11 September 2014

The Caffeine Chronicles: Black Sheep Coffee Review

My day job doesn't often overlap with my blogging — science communication and writing about food and films don't have a huge amount in common — but occasionally the two worlds collide a little. Last week saw the publication of the genome sequence of Coffea canephora, also known as robusta coffee, which happened to coincide with a review post I had lined up about Robusta Revival, a coffee from Black Sheep that I tried recently and that is, of course, leading the robusta revival.

When I travelled to Cuba in 2005, back in the early days of my caffeine-junkie status, I couldn't work out why the coffee was so mediocre, but most of Cuba's arabica coffee is exported, which meant that the bitterer robusta variety was usually the only one on offer. I've avoided robusta ever since, but when Black Sheep's PR team sent me a bag of their coffee to review, I was intrigued. Maybe it was finally time to get over my arabica snobbery.

As you can tell from their name, their URL — www.leavetheherdbehind.com — and their FAQ, Black Sheep doesn't care for herd mentality. I hope, then, that it won't offend them that I enjoyed their coffee as much as some of the other coffee-by-mail services I've tried. The taste was quite distinctive, though. I ground the coffee at home and tried it in both my home Aeropress and my office V60 dripper, and yes, it is quite bitter and quite strong, but not in a bad way. I think I would prefer to drink Robusta Revival on a cold winter's day rather than in the height of summer because it does have quite a heavy, full-bodied and, er, robust taste. I also though the coffee tasted better brewed in the Aeropress.

With great bitterness comes great caffeine content — Black Sheep say their coffee contains twice as much as "your average cup o’ Joe" but I'm not entirely sure how Joe takes his coffee. In any case, I didn't feel any more of a buzz with my mug o' robusta than I usually do in the mornings, but at this point it takes quite a lot of caffeine to give me the shakes, so that doesn't mean a lot.

Black Sheep's coffee is sold in a few London locations and you can also buy it online: a 227g bag of whole-bean or ground Robusta Revival coffee is £5.40, which is a fairly standard price for coffee delivery services. They also have handy brew guides on their site. Check out their Twitter and their Kickstarter campaign to fund a Black Sheep cafĂ©.

Here's the science bit. For those who are interested in finding out more about the coffee genome, I would recommend Carl Zimmer's story for the New York Times. Essentially, though, the researchers found that the genes involved in producing caffeine in the coffee plant are different from the caffeine-associated genes in the distantly related species of chocolate and tea, suggesting that caffeine has evolved twice among plant species. The authors also suggest that the evolution of caffeine may have helped the coffee plant to survive and thrive (long before coffee bloggers started religiously Instagramming their daily brew) — the plant's caffeine-laced leaves and berries could have served as a deterrent against predators, perhaps, or to make the neighbouring soil less inviting to would-be neighbours.

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