Book Profile

CoffeeTalk is proud to provide a series of sneak previews of Dr. Shawn Steiman’s new book, The Little Coffee Know-It-All: A miscellany to growing, roasting and brewing the world’s best coffee, uncompromising and unapologetic.

Dr. Steiman’s forthcoming book explores the multiple aspects of the coffee plant and of coffee production through the lens of a scientist. And while backed with scientific data and facts, his easygoing and informal writing style makes it accessible knowledge to all.

Shawn is a coffee scientist, Q-grader, author, and consultant. He’s a graduate of Oberlin College as well as the University of Hawai‘i. His coffee research has included coffee production, entomology, ecology, physiology, biochemistry, organoleptic quality, and brewing. Aside from being an owner of Daylight Mind Coffee Company, he also owns Coffea Consulting, a coffee-centric consulting firm. Shawn regularly presents seminars, workshops, and tastings for both public and private events.

Why this book? (An excerpt)

People are crazy about coffee. They read coffee blogs, trade magazines, and books and attend conferences, trade shows, and coffee schools. They buy all kinds of coffee brewers, grinders, and related paraphernalia. They discuss the nuances of cherry processing, roasting, storage, and brewing at every opportunity. They’ll even wait in line for twenty minutes for a $10 cup of coffee! And these are just ordinary people, not coffee professionals!

Coffee has become a worthy hobby and intense passion for all sorts of people. People want to learn as much as they can about coffee and they want answers to all sorts of questions brewing in their heads. What, then, is more appropriate than providing answers to some of those questions in a fun way that doesn’t feel too much like a high school classroom? While there are many coffee books available, this one is different. It attempts to look at a myriad of coffee ideas and explore them using scientific principles, scientifically acquired data, and peer-reviewed publications. Even though the scientific method isn’t fool-proof and there are other ways of acquiring truth and knowledge, science has generally proven to be a good way of exploring the world.

Part 1: The Beans (an excerpt) 

Why does a coffee plant produce caffeine?

So many of us love coffee because of what caffeine does for us. Without the caffeine, humanity may never have continued consuming coffee after the first initial tries (what reason would we have had for stumbling on the importance of processing, drying, roasting, and brewing?). But, what does caffeine do for the coffee plant? After all, it doesn’t manufacture the stuff for us and it requires energy to produce it.

Caffeine is found in all parts of coffee, from the roots to the seeds and even in the xylem, the upward-elevator organ in plants. A number of hypotheses have been posited for what caffeine can do for the coffee plant. It could be an allelopathic agent, an anti-herbivory agent, a form of nitrogen storage, and/or a pollinator stimulant.

Allelopathy is plant chemical warfare against other plants. Some plants produce chemicals that can harm or kill seeds or plants, typically of other species. These compounds, spread by the decomposition of leaf litter or exudation by roots and seeds, influence the population dynamics of plants within a community; not all allelochemicals kill all plants. Many researchers have demonstrated that caffeine is toxic to a number of different plants. However, nobody has demonstrated caffeine’s efficacy in a natural setting. Thus, just because it can kill some other species, there is no guarantee that it would kill competitor plants in the forests of Ethiopia (where it evolved).

Caffeine is incredibly toxic to some insects and fungi (humans, too, in a high enough concentration). So, it is often argued that it is a defense mechanism from critters. This hypothesis is supported by the fact that caffeine is produced in young, developing organs that are more susceptible to insect attack. This is a logical hypothesis but it is incredibly difficult to prove.

Since caffeine has been found moving up through a plant and it contains four nitrogen atoms, it is thought that it may simply be a way to store nitrogen until needed for a specific purpose. What little research has been done on this hasn’t successfully demonstrated this function.

Lastly, caffeine may be an incentivizing treat for pollinators, particularly honeybees. Research has shown that honeybees’ long-term memory is improved after having caffeine. Presumably, this would help the bees remember the flower they were enjoying and be more likely to return to it in the future, thus helping the plants to cross-pollinate. While this is promising research, it has yet to be tested outside the laboratory. In addition, it wouldn’t explain why caffeine is synthesized in all the organs in the plant.

We will probably never know why coffee first developed caffeine. If we’re lucky, we’ll find out why it has continued to do so. Of course, from the coffee’s perspective, caffeine production has been a huge success. After all, because of that molecule, the human species has spread the seeds of the plant to nearly every place on the planet in which they could thrive!

Dr. Steiman has authored numerous articles in scientific journals, trade magazines, newsletters, and newspapers. He is the author of The Hawai‘i Coffee Book: A Gourmet’s Guide from Kona to Kaua‘i and is a co-editor and author of Coffee: A Comprehensive Guide to the Bean, the Beverage, and the Industry. His forthcoming book, published © 2015 by Quarry Books, will be available in the spring of 2015. Stay tuned to future issues of CoffeeTalk for more excerpts from The Little Coffee Know-It-All.

Suggested Reading