Debunking Coffee Myths - Part 1

Humans have been drinking coffee for the past few hundred years and we've seen a huge leap in coffee adoption and research in these past few decades, coupled with an increase of quality throughout the coffee chain.

With its storied history, and now-ubiquitous reach, it’s not a surprise that cultures and households have formed different ideologies and habits when it comes to the bean.

In today’s article, we explore some of these some commonly-dropped (and some newer) coffee nuggets, to see what’s plausible, and what should be outright busted!

 

Myth 1: Coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world, next to oil.

Quoted in coffee books, economics websites, and even a US Senate Committee hearing once upon a time, this myth is one that does not seem to go away. We are not disputing the fact that coffee is huge - in fact, it is a large contributor to the economies of many developing countries. But a quick search online will reveal that coffee is nowhere near the Top 10, much less second place. The Observatory for Economic Complexity, a leading platform for world trade data, lists coffee at 121st place in 2018, with a total trade value of $30.9bn. Crude Oil, as the myth suggests, tops the same list.

But where did this myth come from? Outdated statistics or mis-interpreted data, perhaps? We did a little digging and found downloadable data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, focused on agricultural commodities, including food and drink products. We aggregated data from 1961 to 2008, and found that in four years (1977, 1978, 1979, and 1986), green coffee was indeed the top crop by trade value. The latest data available (2008), shows green coffee in 18th with a total trade value of $19bn, bested by corn (7th), wine (5th), and soybeans (2nd). We sifted through the data further, found four coffee products on the list, which we then combined out of curiosity. Added up, coffee (green, roasted, extracts, and substitutes) ranks 5th, unofficially making it the highest-ranked beverage on the list.

Coffee was the top traded agricultural product once upon a time. One can also argue that it’s the top traded drink product, according to current data. But to call it the second largest commodity by trade in the world? Bit of a reach, even for our favourite beverage.

Verdict: Busted

 

Myth 2: The fresher the coffee, the better the brew

The past few years has seen the Specialty Coffee community championing freshness. Roast dates over expiry dates. Buying enough for a month versus stocking up. We agree that there is nothing quite like fresh coffee but one thing that must be considered is the presence of Carbon Dioxide, and how it affects the brewing process.

CO2 is a byproduct of coffee roasting, and is naturally dissipated over time. In fact, the one-way valve in many coffee bags is meant to relieve this excess gas. However, in large amounts, the gas gets in the way of a proper extraction. This is especially evident in espresso, where a shot pulled with day-old coffee will ironically taste worse than week-old coffee. You may get very thick crema, but flavours of burnt carbon will mask the potential sweetness of the coffee.

Freshly-roasted coffee is like a living thing, and the volatility of CO2 and other aromatics prevent even the most-skilled baristas from zoning in at the perfect recipe. Allowing these erratic gases to stabilise with a few days of rest allows the coffee to be calibrated and enjoyed at its best. This peak of flavour depends on origin and roast level, but a nominal range from roast is three days to a week for filter coffee, or two to three weeks for espresso. After four to six weeks, many of the tasty aromatics and flavours begin to disappear, and oxidation begins to set in.

Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, such as shelf-stable cold brew coffees and nitrogen-flushed capsules, but perhaps those are discussions for another time.

Verdict: Plausible, only because there is such a thing as too fresh.

 

Myth 3: The best place to store coffee is in the freezer

This is an interesting one, because it shows how a myth can be disputed by then-current data, then validated by newer research.

Let’s start off with the premise - we can prolong the shelf life of foods by freezing, so why not coffee? The coffee community has advised against freezing coffee for many years. The issue is not the freezing itself - this lecture posted by the Specialty Coffee Association suggests that lowering the coffee by 10 degrees decreases aging by a factor of 2, 20 degrees by a factor of 4, and so on. The detrimental bit is what occurs once you defrost coffee. Any bit of precipitation (hot or cold) will start to degrade the bean. Think of this as prematurely brewing away the tasty compounds of the coffee - stuff that will not make it into your cup. The overall consensus at the time was to simply buy fresh coffee, and store it airtight in a cool, dry location.

In 2016, a peer-reviewed report suggested that, under controlled conditions, freezing roasted coffee did more than prolong shelf life. Grinding coffee before condensation sets in allows for a more even grind particle distribution. Supposedly, this allowed for better flavour clarity, as the destructive potential of grinding was noticeably reduced by the frozen state of the coffee. This article was influential in that many baristas used this technique in coffee competitions (with successful results), and a number of cafes began storing expensive and prized coffees in the freezer. However, to minimise the effects of condensation, coffees have to be portioned off into exact doses, and frozen in vacuum-sealed containers.

Yes, you can freeze coffee after all, and get good results upon brewing. However, the effort and equipment required suggests a use case far beyond the everyday coffee drinker’s routine.

Verdict: Confirmed, if done correctly.

 

The great thing about a dynamic product such as coffee is that nothing is ever absolute. While these myths were scrutinised against the best information available to us, they are not meant to impede one’s enjoyment of the brew. After all, the best coffee is the one you enjoy, regardless of method or practice.

 

Words by Jon Choi @theheadbean

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