I always say I refuse to write about the latest health-related press release about coffee. Sure enough, last week, I wrote about the so-called new positive news about coffee’s affect on your health. A couple months earlier, I wrote about the folly of drinking coffee or tea primarily as a biochemical or epidemiological decision. But this week, I read an article that perhaps best expresses my skepticism over how science, marketing, and media have all come together in an unholy stew to drive much of the public health debate today.
This past Sunday, the New York Times Magazine ran a cover story by The Omnivore’s Dilemma author, Michael Pollan: Unhappy Meals – Michael Pollan – New York Times. It’s an excellent article reviewing the paradox of why we have more detailed scientific information about nutrition than we’ve ever had previously, and more access to food science, and yet Americans are as unhealthy — and as paranoid about the health merits of their food — as ever.
The crux of his argument is that, in the past few decades, eating healthy foods in moderation has been upstaged by the deconstructionist science of nutritionism (i.e., presuming that the good or bad health effects of foods can be explained by their minute compositions in deconstructed isolation), food lobbyists who have shaped government policy through political influence, food marketers who have shaped consumer tastes through new “food product” introduction, and a much more powerful media market for health (dis-)information and consumer influence.
It’s with this backdrop that I read another article published today on the genetically engineered future of Brazilian coffee stocks, taking a different form of the deconstructionist approach towards consumables: Brazil – Brazzil Magazine – Tomorrow’s Coffee Is Being Invented and Grown in Brazil’s Labs. But this isn’t a Luddite rant against genetic engineering. Note how its last few paragraphs qualify coffee as a functional food — and trace coffee’s original bad health rap to twenty-year-old scientific studies of caffeine tested in isolation. This deconstructionist approach of examining caffeine projected false assumptions about consuming coffee as a whole.
One of the major recommendations Michael Pollan makes in his article is to stand by unsexy, health-fad-unfriendly staples that mankind has thrived upon for centuries. Maybe coffee isn’t an anti-oxidant-laden power beverage, but it just might be a functional food. It has certainly withstood the test of time.
A couple weeks ago, they were passing out free samples of this vile Life Force V drink on Market & Montgomery. Not only did it violate every one of Pollan’s warnings about food bearing health claims. (It was a long list on the label, including, and I’m not making this up, “No banned substances”. What the…?) But tasting it made me look up the number for poison control (it’s 1-800-222-1222, btw). Then I ordered the nearest decent espresso I could find.
Today’s Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune featured an article on a Twin Cities area roaster who has made quite a name for themselves, Paradise Roasters: A global search for taste of Paradise. Kenneth Davids‘ Coffee Review has scored some of their roasted bean stocks at or above 90 points (out of a possible 100) fifteen times in the past couple of years, which is practically unheard of. Some of the credit goes to Paradise’s policy to ship beans within 24-hours of roasting.
Despite their worldwide distribution, there are only a few cafés in the area that notably use their beans. One such being the excellent JavaJ Italian Espresso Bar in Roseville, CA, outside of Sacramento.
This has always been a popular and busy South Park institution. From its location near the center of the park, this café has witnessed the run-up to the dot-com boom (from before Wired magazine made this neighborhood the “heart of the digital revolution”), through its implosion, to more rational times today. It’s a rather unpretentious café of a style you might find on a quiet Manhattan street, frequented by locals. They have a few outdoor tables along the sidewalk. Inside there are about ten café tables in a relatively cramped arrangement — particularly when the weather is good and this place is packed. They open the large, sidewalk-facing windows on nice days, and there is walk-up service along Jack London Alley.
Using a three-group Mr. Espresso-branded Rancilio machine (though they’ve long used Vigal beans), they pull extra long, watery shots with a thinner layer of decent-looking, medium brown crema. Unfortunately the shot size can be so large at times (deep singles filled to the rim) that it waters down any flavor — leaving hints of mild spice as a sort of glorified drip coffee. Occasionally the shot will be shorter and thus have more body and fuller flavor, but that’s the exception. The local loyalties here must be for the simple food, because the coffee leaves a bit to be desired.
There is something bizarre about the media’s unhealthy obsession with the health merits of coffee. Now this is one case where I truly believe the media are just delivering what consumers want from them. And I’ve already written about this subject at length. But a prominent article in this month’s Wine Spectator by Mark Pendergrast, author of Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How it Transformed Our World, prompted further questions for its ironic double standard.
The article is titled A New Year’s Coffee Resolution. In it, Mr. Pendergrast professes to have a New Year’s resolution to drink more coffee. Why? Because he cites many of the latest medical studies showing that coffee might not be bad for you — it might even be good for you. He writes how coffee provides anti-oxidants … and how “it may also help prevent Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, liver cancer, colon cancer, type 2 diabetes and gallstones.”
Of course, we’ve seen many prior forms of the unnecessarily polarizing “coffee: medicine or poison?” article. What made this one different is that it was featured prominently in the most notable consumer magazine for wine drinkers. Isn’t that a bit like Cigar Aficionado magazine citing the latest medical research on the dangers of eating red meat? For all the people who insist on making wine analogies for coffee, we seem to be holding coffee to a different health standard than we have for wine.
In 2000, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), alcohol consumption accounted for approximately 85,000 U.S. deaths — third only behind tobacco and poor diet & physical inactivity. Statistics from other U.S. government reports show that, in 2005, 16,885 people in the U.S. died in alcohol-related motor vehicle crashes (representing 39% of all traffic-related deaths), and, in 2001, there were over 1,700 unintentional fatal injuries related to alcohol among U.S. college students aged 18-24.
Curiously enough, none of these reports made mention of coffee-related deaths. No mention of five-morning-cups-of-coffee, caffeine-impaired drivers plowing over pedestrians on sidewalks. No mention of caffeine-addicted patients hooked up to tubes in hospitals who died of espresso-induced liver failure. No mention of college students who die each year from coffee-related binge drinking when cramming for exams.
Americans are notoriously bad with proportions — and particularly those associated with relative risks. We sweat the small stuff and ignore the more dangerous threats, deceived either by high drama or mundane routine. Is this coffee paranoia a bit like people willing to give up their civil liberties — worried about being killed at the hands of terrorists — when ultimately they have greater odds of being killed walking across the street or falling?
Perhaps. But there is good news, wine-drinkers: that cup of coffee you obsess about probably isn’t going to kill you. However, there may be a dirty secret or two about that wine thing you might want to consider.
Something has to distract the media and bloggers from their self-indulgent, T&A love-affair with this week’s story about stripper baristas in the Seattle/Tacoma area. Today’s The Record (Stockton, CA) made a valiant effort: Recordnet.com: Options to make the perfect cup of coffee.
The article is a primer on the different coffee brewing methods and what might be right for your own home version of the café game. While the author generally provides some pretty sound information and advice, the suggestion to seek out a “local cooking or department store” for good equipment is something I heavily discourage. Most cooking and kitchen stores know only as much as restaurants when it comes to making good coffee — i.e., very little.
Today the press release mill churned out the announcement of the next SCAA conference: 10,000 Leaders Shape the Future of Specialty Coffee May 4 – 7, 2007 in Long Beach, Calif.
Yes, there will be the usual plethora of speakers, exhibitors, mixers, courses, workshops, and awards. Yes, there’s the circus entertainment of the U.S. Barista Championship. But this year they are introducing targeted conference tracks for attending delegates who fall into different profiles: restaurants out to make decent coffee (too bad that the places that need it most won’t recognize the need to attend), people new and old to retail coffee, roasters, globetrotters, etc.
Lacking excuses to be in Long Beach, I’ll probably roast my own at home and follow the news online…
Today Brazzil Magazine posted an article on Brazil’s coffee resurgence in coffee within the past several years: Brazil – Brazzil Magazine – World Rediscovers Joy of Drinking Brazilian Coffee. The author credits this resurgence to quality gains, increases in production, and, oddly enough, positive news regarding health concerns over coffee.
Brazilian crop yields have improved in recent years. And while many specialty — and home — roasters dismiss espresso blends with a Brazilian base as “boring”, Brazil is producing some great quality beans lately … Cup of Excellence aside.
The article also goes on to discuss coffee consumption trends within Brazil and a bit of Brazil’s coffee history. Of course, no historical article would be complete without mentioning Brazilian inventor and aviator, Alberto Santos-Dumont — whom all Brazilian school children learn as the father of aviation. (Wright Brothers who?)
Here’s another example of a story that started out small and then exploded into a global news item over the past couple of days: McClatchy Washington Bureau | 01/16/2007 | Campaign under way to evict Starbucks from Forbidden City. At first, I passed on it — wanting to give the tiresome Starbucks issue a rest here. But then the story quickly snowballed from a targeted online protest fueled by a popular TV anchorman, from CCTV in China, to what is now a global story being covered by everyone from the International Herald Tribune to the BBC.
In short, five years ago (just months after my last visit there) Starbucks opened a low-profile coffee shop within the walls of the famed Forbidden City, China’s former imperial palace. The arrangement, while always controvertial, coexisted somewhat peacefully while the money rolled in, KFC did not follow Starbucks’ lead into the Unesco World Heritage site, and tourists got their double-tall, four-pump vanilla caramel macchiato fix.
Today things are different. For one, China is much more self-aware of its own culture relative to that of world capitalism — particularly with next year’s coming Beijing Olympic Games, where the China will get its long-awaited wish for the world stage and a chance to claim national respect and admiration. (Being in Beijing during their campaigning to host the 2008 Olympics, I cannot emphasize this motivation enough — this is a nation that feels globally slighted with something to prove.) What’s also different is that the the Forbidden City is up for a redesign plan in the next several months, thus opening a window for Chinese citizens to influence policy. With local headlines like “speculation has been building that Starbucks will follow a longline of disgraced eunuchs into exile from the palace as soon as its lease expires,” you know the debate is hot.
As for the local angle, this story represents a nation-sized version of globalization’s perils for Main Street — i.e., what happens to local culture when corporate big box chains take over the landscape? It would be easy to paint Starbucks as the bad guy in this story — particularly since they embody a once grand idea for good coffee since run horribly amok by an out-of-control growth strategy. But I’m taking Starbucks’ side in this case. This will make more sense when I write about recent coffee experiences in Carmel-by-the-Sea, where anti-corporate zoning policies have resulted in poor local coffee standards and the proliferation of substandard Starbucks affiliates. Not altogether unlike the state of quality coffee in China.
In October 2006, the National Restaurant Association conducted a survey of 1,146 member chefs for what they felt were “hot”, “cool/passé”, or “perennial” items in restaurants today. I’ve always wondered why so many SF restaurants seem to come out with the same trends at the same time — moments where suddenly every restaurant is offering an option of sparkling or still bottled water, serving an amuse-bouche, or offering dishes with figs in them. I used to wonder if they all just came back from the same annual convention, but perhaps these surveys have something to do with it.
Of the 228 items ranked in this year’s survey, “espresso/specialty coffee” ranked seventh among the hottest: 2006 National Restaurant Association Chef Survey. I only wish that good espresso was in vogue, however; there are far too many restaurants that fail miserably at even rivalling an over-extracted Starbucks espresso — made by a minimum-wage barista and a brain-dead, super-automatic, push-button espresso machine.
I came across a coffee-related press release yesterday (as I often do), and I truly resisted writing about it — hoping it would just go away unnoticed. But then the company behind it is based out of San Francisco, and the press release hit the Associated Press today: AP Wire | 01/11/2007 | Mysterious `Meth Coffee’ launches in San Francisco.
Why was I so reluctant? Because this product screams “crap coffee” disguised by an idiotic marketing gimmick. Thus my posting about it here would only encourage such idiotic behavior. Ultimately, the degree with which their goth-teen-targeted idiocy made me spew good coffee across the room in laughter outweighed any concerns over contributing to their publicity. So now I’m posting good old-fashioned ridicule for the ridiculous.
Now it’s no secret that I’ve been ranting a lot lately about how coffee lovers are equated with caffeine addicts — in ways where we wouldn’t presume that a wine aficionado is naturally an alcoholic. (The hideous wine analogy rears its ugly head yet again!) But come on… “Meth Coffee”?! I just read today that bath soap qualifies as an instrument of caffeine delivery: A New Type of Java Jolt: Caffeinated Soap. Is the Dove Unscented Crack Beauty Bar up next for a little Fight Club-like marketing?
Please. Try again. Next time like you mean it.
Apparently one man’s meth is another man’s rainforest-grown, immune-system-boosting herbal medicine to complement his yoga sessions.