Coffee, Metals, and You

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Elixir of the Gods

October 1st celebrates one of the greatest drinks in the world: Coffee!

Our office drinks a ton of the stuff, so it seemed natural to commemorate this day and drink. Beyond being delicious and energizing, coffee also has one of the most interesting stories behind it. The word is derived from the Dutch “koffie.” In turn, this word is based on the Turkish “kahve” which comes from the Arabic “qahwah.” This etymology gives you some good insight into the drink’s origins.

Coming a long way

Stories say that people in Ethiopia have been drinking coffee for over a thousand years. But it’s not until the mid 1400s that we have concrete proof of it. The evidence shows Arabian merchants imported dried coffee berries from Ethiopia to Yemen. Here, it was mostly used by mystics in the Islamic monasteries. But from these humble origins, it has become the second most popular drink in the world.

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Fresh coffee berries. That’s right, they’re berries, not actually beans.

Arabian nights

From Yemen, this exciting new drink spread up the Arabian peninsula. Then it gained popularity across the vast lands of the Ottoman empire and the Islamic world. By the early 1500s, coffee was popular across North Africa, the Middle East, all the way from modern Morocco to modern Pakistan.

Thriving trade between the Venetians and the Middle East brought it to Venice in the late 1500s. From there it spread across Europe, becoming hugely popular by the early 1600s. The first European coffee house opened in 1645 in Rome.

The Age of Sail

The Dutch particularly loved coffee, and couldn’t get enough of it. In fact, the Dutch East India Company became the first European organization to begin importing coffee in large quantities. But they couldn’t provide enough. So, they took coffee plants to Dutch colonies in the Caribbean and Indonesia and began growing it there to ship back to the Netherlands. From there, it spread across Southeast Asia and the Americas. The British East India Company also helped, as they began copying the Dutch in order to support Britain’s growing taste for coffee.

Britain’s love affair with coffee was short but influential. They began importing huge quantities, which caused many American colonial economies (and later national economies), to revolve around growing and preparing the drink. But then in 1757 the British conquered most of India, the tea growing capitol of the world. Practically overnight the cost of tea plummeted while coffee remained fairly pricey. Tea took over as the most popular drink in the British Isles, where it has remained ever since.

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Emblems of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and the British East India Company (VEIC), stamped on the crates of cargo as guarantees of quality and ownership.

Coming to America

While coffee became hugely popular in South America, the Caribbean, and Central America, it did not in North America. Alcohol and tea remained the most popular drinks in the British Colonies that would become the United States.

This began to change with the American Revolutionary War. As one might expect, the Boston Tea Party made British tea merchants nervous. As such, North America saw a massive tea shortage from 1776 until about 1800. Many people began drinking coffee as a substitute for tea. But it remained the second choice behind tea.

The biggest change happened during the War of 1812. Unlike the Revolutionary War, where tea imports slowed down, this war saw them stop completely. The British entirely cut the US off from tea for the duration of the war. This caused Americans to begin drinking coffee, which they could still get from Central/South America, in huge quantities. After the war, it remained the most popular drink, where it has remained since.

Where we stand today

Coffee is the second most popular drink in the world behind tea, and ahead of beer in third. Over 2.25 billion cups are drunk every day! It is the most popular drink in the US. Per capita, Americans drink a little over 22 gallons of coffee a year.

The top 10 coffee producing countries are, in order: Brazil, Vietnam, Colombia, Indonesia, Ethiopia, Honduras, India, Uganda, Mexico, and Guatemala.

Also, Brazil is the single largest producer of coffee globally, a position they’ve held since 1852. They produce about a third of all the world’s coffee. But at their peak in the 1920s, Brazil produced 80% of the world’s supply. In 2016, Brazil produced a staggering 5.714 billion pounds of coffee.

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Metals used in coffee preparation

Aluminum

Because of its low cost, light weight, and corrosion resistance, aluminum has a lot of uses. Camping gear and other portable coffee making equipment often utilize this metal. Moka Pots famously use aluminum and bakelite. The aluminum used in coffee makers tends to be anodized due to its exceptional corrosion resistance.

Note on Aluminum and Alzheimer’s Disease

While some groups have suggested cooking/drinking with aluminum increases the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, that is uncertain. Specifically,  the Alzheimer’s Association says “studies have failed to confirm any role for aluminum in causing Alzheimer’s.”

Copper and copper alloys

The main value of copper is its unparalleled thermal conductivity. It heats up fast, heats evenly, and cools fast when you take it off the heat. This allows for coffee to be prepared with precision and reduces the risk of overcooking. The cezve (also called a Turkish coffee pot), typically uses copper or brass as its main metal. Copper is higher quality, while brass is usually less expensive.

For coffee, copper alloys have one main problem. Namely, the acidity of coffee can cause copper to leech into the coffee. This can cause health problems and should be avoided. Consequently, copper components in coffee makers and coffee pots have their interiors lined. This lining is made from a nonreactive metal. Typically tin is used, but nickel, stainless steel, and even silver are sometimes used.

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A set of cezve with made from different metals. Note you can see the tin lining on the insides.

Precious metals

Silver and gold are less common but still noteworthy metals in coffee makers. Typically you’ll see them in really high-end or historical coffee pots as opposed to actual coffee machines. Silver is nonreactive and easy to work with, making it popular as plating on copper components. Gold is mostly used as bling. But its corrosion resistance also makes it useful for small specialty parts. The strainer on high-end coffee machines are sometimes made from gold wire.

Stainless steel

By the mid-20th century, stainless steel had become the most popular metal for coffee makers, which it still is. Stainless steel is strong, common, resists corrosion, doesn’t leech, and is easy to clean. High end machines continue to use stainless, especially espresso machines. Even in cheap plastic machines, the most important components still use stainless steel.

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DIY?

If you’re into minimalism, check out this DIY coffee maker using nothing but copper tube and a filter.