by Isabella Vitaliano

A take on coffee and caffeine’s evolution  

Coffee’s history is rich with irony in that for a substance so stimulating and enlivening, the origin of the fruit remains fuzzy to this day. Origin stories vary and there is no confirmed evidence revealing where coffee grew in Africa or even who among the native peoples might have used the stimulant prior to the 17th century. One account describes a legendary group of raiders from the Oromo tribe in the remote Ethiopian massif – a mass of mountains in Northeast Africa- as first recognizing this energizing plant. As the story goes, they gathered ripe cherries from wild trees, ground them, mixed mashed seeds and pulp with animal fat, forming small balls that they carried in leather pouches during war parties. The flesh of the fruit is rich in caffeine, sugar, and fat. They brought nothing on raids other than these balls, as one ball could sustain them for the whole day better than any bread or meat. Another classic coffee legend is the tale of Kaldi and his goats. The popular story follows Kaldi, a goat herder who notices his goats becoming extremely energized after eating these red berries. He goes ahead and tries it himself and is thrilled by the results, then brings it to a local Islamic holy man. The holy man disapproves of the berry and throws it into the fire. As it sits in the fire a delicious aroma comes from the beans. The cherries were removed from the embers and ground to brew the world’s first cup of coffee. This is likely a made-up tale to entrance the early European soon-to-be coffee drinkers, but an entertaining origin story, nonetheless.  

Ethiopia was well known to the Middle East and Europe for approximately 3000 years. Ethiopia, known at the time as Abyssinia was trading spices as early as 1500 BC. It is an oddity that there are no confirmed texts on coffee before the 17th century. One would expect traders from medieval Europe or the Middle East to have discovered coffee at an earlier time period. We do know that a Sufi mystic introduced coffee through Yemen’s port of Aden and popularized a drink that was discovered in the horn of Africa in the middle of the 15th century. By the turn of the 16th century, coffee had spread from the monasteries where it was first used to enhance Sufi’s spiritual practice to keep monks awake through a night of devotion. Coffee houses proliferated, as members of the Sufi orders were from many trades and occupations. Soon enough, coffee houses were gateways to extending coffee use beyond religious practice. By 1555, coffeehouses appeared in Constantinople and popped up in every major Islamic city. In Constantinople, coffee was sold in stalls, shops, and houses. Stalls were a to-go service typically located in the business district. Merchants would send runners to pick up their orders. Coffee shops became integral to the structure of neighborhoods and combined take-out with seating areas, typically outside, for those who wanted to stay and chat. Coffeehouses were high-end establishments in exclusive neighborhoods offering anything from dancers and instrumentalists to posh appointments. All three of these establishments remain common in Arab society today.  

From the Arab world, we can follow a trail of beans to eastern Europe. Before coffee was widely utilized in this region people were drunk more often than not. Water supply sources were origins of microbial contamination, so most beverages were lightly fermented, and therefore lightly alcoholic, to get rid of harmful bacteria. Beyond its medicinal purposes, alcohol was also a major source of nutrients. Beer soup was a classic breakfast before the 17th century. This medieval recipe included warmed beer with a chunk of butter and beaten eggs, served hot with bread and sweetened to taste. Beer provided sustaining calories. It was the largest source of nutrients, second to bread, and it was also a profound part of the culture during this time. Holidays were celebrated to an exuberant level, with exuberant drunkenness. With over 100 holidays to celebrate in 1660, like clockwork, every few days the rich and the poor alike were continuously belligerent drunk. It was also common during this time to hand children hard cider along with their breakfast – truly everyone was drunk. And then came caffeine.  

Caffeine makes its way to the Western world around the 1650s in the form of coffee, tea, and chocolate. The consumption of coffee and tea aligns historically to The Enlightenment that began in the 1680s all over Europe, but particularly in France and England. A new, more civil drink allowed for less alcohol consumption and more revolutionary ideas. Neurons that had never fired before were lighting up in a new and focused way. Coffee houses popped up all over England. For a penny, you could grab yourself a cup of coffee, but even better than that – they were places to receive news on politics, science, weather, and anything in between. These shops transformed into democratic public spaces. London coffee houses were distinguished by the intellectual interests of their customers. In France, women were also allowed in coffee houses to share and learn about the happenings. These public spaces could be considered the internet of their time and they were the only place men of different classes could intermingle. To give you an idea of how expansively coffee houses proliferated, documents from around 1700 report that there were 3,000 coffee houses in London. With 600,000 people living in the city, there was one coffee house for every 200 people. A century earlier, there were approximately 1000 taverns when beer was wildly popular.  

Along with intellectual movements, caffeine in the form of coffee, and tea, also contributed to the industrial revolution. Labor had transformed from working on farms sunup to sundown to working on machinery during the late hours of the evening, forcing workers, for likely the first time ever, to clock in during hours that are out of synch with natural human circadian rhythms. Beer breaks were often the norm on farms to give workers calories and boost endorphins. This could no longer work when handling large machinery and bookkeeping. These both required a sharp mind and caffeine could do that while also forcing the human body to bend to these new work environments and demands. Caffeine truly had a profound effect on capitalism.  

This beverage brought other welcomed public health benefits. It contains tannins that provide antioxidants and microbial effects from the seemingly simple but revolutionary step to brewing- to boil water. Before coffee (and tea) entered the Western world no one had any reason to boil water. This fostered an incredible public health boost. Boiling water is more effective at killing off harmful bacteria than fermenting is. Caffeine’s introduction to the world is the “largest unsupervised drug study” according to author and researcher Michael Pollan. It has allowed humans to adapt to the world that caffeine itself has created, which includes long nights, extended work hours, a society that is fueled by capitalism, and the workforce that keeps the lights on. It pulled Europe out of a drunken haze into a sharper existence. No doubt its addictive nature contributes to the flush of caffeine in Europe during this time and its social benefits. It is difficult not to marvel at the evolutionary power of this molecule. This compound has all but guaranteed cacao, coffee, and tea their prosperity for the past 400 years.  

The structure of these plants contributes to their evolutionary prowess. Caffeine is contained in stems, leaves, flowers, coffee fruit, and even in the seeds of the fruit, a powerful shield of protection that is embedded in every vein of the plant. Caffeine that is in cherries of coffee plants drops to the ground and permeates the soil as it is a highly soluble compound. This mechanism can prevent other plants from taking root in the ground. The plant that contains the highest amount of caffeine will outcompete other plants by overtaking the soil to survive. When bugs find their way onto these plants and digest them, they become disorganized and unstable. This is displayed below when spiders digest caffeine they create haphazard webs. This disorganization makes bugs easy to pick for birds to further protect the plant from destruction. 

 The most obvious element of caffeine’s revolutionary push is the addictive aspect of it. A cup of coffee raises your cortisol levels, and adrenaline and even impacts dopamine receptors. Cortisol is responsible for your stress response and adrenaline contributes to fight or flight, both triggering powerful evolutionary triggers in your body. These are vital instincts and systems that helped us stay alive for millennia. Without the same movement and activity to help release and metabolize those increased levels of stress hormones, your body can become addicted to the feeling of stress. With every sip of coffee, those levels get spiked and once you crash you are already looking for your next cup by the time the afternoon rolls around. Dopamine levels are also increased as caffeine enhances the sensitivity of its receptors. This in turn impacts your ability to feel pleasure, satisfaction, and motivation. The warm and fuzzy feeling after you get from your first sip of coffee in the morning is a direct response to this dopamine rush. Beyond the physiological components, it also acts as a vasodilator and relaxes smooth muscles and can even help with pain management. 

It is considered unscientific to personify elements of the human body: anthropomorphizing. It leads to researchers projecting human behavioral patterns onto their work and leads to an inaccurate understanding of biological processes. Despite that, an old professor of mine used the exact thing to explain the power of DNA to an impressionable crowd of sophomores vying to pass a class that was meant to weed out the masses. He presented a thought experiment that described DNA as a conscious entity whose goal was one thing – to survive– by altering its composition to push along mutations and further its lifespan and lineage. It is not only the goal of an animal itself to survive, as it goes deeper than that – it is woven into a particle that is on the edge of life. It encodes life but is not alive itself. The DNA of these plants has the ability to express and produce a molecule that makes it highly addictive to most animals, humankind included. 

That psychological component goes beyond a nutritional requirement into something many humans feel they need to have every morning to go on with their day. So much so, that more than two billion coffee cups are consumed daily. It did this in the span of 400 years. If that isn’t power, I am not sure what is.