Whether you like Starbucks, K-Cups, old-fashioned drippers, or indulge in pretentious (but really good) coffee, there’s a good chance you’re a coffee lover. Americans alone drink four hundred million cups of coffee every day.
I prefer to take it slow when possible, brewing with freshly ground coffee from a bag of beans that includes “tasting notes” like you’d receive with a glass of fine wine. I use a preheated decanter with a V60 brewer or an Aeropress and my precisely heated gooseneck kettle. (I worked as a barista for a year. You can’t blame me.)
Clearly, I have a coffee problem, but is coffee a problem for us? Surely there’s some hidden side effect to something so delicious.
After researchers conduct sometimes hundreds of studies on any given subject, other analysts compile those studies into “meta-analyses.” Numerous meta-analyses have been compiled on the health concerns that stem from coffee.
In other words, the data on coffee is in.
Is coffee healthy?
Caffeine can, of course, disrupt your sleep cycle, and most doctors recommend that women cut out caffeine while pregnant. But, in general, coffee drinking increases health benefits. (Sorry though: venti mocha frappuccinos don’t count. Health benefits only come with black coffee).
One study observed two hundred thousand subjects for thirty years and found that people who drank one to five cups of black coffee a day had a slightly lower mortality rate than non-drinkers.
Another study conducted by Harvard noted a stunning 50 percent reduction in the suicide rates of daily coffee drinkers. They theorize that the caffeine in coffee can act as a mild antidepressant, in addition to stimulating the nervous system. However, the researchers don’t recommend increasing your coffee consumption if you’re depressed since there are no benefits beyond two to three cups.
Despite all of this, most of us who drink coffee don’t think about its health benefits. Normally, we drink it socially, for the taste, out of habit, and, most importantly, for the boost from caffeine. Most of us think even less about where it comes from.
In truth, the journey of coffee from seedling to your cup is expansive and fascinating.
Where does coffee come from?
There are two kinds of coffee plant species: Robusta and Arabica.
Most coffee in America comes from Arabica. It’s harder to grow and less resilient but provides better taste and quality. Technically, coffee doesn’t come from beans but seeds. They’re called “cherries” before they are “de-pulped” of their fruit to isolate the seed (which looks like a bean).
Arabica also requires a narrow range of temperature (64°–70°F) and simultaneously needs a rainy season. Most Arabica coffee is grown at the base of mountains, between two thousand and six thousand feet of elevation. These delicate conditions mean coffee only grows in specific parts of Latin America, Asia, and Africa in a strip called the Zona Cafetera.
After handpicking the cherries, farms then dry and process the seeds, either with the “washed” or “natural” method, a process that takes another one to two weeks and impacts the final flavor. After that, they’re ready to ship. That’s just the farming process and doesn’t touch shipping or roasting.
Will there be a coffee shortage?
Cafes and coffee shops normally operate on small margins. Industry expert James Hoffman provides a helpful analysis in this video explaining why a cup of coffee is so expensive (this excludes chains like Starbucks).
The global coffee industry, however, is run on even tighter, paper-thin margins. From the laborers, to quality control and “cupping,” to shipping vessels themselves, coffee export and imports form a massive supply chain.
Journalists have reported that many coffee laborers and farms barely scrape by and often lose money due to fluctuating prices and an increase in farming hardships. The Wall Street Journal produced an excellent video explaining the inner workings of the global coffee industry and why coffee prices are increasing.
Hard data shows that the earth’s surface temperature has warmed about two degrees Fahrenheit globally in the past few decades (in climatology, this difference is massive). This directly affects Arabica coffee farmers and creates uncertainty for their future.
One study in 2015 predicted that suitable land for growing Arabica coffee would halve by 2050.
For coffee drinkers, this crisis would mean higher-priced coffee in the short term (which has already started) and shortages in coffee supply long term.
For the farmers, it could mean losing their livelihood. Columbia is the third biggest coffee producer and has been hit particularly hard. Fabio Salazar, a seasoned Colombian coffee farmer, explains that he’s being forced to replace some of his coffee crops with plantains because of the market’s uncertainty and changing climate conditions.
How to help coffee farmers
If you want to help farmers, a good rule of thumb is to buy traceable coffee.
Traceable coffee includes the name of the region or farm within the country where it was grown on the bag. This normally means buying from local coffee shops or online.
Traceable coffee will more likely be sustainably and ethically sourced because the roaster will almost certainly have a more direct connection to the farmers. For instance, my current bag reads “Kapchora, Uganda,” and you can look up that small town on Google maps. If you want it pre-ground, most coffee shops will pre-grind it for you if you don’t want to buy a grinder (but I recommend grinding it fresh).
With all this background in mind, we can appreciate our morning cup of joe to a greater degree. And, we can wonder, did Jesus drink coffee and how would he approach coffee?
Did Jesus drink coffee?
Since the origin of coffee dates to the ninth century, Jesus’ earthly ministry took place millennia before the advent of coffee. However, the wide cultural acceptance and appreciation of coffee today could help us absorb Jesus’ cultural metaphors in his teachings.
Jesus explained profound truths through parables and metaphors. The illustrations are sometimes difficult to interpret today because we don’t experience the same realities as his first-century audience.
For instance, most of Jesus’ audience likely consisted of farmers. We can imagine him teaching, reaching down to touch wheat and the tares (which I’ve seen in Israel, and they look nearly identical), then proceeding to say, “You know, the kingdom of heaven is like wheat and tares” (Matthew 13:24–30).
If we sit in his teaching and carefully reflect on it, we can relate to one of Jesus’ favorite metaphors: fruit. Jesus followed the prophets and the Psalms in drawing this metaphor (Isaiah 37:31; Psalm 1:3).
In one of my favorite teachings, Jesus says: “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me” (John 15:4). When I read that, I normally jump straight to interpreting: “Oh, this one’s easy. The fruit refers to good works!”
But, there’s a reason Jesus didn’t simply state that plain interpretation. His analogy adds depth and color to his exposition. It connects deeply to our intuitions about life; fruitful trees are alive and thriving. It’s pleasing to see colorful orchards producing an abundance.
If we were to work for hours in the morning under the blazing heat, how would the offer of a perfectly ripe peach sound? When a friend shows us love by letting us stay at their house when we’re struggling (which is a “good work”), it is sweet—like a ripe peach on a scorching day.
That kind of connection lives in the metaphors. Such a visceral story touches on truths that propositional explanations cannot uncover.
As long as we maintain his meaning, we can practice reimagining Jesus’ metaphors with what we find in our lives. If Jesus were alive today, and he was meeting with his disciples over coffee, with other patrons leaning in to hear, he might pull a bag of coffee beans from the shelf and begin: “The kingdom of heaven is like coffee . . . .”
Just as Jesus used vineyards in his teachings and turned water into wine, we can be fairly confident that Jesus would relate his teachings through coffee—and maybe even drink it as a part of his earthly diet.