LAFAYETTE -- The fantastic origins of coffee and tea, the subject of a recent Science Café lecture at the Lafayette Library, were nearly overshadowed by guest speaker Saint Mary's College Biology Professor Dr. Anthony Talo's intro.
Promising a mix of fascinating mythology, anthropology, botany and history, Talo explained his lecture's raison d'être: "I needed an ethnobotany class for Jan Term," said Talo, talking about the college's four-week January slate of unusual and ambitious course offerings. "I had to figure out how to condense a course on hallucinogens into something the Brothers at Saint Mary's would like."
Talo, trained in plant biology, an expert in cultural ecology and adept at an eclectic blend of digital map production, filmmaking and coffee roasting, has been intrigued by psychoactive drugs for years. A fear of blood and needles prematurely aborted his medical school plans; fortunately, Gibberellins (plant hormones), Richard Evans Schultes (the father of ethnobotany) and the movie "The Medicine Man" formed a safety net.
"It won a Razzie Award for Lorraine Bracco," Talo said about the film, "but it -- and Shultes' search for rubber alternatives in the Amazon -- were my inspiration for saving indigenous plants. I like that plants produce chemicals that control our culture."
Dismissing his own title, "Battle of the Beverage Titans," Talo said "caffeine makes people do amazing things" and proceeded to speak less about battles than about birthplace.
A mere seven plant species produce caffeine. Tea comes from Asia's Camellia and Citrus species (caffeine is only in the flower of the latter). Africa's Coffea and Cola, plus South America's Yerba Mate, Cacao and Guarana form the coffee brigade.
"It's interesting that something so profound is so limited," Talo said.
Inevitably, scientists classified coffees -- and simplicity flew out the window with "Rubiaceae" families, "Morinda" (a name instantly adored by the audience) and other exotic monikers. Essentially, millions of years ago, two central African species had "a love child," Talo said, resulting in coffea arabica and, eventually, thousands of Starbucks stores.
"Normally, the (love child plant's) chromosomes shouldn't have survived, but plants are plastic," he said, describing other strains -- some tasting like dishwater -- that failed to gain popularity.
Tea developed from a single species, but a proliferation of origin stories exist, including Talo's version.
"The whole subcontinent of India rammed in to Asia," he began. The upthrust land, the Himalayas, dispersed the tea population, resulting in the 'China Type,' cultivated in most regions at higher elevations, and the 'Assam Type,' found in humid forests near sea level.
After the geography, there came tea and coffee tales of demigods, emperors, the goatherder Kaldi (a hip, young dude in some versions, an aging geezer in others) and ghoulish details like ripped-out eyeballs as "seeds" for tea plants.
"Regardless of the myth or the culture, religion is what ties them together and spreads them throughout the world," Talo said.
The "spread," especially in Europe, had a distinct impact on everything from architecture to industry. Water wasn't safe to drink during the Dark Ages: most people drank beer, according to Talos.
"For most of human history, we'd been slightly addled," he said.
Caffeine made people lucid, turning barrooms into coffeehouses and drunken brawling into cross-class conversations about politics, math and The Enlightenment. An audience member asked how London became "the center of tea."
Questions about tea varietals prompted Talo to explain that rolled, crinkled leaves -- left to sit for days -- result in black tea. Bruised leaves make gray teas, and leaves steamed without assault give rise to white or green tea.
With coffee, standardization results in a product he said "saves the wallet, but not the flavor."
The best way to prepare coffee is to fresh-roast it, grind it fine in an aero press (a device that pushes a vacuum through a filter), roast at 450 degrees for 10 minutes and brew.
"Heat is the enemy of coffee: boil and percolate are the worst," he warned.