Coffee's caffeine kick

Many years ago, I was in California, staying at a friend's house. The first morning, the lady of the house asked how I drank my coffee. I said, "black." She replied, "Oh, so you like the taste of coffee!" It was a comment that first surprised me, then enlightened me. Apparently, many people drink coffee not for the flavor but for the kick. Like smokers who need their nicotine fix, many coffee drinkers need their caffeine fix.

So if taste is not as important as getting a quick caffeine jolt-or, alternatively, if you wish to minimize your caffeine intake-here are a few facts you should know.

There are two types of coffee plants which produce the beans we buy: coffea robusta and coffea arabica. Robusta beans are the generic ones that go into most of the canned coffees in the supermarket. Arabicas are the 'gourmet' beans sold in whole bean form by region or blend. They are also added to some canned robusta coffees to enhance the flavor.

Robusta beans naturally have approximately twice as much caffeine as arabicas. Robustas are also generally roasted to a lighter degree than arabicas. Since the roasting process breaks down caffeine, these lightly roasted robustas retain more of their caffeine than do dark-roast arabicas.

Finally, the methods most commonly used to brew these light-roast robustas-automatic coffee makers and drip filters-keep the grinds in contact with hot water for a longer period; up to 4 minutes, compared to 18-20 seconds for an espresso maker, which generally takes dark-roast arabicas. This longer brewing period also puts more caffeine into your cup.

Thus, a 7 oz. cup of drip-filter coffee can contain between 115 and 175 mg of caffeine, while a 1.5 - 2 oz. shot of espresso (to which 5 oz. of water or milk can be added) will contain approx. 80 to 100 mg of caffeine.

What does all of this technical mumbo-jumbo mean? This: if you want to maximize your caffeine intake (and don't care about the flavor), buy cheap, light-roast robusta beans and brew them in a drip filter coffee maker. Conversely, if you want to reduce your caffeine intake (and increase flavor), buy dark-roast arabica beans and brew them in an espresso machine.

Of course, if you are truly concerned about minimizing your caffeine intake, you should be drinking decaffeinated coffee, which has at least 97% of its caffeine removed.

And if you thought decafs were also de-flavored, try some of the modern decafs. They are surprisingly good. In fact, I can't taste any difference between Starbucks' Espresso Roast and their Decaf Espresso Roast, though the lack of caffeine can be like a car idling at an intersection ready to go as soon as the light turns green, waiting...waiting...waiting. But the light never turns green. If you normally drink caffeinated coffee, it might take your body a few days to adjust to coffee that has no green light.

Here's a brief look at what's happening on the decaf side of the caffeine wars.

Direct Contact Process
This process has the least impact on flavor of any of the common decaffeination methods. Green beans are soaked in methylene chloride, a solvent that removes the caffeine.

Before you recoil in horror at the idea of solvents in your morning cup, be aware that any residue is completely eliminated by the roasting process. The beans that you buy have absolutely no trace of solvent. And the resulting brew is virtually identical in flavor and aroma to the unprocessed brew.

Water Process
Similar to the direct contact process, the water process differs in that only the water in which the beans soaked actually comes in contact with the solvent. And since the solvent doesn't actually combine with the water, the solvent is easy to remove.

Swiss Water Process
In this method, the green beans are soaked in very hot water under high pressure, then the caffeine-laden water is forced through charcoal filters. This caffeine-free water is then returned to the beans, allowing any extracted flavors to be reabsorbed by the beans.

Although this method does weaken the flavor of the coffee, many people prefer it to the other two processes as no chemicals are used.

So there is no longer any reason why you can't enjoy an delicious cup of coffee any time of the day or night. Excuse me while I go brew up a nightcap...ahhhhhh!