Myths and Legends About Coffee

That a mere beverage could generate so many romantic tales and so much hard-headed business is a wonder. Yet from its beginnings to the present, this dark and pungent liquid has fascinated, cured and enriched billions the world over.

Legends abound about the origins of the coffee plant, but the most reliable histories put its discovery in Ethiopia somewhere around 500 BC. From there, after observing the stimulating effects of its berries, travelers brought it to Arabia, where it acquired the name.

The Renaissance gave birth not only to science and art, but the commercial production and known-world distribution of what would later be called 'that heathenish liquid'. By the late 18th century both plantations and drinking popularity had spread to Europe, Asia, the Middle East, South and North America and to every social class.

Throughout those long centuries the health effects ascribed to coffee border on the miraculous. But, as with most claimed miracles, there's some fact at the bottom.

Some studies suggest that mammalian sperm swim faster, farther and longer in fluid laced with coffee. The theory is the caffeine stimulates them. One Harvard study followed over 100,000 individuals for almost 20 years, drawing the conclusion that moderate use can help reduce diabetes. Others show reduction in cirrhosis of the liver and decrease of asthma severity.

As with wine, the antioxidants in coffee have been touted as helping keep hearts healthier, though debates rage about whether the pros outweigh the cons. Coffee is a diuretic and encourages more frequent urination, and some assert that the stimulation from caffeine leads to long term nerve degeneration. Caffeine withdrawal can lead to increased sleeplessness. And, caffeine is a natural insecticide.

But for good or ill - or both - coffee is here to stay. The economics alone virtually guarantee that, since as a commodity coffee is second only in dollar volume to oil.

Whether traded on exchanges in London, New York, Hong Kong or Lima with over 400 billion cups consumed annually, this other 'black gold' only grows in popularity. Though only 10-20% (depending on country) of adults drink one or more cups daily, the total retail sales hovers near the $9 billion level annually.

Add to those figures the number of raw beans, grinders, roasters, brewers and cups bought for the home and the figures become astounding.

With the rise in both basic commodity and specialty retail prices, the future for coffee businesses continues to look bright. Starbucks alone has over 10,000 outlets around the world.

And specialty coffee shops are not the only outlet for a wide choice of blends and styles. Home roasters and brewers also can enjoy espresso, invented in 1901 and growing ever since. Straight shots, long shots or double shots are a snap now with home machines.

Mocha, Latte, and Cappuccino - all available by the addition of a few ingredients at the touch of a few buttons. Flavored coffees in as great a variety as wines are easy to make, with just a dash of vanilla, caramel or fruit flavorings.

With all that history, money, and delicious variety maybe the legends weren't so far off after all.