Sunday, July 8, 2018

Friendship, Fireworks and Fair Trade Coffee


What do you think of when you think of July 4th? Parades, fireworks, fun in the sun, lots of barbecue and grilled veggies---and fair trade coffee.  Why not?


This year, the friends who hosted me and my family served up an amazing spread (as usual) replete with grilled lamb and chicken, hot dogs, grilled veggies, and roasted potatoes. I brought a vegan cake (from Asia B) and grapefruit San Pelligrino. We ate, we drank, we laughed, we swam in the saltwater pool, and then we ate more. Finally, it was time for coffee---but I was shocked to learn that everything, even Starbucks, was closed. (Gasp…what could we do?)


As it turned out the only option was to “brew” a coffee pod in an old-model Keurig---and I was happy to have it. The coffee was brewed in a large cup…and it was delicious.

At first, to me, it was just another box of k-cups---until I tasted it.  The coffee was an organic French Roast from the Rogers Family Company, a San Francisco-based company that has been around for 3 generations.  Not only was the coffee organic and delicious, but it was also a proprietary Fair Trade coffee.

What is Fair Trade and why does it matter?
The term Fair Trade has been buzzy for a while now, but behind Fair Trade-certified labeling, there is a history that has altered the course of hundreds of thousands of lives of coffee farmers in Latin America and the Caribbean---and the communities they live in.

In 1962, the Coffee Study Group, convened by the United Nations, drafted the International Coffee Agreement, which made it possible for the International Coffee Association to regulate the price of coffee---basically to keep coffee prices at a certain level by not allowing the market to be glutted.

Like all commodities, the cost of coffee is subject to wild fluctuations, due to weather events---such as frost, or supply increases due to coffee farmers implementing innovative technologies. So maintaining a base level price over the years has been difficult.

Buying fair trade coffee helps whole communities

In 1988, things hit an impasse when the global supply of coffee grew exponentially, while demand remained steady---threatening the ICA’s goals to maintain a livable wage for coffee farmers. That’s when a Dutch organization, Max Havelaar, create the “Fair Trade” label, a form of certification for coffee grown in certain conditions, under specific provisions. Since the initial introduction of Fair Trade, standards and provisions have been updated. The latest update, in 2007, integrated provisions for improving the standard of living for coffee farmers.

Elements of fair trade include purchasing directly through a democratically organized farmer-owned co-op—with no middleman; establishing a “floor” price for the coffee purchased through a fair trade agreement; credit for coffee farmers extended by importers; and certification from a certifying organization—with importers and wholesalers covering the cost of certification. And finally, there is the consumer-facing fair-certified product labeling. This labeling communicates to consumers that this coffee was fairly traded.

Lazy summer days
The truth is that the Roger’s Company’s Organic French Roast (k-cup) is good, although I wasn't expecting very much from a k-cup brewed in a retro machine---but, I was a person in need of a cup of coffee. What a nice surprise: It tasted like a well-vetted French roast; so good that I had three more cups. A perfect drink for a somewhat lazy, very fun, summer holiday with friends.

My friend, Elina, had some as well. We had a great time extolling the virtues of this coffee (and Elina is quite frankly hilarious).  Take a look at our video. Hope you're having a great summer!





Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Birthday musings: My lifelong love affair with caffeine


Because my birthday is at the end of May, I usually end up celebrating on Memorial Day weekend, as I did this year.  I have been drinking coffee since I was 15, and have always loved coffee with cake. This year, my birthday cake, a vegan cake made by Asia Bullock, owner of Asia B’s Sweet Treats, was a 3-layer yellow cake with chocolate icing---à la vintage Betty Crocker.  It was my dream cake.

When I tasted the cake it reminded me of when the kids in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe (written by C.S. Lewis & published in 1950 as part of the Chronicles of Narnia series) first tried Turkish delight, a traditional starchy confection, made with powdered sugar and rosewater, which was rendered magical in the story. The cake was so good, so sublime, and so otherworldly that the only way to make it better (at least for me) was with coffee.

My friends and I celebrated at Trend Coffee and Tea House, which has become Montclair, NJ’s go-to coffee hot-spot, with a schedule of musicians performing live, a burgeoning sip-and- paint scene upstairs, and amazing coffee, espresso, sandwiches and soup----against the backdrop of the charming locale, a house that was built in 1860, replete with large square-pane bay windows, seating nooks,  high ceilings, vintage book shelves, original art, and an airy, lofty sense of openness. It was a gray, wet, early summer day, and it was perfect. The coffee flowed, the kids played, the adults laughed a lot, and there was singing and gift-giving.



Gifted with coffee superpowers
Speaking of gift-giving, my favorite surprise this year was gifted to me by my very talented writer-colleague, Jess, who shares my love of coffee --- “Coffee Gives me Superpowers,” written by Ryoko Iwata, who lives in Seattle and blogs at “I heart coffee”, arrived via mail courtesy of Amazon on the day before my birthday.

There have been a lot of books and articles written about every aspect of coffee, but this book approached the topic of coffee from a different angle. “Coffee Gives me Superpowers” is a compendium of coffee-related facts presented in infographic format---served up with a heaping dose of humor.

Iwata covers it all---from brewing, to health benefits, to coffee culture, coffee personality types, and an overview of the language for espresso-based drinks. Did you know, for example, that people who take their coffee black are “straightforward, quiet, moody minimalists,” according to Iwata. Also, black coffee is calorie-free, ‘makes you poop,’ and is not good to drink in early pregnancy. Norway is the #1 coffee-drinking country in the world in per capita terms, Washington state is the #1 coffee-drinking state in the U.S., and Arkansas has the lowest per capita coffee consumption in the U.S.
It was a tough decision, but overall, if I had to choose a favorite chapter it would be “10 Things You Probably Didn’t Know about Caffeine.”
Nicole & Jess (at work function)

The unthinkable—life without caffeine
Globally, 90% of all people use caffeine in some form, making it the most widely used, depended-upon drug in the world. In fact, coffee fueled the Industrial Revolution and helped create the basis for ‘the   productive workday.’

If access to caffeine suddenly disappeared, the world as we know it would cease to exist. Planes would crash, businesses would shutter, children would not be sent off to school on time, if at all, economies would falter and crumble, and people everywhere would descend into deep depression and hysterical madness.

The ultimate muse
Caffeine really is a drug---and it can be deadly, but honestly in terms of coffee, it would be very difficult to overdose.  On average, a cup of brewed coffee has between 95 mg and 200 mg of caffeine (compared to Red Bull, which has between 76 mg and 80 mg).

A lethal dose of caffeine is between 10 and 20 grams, which translates into 5 gallons of coffee. However, not surprisingly, you can now buy pure, unadulterated, concentrated caffeine online. Earlier this month, the FDA sent warning letters to two companies that sell highly concentrated caffeine products. 

The decaf myth

According to a news release from FDA, a 16-ounce package of a product from liquidcaffeine.com, which sells pure powdered caffeine and liquid caffeine, contains enough caffeine to be lethal. This leads me to ask, “Why not just drink coffee? Why risk death? What’s the point?”
And what about decaf? Many coffee-lovers say ‘why bother?’ when confronted with the notion of decaf coffee, but decaf coffee has its place. However, even in its commercially decaffeinated state, coffee contains numerous antioxidants and health-giving properties. But here’s one thing, I absolutely didn’t know. Decaffeinated coffee does have some caffeine it, roughly 8.6 mg to 13.9 mg—less than 10% of the standard dose in a normal 8-ounce cup of coffee.

While it doesn’t have the thermogenic, fat-burning effects associated with caffeinated coffee, decaf also decreases the risk of type 2 diabetes, liver disease, many different types of cancer, stroke, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, depression, and suicide.

Image result for health benefits of caffeine

Time marches on

 Another ‘did-you-know’ caffeine fact: When you consume coffee, it takes 20 minutes for the effects of the caffeine to kick in, and those effects can last anywhere from 8 to 14 hours. Having celebrated another birthday, there’s one thing I’m sure of. Time marches on, new players come on stage, the drumbeat of life is constant, and the need for caffeine is daily. 


Caffeine truly is the gift that keeps giving. Make sure you have your daily dose of coffee—and enjoy the beginning of summer 2018!

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Coffee, acrylamide, and the cult of false-equivalence



It seems the anti-science movement has gained some momentum lately, as lawmakers, disdainful of evidence-backed data, make decisions that are at best stupid, and at worse, harmful to public health.
Such is the case with the pending judicial decision in California, related to Prop 65, which would require coffee sellers to post warnings about the fact that coffee contains acrylamide---which according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) is a probable carcinogen in humans. Note that this conclusion is based on studies involving rats mega-dosed with acrylamide in controlled pre-clinical studies.


Acrylamide Schmahilatide
What exactly is acrylamide? According to the American Cancer Society, acrylamide is a chemical byproduct of frying, baking, or roasting certain starchy foods at high temps (microwaving and boiling don’t produce acrylamide). Not only is acrylamide found in roughly 40% of all calories consumed by humans, it is also found in cigarette smoke and some adhesives and packaging materials.

In 1986, California lawmakers implemented Proposition 65, which requires the state to keep a list of harmful chemicals that could lead to cancer, reproductive harm, or birth defects. There are at least 1,000 chemicals on that list, including alcohol, which, according to Prop 65, causes cancer and birth defects; bisphenol A; mercury; and lead.  Here is a comprehensive list.



As for food and beverages, the highest amounts of acrylamide can be found in French fries, chips, roasted asparagus, roasted nuts, prune juice, toast, breakfast cereal—and coffee. However, real-world evidence just doesn’t support the idea that eating asparagus and nuts, while drinking coffee, gives you cancer.

The cult of false equivalence—alcohol, cannabis, and coffee
In contrast to coffee, which has been shown in well-designed, meta-analyses to increase human lifespan, alcohol is the second leading cause of death in the world. Its consumption is responsible for 15% of all breast cancer, and largely responsible for most head, neck, throat, and liver cancers, as well as other cancers, and cirrhosis. But the headlines don’t scream about alcohol the way they do about coffee.

In my opinion, there are 3 main reasons: First of all, the alcohol industry has formidable leverage and power, second, heavy drinkers (more than 1 drink per day for women and 2 for men is considered heavy drinking, but moderate consumption is considered okay) are loathe to admit that their addiction to alcohol could be the reason they are sick, or the reason they die prematurely, and third, there is a long history of demonizing coffee and equating its consumption with that of alcohol and cigarettes.  This is called false equivalence.

False equivalence is a logical fallacy in which two completely different things appear to be logically equivalent even if they are not. As science has fallen by the wayside under the current administration, false equivalence has become a common way of arguing. “Hey, that guy got cancer from drinking too much alcohol, or that lady got raped when she left the bar drunk with some random guy…Well guess what, marijuana is ILLEGAL (in many places), so when you smoke a lot you won’t die or even get sick, but you could get arrested—unless you have cancer, in which case you can use it legally and therapeutically, along with your coffee. So it’s the same thing. Right? ”

Why does coffee continue to get a bad rap?
Over the years, despite efforts to demonize coffee, attributing to it an increased risk of breast cancer, heart disease, and even impotence and sexual deviousness, twenty-first-century science has shown that it decreases the risk of numerous cancers, as well as neurologic diseases, stroke, and obesity, as discussed in a peer-reviewed article in the New England Journal of Medicine

You can even see it playing out in politics. When racist incidents that happened in Starbucks went viral, people were ready to boycott and write Starbucks off as a big, behemoth, racist corporation (the case involving the two young men in Philadelphia has since been resolved; Starbucks is way ahead of the curve with this issue).

But go to any inner-city African-American neighborhood---liquor ads everywhere, and not a peep from many of the same folks who are telling everyone to ‘stay woke’ and boycott Starbucks, all the while continuing to drink their lives away. Who cares about the extremely racist implications of alcohol advertising in residential neighborhoods? After all, it’s much easier to keep people down with enough alcohol, television, and junk food—keep ‘em fat, happy, and drunk. But Starbucks---OMG, be careful….they want to fill you with caffeine and (gasp) you may even get some ambition. And if Starbucks moves into your neighborhood, then what? (Increased property values…how dare they.)

False equivalence can kill you---so don’t worry about the red herring of acrylamide warnings on coffee.  Drink up. Happy spring to all of my coffee-drinking brothers and sisters everywhere!






Thursday, April 19, 2018

The Starbucks debacle heralds a new era in corporate citizenship



Once upon a time, racial profiling at a coffee shop would not be considered unusual, even if it was considered unfortunate, evoking a few platitudes from the silent majority. But the idea that an act of discrimination involving black people, coffee culture, and a racially biased store manager, would provoke national outrage would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. But then the Internet happened and a new generation, specifically millenials, came of age, bringing with them their tech savvy and progressiveness.

Last week, the video of Philadelphia policemen arresting  two young, black men (for apparently sitting too long without a making purchase in a Starbucks on 30th and Spruce) went viral quickly, igniting a wave of fury and becoming a hot topic on news networks and social media.

Rashan Nelson, age 23,


Indifference and silence---two strategies that normalize racism---help to preserve the illusion of innocence. But those days are over. It's true: Racism is alive and well in the U.S., but the democratizing force of social media is making it visible for all to witness, and a group of everyday heroes is emerging, including Melissa DePinto, a self-described upper-middle class, middle-aged white woman, who used her privilege to take the video undisturbed. Read her amazing op-ed here.
Melissa DePinto


Is the Third Space still a thing?

When I started this blog in 2008, Starbucks’ concept of the third space was just taking hold. Fast Company published an article in June 2008 introducing the concept of the third space---first there’s home; then there’s work---and then there’s Starbucks, a place you can sit, feel at home, drink coffee, socialize and get stuff done.   In fact, Starbucks has earned its third-space reputation. Over the years, Starbucks has been a champion for diversity, gay marriage, and environmental integrity---a safe space even in the most politically tumultuous times. And the implicit understanding was that the third space was to be enjoyed by all---along with the wifi. 

So last week's events were beyond disturbing---they were horrifying.

Howard Schultz, founder and former CEO of Starbucks,  currently executive chairman, said in an interview with CBS that he feels “embarrassed and ashamed” of what happened in Philadelphia. Together with CEO president, Kevin Johnson, Schultz has sought out the victims of the unfair arrest, offering apologies. (Johnson offered a F2F apology.)  But it didn’t stop there.

Racial-bias education

Starbucks has committed to educating its workforce on racial bias---what Schultz calls the beginning of an ongoing initiative. Towards that end, a team of thought-leaders has been assembled to create this training---including Sherrily Ifill from the NAACP Legal Defence Fund, Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Coaltion, and Eric Holder, former attorney general during the Obama administration, in addition to others. This training, slated for May 29, will be an all-hands-on-deck event for almost 200,000 people, and lead to the closure of 8,000 stores.

As it turns out the two men who were arrested (Rashon Nelson, 23 and Donte Robinson, 23---a customer at the same SBX since age 15), were at Starbucks waiting on an acquaintance to discuss real estate investment opportunities. The acquaintance, a white man, walked in as the arrests were occuring and was mortified and angry to see these men handcuffed--at Starbucks no less!

Since then, Starbucks has committed to supporting the men as they pursue their business goals, essentially providing an opportunity for the men to leverage this unfortunate incidnent towards long-term professional success and prospoerity. Many companies would have issued a trite apology and tried to move on as quickly as possible---getting back to business as usual---everyday, benign racism, with an aura of quiet complicity. Starbucks, however, is not "many companies."


Starbucks is Starbucks. In fact, not long ago, Schultz said that now, more than ever, it is incumbent upon corporations to be a force for good---and to use their change-agent capabilities to counteract the pernicious intolerance that is festering like a cancer that has metastacized throughout our great country.

Platform for change

The reality is that Starbucks is the "number one purveyor of coffee in the world" and that success gives them a platform for change. In fact, given the current political reality in the U.S., it's not surprising that there are more rank-and-file Starbucks baristas and managers who feel empowered to unleash their inner racist self.

Trump and supporters have cynically advanced an agenda that stokes racism, homophobia, sexism, ableism, and classism by playing on the fears of working-class white people and manipulating the aspirations of middle-class people, who harbor underlying racism, while openly catering to the financial needs of the top 5%.

In this context, more people are likely to act on their innate racism. Ten years ago, the political climate was different (obviously). So right now, expecting young people, who live in certain environments or come from households that voted for Trump, to not become racist, is like expecting a child growing up in a neighborhood full of bars and adverts for alcohol, who also deal with alcoholic parents, to not struggle with alcohol abuse and misuse disorder at some point in their lives. People become who they are in the context of their environments.

Kudos to Starbucks for using its power to educate people about bias and the nuances of racism. My short-term boycott has come to an end, but we are all still watching carefully to see how this unfolds, looking towards Starbucks as a lodestar of good corporate citizenship.

Well done, Starbucks.

Back at my local Starbucks. Upper Montclar, NJ







Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Hyperion Espresso to the Rescue: From darkness to light


Easter in Fredericksburg, VA, with my family, was great.  For us it meant an early-morning egg hunt at church, lots of park time, and really strong morning coffee.



But for me, morning coffee is just the beginning. Coffee for me is an all-day affair. After an afternoon of playing with the kids, kicking a soccer ball and running after a basketball, I decided that I really needed coffee. I made the request to my father, who was driving, and he mentioned Starbucks (after he sighed, since I had been whining about coffee for a couple of hours already).

I assumed that given the holiday and the small-town commitment to family life that Starbucks would be the only coffee option in town. Turns out it wasn’t true.


I spy a coffeehouse
After leaving Pratt Park, as we drove into town, I spied a group of people standing outside of a refurbished colonial that houses Hyperion Espresso.

Hyperion, located at 301 William Street in downtown Fredericksburg, was founded in 1994, after taking over the site of an old pharmacy that closed. Since the beginning, Hyperion has been all about its espresso, which is the basis for its outstanding espresso-based drinks.

After ordering a skim latte for myself and a caramel cappuccino for my nephew, I checked out the décor and marveled at the 2-tier, marigold interior, replete with books, comfortable seating, and light pouring in through the paned windows.


There is almost always at least one coffee option…
So when you think about coffee options---regardless of what day you’re thinking of---there is almost always a coffeehouse/café scene besides Starbucks, precisely because there are people who love coffee and hanging out at coffee houses, regardless of the season or the day or the occasion. And when times get tough---there's always Starbucks!

Coffee and the Cosmos
What about the name Hyperion? It’s up for interpretation. Here’s my take: In Greek mythology, Hyperion was one of the 12 Titan children of Gaia and Uranus. Hyperion became a hero when he helped successfully overthrow his tyrant of a father. After ascending to power, Hyperion fathered the sun, the moon, and dawn.  

Hyperion was the father of the seasons, of the rising and setting of the sun---and, finally, the creator of dawn, that wonderful moment when light breaks through darkness.
This metaphor perfectly describes the role of coffee---from darkness to light--we drink coffee at dawn, and throughout the day to conquer the darkness within. Embrace the light--drink coffee.

Cool April afternoon in downtown Fredericksburg, VA.




Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Romancing the green bean: Coffee-and-love haiku


Coffee is an object of passionate love and extreme affection. Late-night coffee is a nice capstone for a lovely evening out, while morning coffee is an elixir---brewed to sate a universal thirst. And since coffee is both healthy and energizing, drinking it can fuel romantic adventures. And speaking of romance, coffee lends itself to poetry, including haiku. Here are a few odes to our beloved black brew.


Ritual of Joy-by Markus Heyder
Lifting it---
the coffee cup
leaves a ring

I love you-by Caroline Risman
Never enough sleep
Children wake so damn early
Coffee, I love you

Morning Coffee-by Nicole Gray
Cold rays of sunshine
You make my morning coffee
Thank you very much

Recipe for Irish Whiskey 
(While I'm not a drinker, I'm learning to enjoy once in a while---and this is a GREAT way in!)
Here's the short-version recipe: Cappucino (lots of foam) and whiskey or Bailey's (even I know what that is). 



According to Kiely Healy, who is an expert in many things: 
"You can feel jittery and tipsy at the same time---with the love of your life." 


Happy Valentine's Day! Enjoy all of the coffee and love that comes your way. 
End-of-workday coffee love
Jess & Kiely rocking the coffee love