Although it is a sequence of simple operations and within everyone’s reach, preparing a good coffee can be considered an art to be refined.

A cup of coffee can wake us up from the deepest idleness, inebriating us with its enveloping aroma. It also calls to mind a debated and fascinating etymology, a millennial history full of exotic anecdotes and chemical reactions that are still far from being fully deciphered.

Let’s try to investigate all these interesting aspects step by step, and then we will finish with a series of tricks to make the perfect coffee.

Etymology of coffee

The most accredited hypothesis about the etymology of the Italian term “caffè” suggests that it derives from the Arab word “qahwah”, which, curiously enough, originally indicated a type of wine. Scholars do not agree on its meaning, since there are many interpretations on it. An etymology proposed by lexicographers refers the term to the verb “qahā” (in Arabic: قها, “lack of hunger”) in reference to the anorectic virtue of the beverage. However “qahwah” is widely documented as an alternative trace of the Arabic “quwwa” (“power, energy”, a pretty clear allusion to the energising effect of the drink) or as derivated from Kaffa, the medieval Ethiopian kingdom from where the coffee shrub was exported up to Arabia.

Moreover, it is interesting to note that the moka, the renowned and well-known Italian coffee maker invented by the Italian Alfonso Bialetti, owes its name to a city in Yemen (Mokha, indeed) which was the largest coffee market in the world from the 15th to the 17th century.

History and legends of coffee

As we have mentioned before, it seems that the coffee plant originated from Ethiopia, therefore it is reasonable to assume that the ancestors of the ethnic group of Oromo were the first ones to have understood the revitalising properties of the coffee plant that grew wild in their territories.

Leaving aside the less exciting historical stages, as well as fragmentarily documented, the origin of coffee is surrounded by an air of mystery fed by a rich tradition of exotic legends.

According to an Ethiopian tale, the Berber Sufism mystic Abu l-Hasan al-Shadhili, observing an unusual vitality in some birds, tried to taste the berries the birds were eating and he experienced the same energy.

Others attribute the discovery of coffee to a disciple of the Shadhiliyya named Omar. According to the ancient chronicle, Omar, who was known for his ability to heal the sick by the only force of prayer, was exiled from Mokha to a deserted cave near Ousab. He tried to chew the berries picked from a nearby shrub, but those berries taste bitter. So he started to chop them up in an attempt to improve the flavour, but they became very hard. Then he tried boiling the berries in order to soften them and this experiment produced a nice-smelling brown liquid. After drinking it, Omar was able to go without feeding for days at a time.

Another tale concerns a 9th century Ethiopian knight, Kaldi. Noticing the energising effects on his herd underwent after the goats had grazed bright red berries from a certain bush, he began to chew them himself. The resulting euphoria led him to bring the berries to a monk in a nearby monastery. The latter, however, did not approve of their use and threw them into the fire. However, shortly afterwards an intense aroma spread out and made other curious monks come to visit. The roasted berries were quickly taken out from the embers, pulverized and dissolved in hot water: the first cup of coffee in the world was created.

Coffee Chemistry

The stimulating effects of coffee are due to the presence of a molecule, 1,3,7-trimethylxanthine, widely known as caffeine (or theine, equivalently).

The caffeine molecule is structurally similar to adenine, a nucleobase whose accumulation during the day is one of the causes of  the feeling of drowsiness, and is therefore able to bind to its receptors on cell membranes. Thus a mechanism of competitive inhibition takes place; caffeine  affects throught with a process of nerve regulation by discharging of the post-synaptic potential.

As a result, adrenaline and norepinephrine levels rise significantly and they are cause of hyperstimulation of the sympathetic nervous system including increased heart rate and blood flow to the muscles, decreased blood flow to the skin and internal organs, and glucose release from the liver. Secondly, since caffeine is also a phosphodiesterase inhibitor that converts cAMP (the second messenger by the action of adrenaline) to its acyclic AMP form, it extends the effect of these substances.

It is generally believed that these actions of caffeine facilitate the transmission of dopamine (a neurotransmitter responsible for the feeling of motivation) and glutamate (linked to memory performance), although these mechanisms have not yet been fully understood. Caffeine is metabolised in the liver by the cytochrome P450 oxidase enzyme system, where it is converted into three dimethylxanthines, which contribute to further enhance the effect of caffeine, before their final disposal that ends the caffeine effects.

Secrets for the perfect cup

Lastly, let’s talk about the reason why you are here: a list of simple tricks to treat yourself or surprise your guests with the perfect cup of coffee.

1. If you can, buy coffee beans: choosing coffee beans allows you to preserve unchanged, until the moment of grinding, all the organoleptic characteristics of the freshly roasted blend.

2. The true ritual of mocha coffee making requires that the beans have to carefully ground just before putting the powder in the filter. The smell and taste will be absolutely better. A hint for the more scrupulous ones: there is also a difference between grinding in an electric grinder and by your hands.

3. Since coffee has the ability to absorb odours and moisture, you must keep it in an air-tight container, away from other foods and in a cool, dry place.

4. Choose bottled mineral water, which is purer and therefore less hard. It must be at room temperature: it is not true that warmer water comes to the boil faster. Also, use the right quantity: do not exceed the valve at the top of the boiler.

5. Fill the filter with the right amount of blend: not too much, not too little. Pour in a teaspoon one-by-one until it creates a sort of mound of coffee.

6. If you want to make creamy coffee with the mocha as well, just put a teaspoon of sugar in a cup, add the first few drops of freshly brewed coffee into the pot, and stir the mixture until you create a real, thick crema. Alternatively, you can put some sugar directly into the pot, so that the cream will be ready as the coffee comes out.

7. “Why doesn’t mocha coffee make foam like the bar?”. In order to make creamy coffee, it is essential that the water crossing through the ground coffee occurs at a pressure of at least 9 atmospheres (it is only possible for bar espresso machines or even a good quality home espresso machine), while the home mocha barely reaches 1.1 atmospheres. That’s why, if you want foamy coffee, you have to use the old “trick of sugar” every time.

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