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A Brief Tour of Coffee’s Chemical Composition
Every day millions of people around the world start their day religiously with a morning cup of coffee. Although today it is easy to recognize coffee in its drink form, it was not always like that in the beginning. Throughout history, coffee has taken several physical transformations, initially serving as an energy source when nomadic tribes combined coffee berries with animal fat as an early form of energy bar. Later it was consumed as tea, then wine, and finally to the drink we have come to know today. Since the beginning, coffee has always been a product of great mystery, having been accidentally discovered in the wild forests of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) and consumed in its native cherry form, and then later, passed through fire to change its chemical state significantly. And although coffee has existed for thousands of years, scientists have only been able to recognize and understand exactly what is in this mystical bean during the last half century. Scientists have so far identified over 1,000 compounds in coffee, which, when compared to products such as chocolate wine which contains a few hundred, pales in comparison to coffee. Fortunately, through advances in technology, much of the chemical makeup of coffee has been unlocked and we now have a better perspective on the chemistry of this mystical bean.
For many, drinking coffee is simply a delivery vehicle for a strong alkaloid that we have come to know as caffeine or technically as 1,3,7 – trimethylxanthine. Although caffeine is strongly associated with coffee, its production within the plant kingdom is not limited but is seen through many other types of plants. Mate, for example, which is traditionally consumed in parts of Uruguay and Argentina, contains less than one percent by weight. Whereas, tea leaves (Camellia sinesis) which originated in China, contain almost three times the concentration of caffeine than Arabica, with a counterpart from Brazil almost twice as much as robusta coffee. It seems that Mother Nature is quite generous when it comes to distributing caffeine among the plant kingdom. But for humans, caffeine is very unique. So far we are the only life forms on Earth that readily seek caffeine for its stimulating and psychological effects. For all other forms of life, caffeine is a potent toxin capable of sterilization, phytotoxicity and antifungal properties. As such scientists believe that caffeine, with its extremely bitter taste, has evolved as a primitive defense mechanism in coffee ensuring that it survives in the wild for thousands of years. It is therefore not surprising that the caffeine content of the more “robust” Robusta species is almost twice that of the more fragile Arabica. It is believed that as insects attack the coffee cherries, they are put off by the bitter taste of caffeine and simply move on to the next crop. As Arabica is usually grown at higher altitudes than Robusta, where insect attack is reduced, Arabica has evolved to produce less caffeine.
Lipid production and its subsequent survival after the roasting process plays an important role in overall coffee quality. In general, most of the lipids exist in the form of coffee oil and are located within the endosperm (bean) of the cherry, with only a small percentage deposited on the outer part of the coffee wax. Coincidentally, scientists have analyzed and discovered that much of the chemical composition of coffee oil is very similar to that of vegetable cooking oil. As such, much of the lipid content in coffee remains unchanged and relatively stable even at the high temperatures associated with roasting. In its green form Arabica and Robusta coffee contain on average 15-17% and 10-11.5%, respectively. But because Arabica contains about 60% more lipids than Robusta, many believe that this obvious difference is one reason responsible for the difference in quality between the two species. So far, the claim has not been confirmed, until French scientists recently discovered a direct correlation between lipid content and overall cup quality. It appears that as lipid content increases within the bean, so does the overall quality of the cup. It is a very plausible explanation when one considers that the majority of the important flavor compounds in coffee are also fat soluble.
Carbohydrates make up about fifty percent of the total dry weight of coffee by composition. After roasting, the carbohydrates remaining in the cup contribute to the mouthfeel or body, with some studies suggesting that they are also responsible for the foam quality common in espresso drinks. Although there are many types of carbohydrates in coffee, perhaps the most important is sucrose. Sucrose, or more commonly known as table sugar, accounts for 6-9% in Arabica with a slightly smaller amount (3-7%) included in Robusta coffee. During roasting, sucrose breaks down easily and studies have shown that up to 97% of the initial sucrose content is lost even on light roasts. Its role during roasting is huge with a large proportion of the carbohydrates available taking part in the secondary Maillard reactions and several others. One class of important by-products created during roasting are those of organic acids. In its native green form, coffee contains negligible amounts of formic, acetic and lactic acid. Despite being roasted once, there is an exponential increase in aliphatic acid production, along with a corresponding increase in coffee acidity. Since acidity plays an important role in assessing quality, it’s no wonder why you’ll typically see higher levels of perceived acidity in Arabica than Robusta coffee, partly due to its higher sucrose concentration. Coincidentally, in the last year Brazilian scientists have identified one gene, sucrose synthase, which controls sucrose production in plants and may hold the key to growing higher quality coffee for years to come.
Protein content for green Arabica and Robusta coffee varies between 10-13% and exists as free or bound proteins within the coffee matrix. Although actual concentrations may vary, there are a number of factors that can affect free protein content, including improper storage which may increase levels of free proteins and lead to adverse effects on quality. During roasting, proteins combine with carbohydrates in what is perhaps the most important reaction for all thermally processed foods – the Maillard reaction. This set of reactions, discovered by a French chemist in 1910, is primarily responsible for transforming the mere handful of compounds found in green coffee into the complex matrix that coffee is today. As the temperature reaches 150C (302F), the Maillard reaction pushes free proteins in coffee to combine with reducing sugars, ultimately leading to the formation of hundreds of important aromatic compounds. Of these, pyrazines and pyridines have the greatest aromatic contribution and are responsible for the distinctive maize/nut aromas found in coffee. The reaction also leads to the formation of a brown colored polymer melanoidins – the compounds responsible for the color of coffee.
Coincidentally, this is the same set of reactions that lead to the magical aromas we produce when toasting a loaf of bread or grilling a piece of steak. Although many of the by-products created during the Maillard reaction are beneficial to coffee, in other agricultural products, this set of browning reactions can be seriously detrimental to quality. In the cup, proteins also play a role in flavor by forming secondary compounds during the roasting process. It turns out that the majority of coffee’s “bitterness” is not the result of caffeine alone, but rather bitter compounds produced during the Maillard reaction. Caffeine, as bitter as it is, accounts for only 10-20% of the total bitterness of coffee.
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