Columns — 05 March 2018

Mind Traveller
Published: February 21, 2018

BY MARILYN DUNCALFE

The merits of the coffee bean were first brought to light by shepherds in Ethiopia circa 800 AD. It would seem that humankind has never looked back from this happy discovery. Coffee is now the second most traded commodity on the planet, following crude oil.  It is cultivated in over 70 countries, with Brazil being the top producer.

We love our caffeine. The biggest coffee drinkers in the world are the Finns, followed by the Norwegians.  Canadians rank # 19, but you would never guess that by taking a look around. Numerous rituals have sprung up concerning our morning cups of joe. Some people love to grind their beans in the darkness of their early morning kitchen and savour a solitary cup. Others prefer to buzz through the drive thru, or grab a cup at an independent local coffee shop.

North Americans have moved through the decades with stove-top percolators, instant coffee, drip coffee makers and then came the (sigh) K cup. We now state our personal brand with the cups we carry – chain or local; or an environmentally-friendly commuter cup. 

Not surprisingly, there is a strong association between drinking coffee and time spent in the workplace.    Bonding with co-workers over a jolt of caffeine in a favourite mug is small treat to look forward to as worker bees move through their day. A working mother gets her kids off to school, and ensconced at her desk savours her hot beverage, along with the first moment of peace she has had since arising that morning.  Thus fueled, she is ready to charge forward. The workplace cup of coffee represents a small slice of personal freedom in what is for most a regimented segment of life.

The title of the 2004 short story collection, “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere” by Z.Z. Packer perhaps sums it up best – a blast of caffeine as escape and representative of freedom from the daily grind.  That seems like a lot of pressure to put on one little cup, but coffee seems to be up to the task.  And then there is the well-known line from T. S. Eliot, “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons” illustrative of the monotony of daily life.

Coffee houses sprang up in Europe in the 1600s.  They were and continue to be gathering places for people to meet, form community, be entertained or read.  The addition of free wifi has become a main stay of the postmodern coffee shop.

Following a honeymoon in Sweden where they discovered what a really good cup of coffee could be, Americans Mona and Herbert Hyman opened The Coffee Bean in Los Angeles in 1963.  The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf has now expanded to over 1,000 self-owned and franchised shops.  It can also be credited with introducing the use of the blender in preparing drinks that were the precursors to many of the exotic concoctions served today.

The pendulum has shifted on whether coffee consumption is a virtue or a vice, a health benefit or detriment.  Current thinking seems to be that a moderate intake of 3-4 cups per day really can’t hurt most people.  Tangible health benefits have been touted but not yet definitively proven. 

Either way, coffee just seems to keep getting better all the time.  Savouring that first cup in the morning, it is reassuring to know, that as the slogan said, back in the day, your coffee will be “good to the last drop”.

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Jennifer Parsons

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