored legend involves dancing goats and an Ethiopian goatherd more than eight hundred years ago. Since then, countries around the world have incorporated coffee into their cultures. And, as Uncommon Grounds author Mark Pendergrast writes, “The bean would help shape laws and governments, delay the abolition of slavery, exacerbate social inequities,” which set the tone for today’s coffee market where 90 percent of all coffee is grown in roughly 50 developing countries. According to the World Wildlife Fund, of the 50 countries with the highest deforestation rates from 1990-1995, 37 were coffee producers. And beyond being hard on the land and indigenous cultures (the Mayans essentially lost Costa Rica to coffee), coffee cultivation is highly labor intensive, back-breaking work. The U.S. Labor Education in the Americas Project reports that most coffee workers start at about $2.85 a day, less than what we pay for one latte at Starbucks. The only good news about this is that if we, as consumers, really made a mass effort to buy organic, Fair Trade coffee or coffee that is affiliated with organizations like Rainforest Alliance, we could encourage healthier land management and a living wage for coffee workers.
Todd Christy takes the economics and the environmental impacts of coffee into consideration. “It was a big and expensive decision for us to go organic, but it felt like the only responsible choice,” he says.
But as we sit in his kitchen, counters overflowing with coffee brewing equipment, Todd’s main focus is on the quality and taste of his beans. “My parents drank whatever coffee came in a can. Maxwell House. Folgers. I had my first really good cup of drip coffee in college and I was like, ‘Oh, real coffee is amazing.’ Now, as a roaster, I am constantly thinking about what kind of flavors I can elicit from the beans.” He tells me it takes him about 20 minutes to make a coffee that really satisfies him and that there’s a real difference between brewing with a paper or cotton filter. According to Todd, paper has “higher note at the start and cools smoothly” whereas cotton “has a smoother start and brightens as it cools.”
I must confess that my coffee palate is not sophisticated enough to really understand this distinction, but it does remind me of my most memorable experience with coffee. When I was 23 and living in Italy, a friend brought me to Rome’s famed Sant’Eustachio Il Caffè for a morning coffee. The café hummed with elegantly dressed men and women standing shoulder to shoulder, sipping and chatting over their espressos. When I finally elbowed my way through the crowd to the bar, I ordered a cappuccino. To this day, I can still taste my first sip of that incredible creamy, hot drink—it had this ludicrously sublime texture and flavor. As I stood there amid friends and strangers, drinking and trying not to get bumped (l did not want to spill a drop!), I felt an indescribable joy. I thought, “Ah, so this is coffee.”
Twenty years later, the memory of that one perfect cup still makes me smile.