It is slowly becoming time for serious schoolwork in this new semester — books to be read, papers to be written, equations to be pondered — which can only mean one thing — more coffee.
But coffee consumption isn’t just a college-campus phenomena — over 50 percent of Americans drink the stuff every single day; and the majority of those that drink coffee daily average around three to four cups of it. While coffee is a pervasive part of our workaholic culture, however, its usage is bound to bring up a curious question: Is coffee even good for us?
Although this particular question might not be at the forefront of the average citizen’s mind as they sip on their morning (or mid-day, or nighttime) brew it is something that needs to be considered. The scientific community hotly contests the effects of coffee, but the truth is hard to decipher through the many disagreements, making it difficult for the public to understand what they’re drinking.
Taste and energy seems to be common reasons people drink this bittersweet beverage, but it turns out there are a few more specific facts to be known about coffee.
The most significant ingredient in coffee is obviously caffeine, which is ever-present in our day-to-day beverage consumption.
A common myth that many of us grew up with, however, is that caffeine stunts growth. Recent studies have disproved that quite easily. What caffeine does do, however, is obvious to most people — it stimulates them.
Caffeine is, in fact, categorized as a psychoactive stimulant drug, which sounds about right considering the changes in brain function it causes (and the mental and physical effects of those changes).
However, the negatives of consuming too much caffeine consistently are far too clear to those who have experienced them: insomnia, anxiety, jitters and headaches. Even worse, a tolerance to the drug can build up, creating a bodily dependency on the chemical, withdrawal from which can also lead to the symptoms mentioned previously.
Independent of the caffeine issue, however, coffee has also been shown to lead to gastrointestinal damage and elevated cholesterol levels. Seemingly, all this provides a strong case against coffee consumption — at least until you look at the positive findings.
Coffee drinkers can breathe (and sip) easy, since, despite the many studies showing the drink’s negative effects, the case for coffee seems to be stronger than a Johnnie Cochran defense.
For all the negatives of caffeine and coffee, the benefits of moderate coffee consumption are difficult to deny. Studies conducted in Canada and Europe clearly indicate that those who drink moderate amounts of coffee are “significantly less likely” to develop Alzheimer’s disease and dementia later in life. A Harvard study found consumption to reduce risk of gallstone disease.
Another study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed a correlation between coffee and a decrease in the risk of Parkinson’s.
More pertinent to our everyday college lives, coffee was shown to have a clear positive impact on cognitive ability, specifically in terms of short-term memory recall and I.Q. Although it’s good to take such proclamations with a grain of salt, these findings are accepted in much of the mainstream scientific community.
So with coffee drinking in the clear, where on campus does the best brew lie?
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Regular ol’ drip-brew coffee is easy to find and difficult to differentiate. Since brewed coffee campus-wide is nothing remarkable, Starbucks Coffee at the University Village is probably a safe bet, especially considering their standard brew, Pike Place Roast, is freshly made every 30 minutes.
Some coffee consumed by students, however, is based on an entirely different, much more complicated foundation: espresso.
Good espresso is a wonderful thing. Dense, complex and flavorful, it is what many connoisseurs consider to be the truest form of coffee. And they could be right. Develop a taste for well-made espresso and everything else pales in comparison.
It’s unfortunate, then, that good espresso is so hard to come by in the mainstream. A shot of espresso is the result of a unique process. The beans are ground so fine they become a fragrant mahogany dust and then the pure caffiene is extracted by applying hot water at extreme pressure.
At nine times the regular atmospheric pressure on Earth, the oils found in ground coffee emulsify with the water passing through, leaving a rich, syrupy, concentrated drink that is categorized into three layers: the crema, which provides aroma and the first layer of flavor; the body, which gives primary flavor and texture; and the heart, which gives the espresso depth.
Although it’s not hard to make great espresso, it does take training and expensive equipment. The problem is most places that serve espresso drinks have neither.
Even with its new manual-operation espresso machine, Ground Zero — as good as its milkshakes are — simply doesn’t put out a consistently good espresso. The shots tend to be watery, with a weak crema that disappears quickly, which can drag down the quality of the espresso drink, whether it’s a plain latte or mocha or anything else. One thing that is neat, however, is their vast selection of syrups and interesting drink combinations, as well as the fact that they free-pour their steamed milk — more on that later.
If Ground Zero’s espresso shots are mediocre, then Trojan Grounds’ are pitiful. The fully automatic Schaerer espresso machines — used commonly in Starbucks and those “proudly brewing” Starbucks — puts potential shots at a disadvantage. Because espresso shots require such specific, individual attention, a barista would ideally use a manual grinder and extractor to craft each pull.
But the Schaerer machines’ disadvantage lies in their inability to automatically adjust the grind of the beans according to changes in humidity and temperature.
In addition to its sub-par espresso techniques, TroGro is usually busy, and its employees are not competition-ready baristas, meaning the drinks come out inconsistently. Huge blunder, too, is the heavy application of all things syrupy, especially the insane amount of caramel sauce in the caramel macchiato, all of which sinks to the bottom of the cup to form a viscous yellow mass.
The milk at TroGro is also abused. Supposedly “steamed to perfection” by the auto-machines, it is instead tortured past 160 degrees Fahrenheit, which leaves it tasting watery and scalded instead of creamy and rich with a light sweetness. And instead of a thick, tight foam that’s incorporated with the coffee to provide a gently flavored textural garnish, the foam at TroGro looks like unhappy soap suds, scooped on top of insipid coffee.
In stark, beautiful contrast to this mess lies the best coffee on or anywhere near campus — Shop Café, which sits off a courtyard at the USC School of Architecture. There, behind the counter, sits a gleaming — and expensive — fully manual La Marzocco espresso machine. Next to it are adjustable grinders with local, fresh Kéan Coffee beans. And, most importantly, the cafe is staffed by baristas who know what they are doing. All of these factors add up to great espresso drinks.
Shop Cafe’s latte doesn’t need any frills. The coffee and milk strike a brilliant harmony that is deep and delicate at the same time. The steamed milk is expertly free poured straight from the pitcher, which combines the milk and foam together with the coffee instead of leaving a scooped pillow of milky air lonely on top. And if you would like flavors, they’ve got them, including a good selection of premium Monin syrups as well as Ghirardelli chocolate and caramel sauces. And their prices are perfectly competitive with any other store.
Sure, The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf has a unique menu and great blended drinks, and Tutor Hall Café and The Lot have acceptable espresso drinks as well, but Shop Café is the shining example of what kind of coffee three bucks should be able to get you. And whether you’re drinking it for taste or for energy, shouldn’t you be getting your money’s worth?