New Partisan
"Suave Molecules of Mocha" -- Coffee, Chemistry, and Civilization
Hannah Meyers | 03.7.2005
    “…Leischen secretly lets it be known:
   no suitor is to come to my house
   unless he promises me,
   and it is also written into the marriage contract,
   that I will be permitted
   to make myself coffee whenever I want.”

—From Bach’s Coffee Cantata, Libretto by Christian Friedrich Henrici. Composed at Zimmerman’s Coffee House, Leipzig.


A Viennese is heaven: double espresso, chocolate, and whipped cream. Done right, the espresso is rich and at once sweet and bitter; the chocolate melts into the coffee, leaving a bit of grit that settles to the bottom of the mug; the whipped cream sits atop the concoction, slowly dissolving its sweetness into the drink while retaining its own separate texture.

I am not the first person to write adoring descriptions of coffee. It’s a passion passed down through the ages, across cultures and regions. This is one of the great things about humanity: we make the most of life’s indulgences. We know a good thing.

My first Viennese came at Edgar’s Café on the Upper West Side, while on a study date. My date treated me to it and it came in a tall glass with the most beautiful arrangement of dark liquid, taffeta-smooth cream, two red straws, and a spoon. In the hour or so that it took to finish my Viennese, I read several chapters of a book on Musa al-Sadr, and my sweetie and I debated with vim and vigor the meanings of Justice and Mercy in “The Merchant of Venice”.

It was late — but I wasn’t tired! My spirits were high, and I was pleased to be sharing such a good mood with a friend, and to find my thinking enhanced on ideas that really matter to me, that I find intriguing. What was I drinking through these two red straws?

My espresso and the gritty, heavenly chocolate both contain caffeine, a mildly toxic compound with several very specific effects on the central nervous system. Caffeine can be found in a great variety of plants, from the lilac to the cactus, and is a member of the same family of alkaloids that include strychnine and emetine, the deadly agent in hemlock. Legend has it that Voltaire drank 50 cups a day, and when his doctor warned him that coffee was considered a slow poison, he replied: “I think it must be so, for I have been drinking it for 65 years and I am not dead yet!” Bet Socrates would have preferred a cappuccino, eh?

As my cells work throughout the day — buying a paper, swiping my MetroCard, jostling old ladies — they produce adenosine, a molecule that regulates sleepiness. The harder my cells work, the more adenosine they produce. The adenosine molecules then bind to receptors on the neurons in my brain, setting off a chain of chemical reactions that lets my brain know that I’m tired. The harder I’ve worked, the more adenosine has accumulated, and the more my brain cells are notified that I’m sleepy.

But wait! I lean daintily over the marble-topped table and take a careful slurp. The coffee enters my body and nature plays a lovely trick: The caffeine molecules coming in happen to resemble the adenosine molecules that my cells make so closely that my brain cells pick up caffeine, leaving them otherwise occupied and unaware of the adenosine that would let my brain know my body is tired.

The coffee having reached my brain, I take a look down at my book. The letters are so happy for me to read them that they are practically dancing. I absorb their content in large sweeping glances. The neurons in my brain are going nuts. My pituitary gland decides that my brain is freaking out, so it sends the adrenal gland a hormonal signal that there is an emergency, and it better release adrenaline. The adrenal gland releases the “fight or flight” hormone into my body. Zing!

Inspired by the adrenaline pumping into my bloodstream — and my date’s blue eyes — my heart starts to beat a little quicker. My pupils dilate, blood rushes into my muscles and out of my extremities, leaving my fingers and toes a bit numb. Inside me, chemistry is preparing my body for any sort of quick response that life might suddenly demand.

Tallyrand offered a more poetic, if less scientifically accurate assessment: “Suave molecules of Mocha stir up your blood, without causing excess heat; the organ of thought receives from it a feeling of sympathy; work becomes easier and you will sit down without distress to your principal repast which will restore your body and afford you a calm, delicious night.”

But as much as I enjoy such calm, delicious nights, it’s unsettling to think about how my grande espresso is messing with my nervous system. What about the coffee habit I’m developing? If I were to end up on some coffee-forsaken island, my head would feel ready to explode. That’s because adenosine, the sleep-regulator, also increases blood flow to the brain. But caffeine molecules constrict the blood vessels in my brain, reducing blood flow, meaning that if I stopped absorbing my normal amounts of caffeine, I would get headaches from the extra blood pulsing through my brain.

So is coffee, like bear-baiting, a pleasure better for me to forego? When I need to decide the right thing to do, I consult the World Health Organization, which has declared: “there is no evidence whatsoever that caffeine use has even remotely comparable physical and social consequences [to those] which are associated with serious drugs of abuse.” I think most would agree that coffee is far less likely than crack to lead to degeneracy, than cigarettes to lead to pancreatic cancer, and than heroin to lead to death.



Nevertheless, throughout history the social consequences of coffee drinking have been a source of contention for rulers, clerics and citizens. While caffeine consumption has been around for at least a thousand years, coffee has only been on the scene since the fifteenth century. Once the bean found its way to the Ottoman Empire, it was initially banned  in on religious grounds, put in the same category as alcohol. However, the popularity of the beverage, especially among those who sought the added concentration needed for long study and prayer sessions brought coffee to prominence. (So much so, that Turkish law gave women license to divorce their husbands, if denied their daily coffee quota.) The very first coffee shop, Kiva Han, opened in 1457 in Constantinople.

In 1511, the Meccan governor Khair Beg tried to again ban coffee, fearing that it fostered opposition to his rule by bringing men together and allowing them to discuss his failings. However, Beg was executed by command of the Sultan himself, who further proclaimed coffee to be sacred! Less than a century later, coffee was proclaimed sacrosanct by the Vatican. In 1600, Pope Clement VIII was petitioned by priests to ban coffee, which they called “the devil’s drink”. The Pope tried a cup, liked it and proclaimed it “so delicious that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it.” (A good argument for cannibalism, too!) He went on, “We shall cheat Satan by baptizing it.”

And so baptized, the first coffee shop opened in Italy in 1645, then in 1652 in England, in 1672 in Paris, and in 1721 in Berlin. America was ahead of the curve here, having enjoyed the brew since it Captain John Smith, who helped to found the colony of Virginia, brought it with him to Jamestown in 1607. History Professor David Hackett Fischer points out that America was mostly a tea-drinking country until the Boston Tea Party (planned in a coffee house named the Green Dragon), after which many in the colonists turned away from the quintessentially British leaves and embraced the bean instead.

In Europe, though, several rulers and even some citizens tried to ban coffee houses, scared of the political discussions that went on in them. Intellectual debate was so infamous at English coffee shops of the 18th century that they were referred to as “penny universities”. The Petition Against Coffee organized by the women of London in 1674, was an outcry against the cafes that drew their husbands from them for hours out of each day, into the embrace of what the petitioners called “a little base, black, thick, nasty, bitter, stinking nauseous puddle water.” Fredrick the Great protested in 1777 that “His Majesty was brought up on beer, and so were both his ancestors and officers. Many battles have been fought and won by soldiers nourished on beer, and the King does not believe that coffee-drinking soldiers can be relied upon to endure hardships in case of another war.” And Charles II banned coffee just two days before Christmas in 1675, calling them “the great resort of idle and disaffected persons,” a description some would claim still applies. The ban lasted but two weeks before widespread protests forced the king to revoke his edict.

Coffee houses still draw citizens for hours each day. Starbucks is eating up the city, with locations so dense that you can stand on a street corner and count several outlets. And walk into most branches and the cross-section of New Yorkers that you will find is impressive. There are generally people from all points on the socio-economic spectrum, engaged in everything from schmoozing to cramming to simply sheltering from the snow.

So my beloved Viennese and I fit right in. With each sip I am setting off a series of biochemical sequences inside my body, giving me all the stimulation that I might once have employed wrestling with fierce Jurassic porpoises or such. But instead, I fuel discussion, fan budding affection, patronize a New York establishment, and discuss politics. How civilized! So let’s drink to freedom, discussion, argument, and to dating.
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