A date with coffee: part I

NBR’s Dr Kevin Robinson recently met Mr Ido Zimet, a producer of date seed coffee in Israel and cofounder of Coffee Date, LLC, in the USA for a brew and a fascinating chat about coffee and his date seed coffee alternative

Ever since the goatherd Kaldi first noticed that after eating the berries from a certain tree, his goats became so energetic that they did not want to sleep at night, coffee has become a much-loved drink in Africa, the Middle East, Europe and the Americas.

In fact, it’s so popular that it’s also made more than a few dents in tea-dominated Asia. By the 15th century, coffee was being enjoyed in both homes and many public coffee houses, and European travellers to the Near East were bringing back stories of an unusual dark black beverage. By the 17th century, coffee had made its way to Europe and was beginning to influence popular culture across the continent.

Coffee began to replace the common breakfast beverages of the time — beer and wine — and those who drank it began the day both alert and energised; and, not surprisingly, the quality of their work improved. Nowadays, though, coffee is experiencing an identity crisis. Many coffee drinkers now ponder whether their daily java hit is good or bad for their health. And that’s a 2.25 billion cups a day question!

Putting the question to Ido, he has both a slightly anthropological point of view, as well as one based on factual scientific research. “Ever since 1895, when C.W. Post (the American breakfast cereal and prepared foods inventor) decided to visit a health sanatorium run by J.W. Kellogg (another serial inventor who would later invent “cornflakes”), industry has been looking for healthier alternatives to coffee as opposed to fake versions that taste the same,” he says.

Post took issue with America’s favourite beverage and “evil, over-stimulating” caffeine, and even suggested that “drinking coffee stunts the growth of children.” According to Ido, though, the idea that coffee is a dangerous, addictive stimulant springs mostly from 1970s- and 1980s-era studies that linked the drink to higher rates of cancer and heart disease (ignoring to a greater or lesser degree contributors such as smoking or diet).

“Whether coffee is bad for you depends on how many cups of coffee you drink daily, what kind of coffee you drink, whether it’s black, flavoured, sweetened etc., and what the physical and mental health of the coffee drinker is (pregnant, sleep deprived, etc). With 300 contributing chemicals in raw coffee beans and more than 850 after roasting, coffee affects different people in different ways,” he says.

“Modern research has shown that moderate coffee consumption may be associated with many positive effects, including liver disease prevention, improved cognitive function in older adults, sharper memory, increased athletic endurance and even the reduced risk of type 2 diabetes. Plus, owing to increasing scientific evidence, coffee has earned a new — and improved — reputation. The latest US Dietary Guidelines recently made an unprecedented recommendation for coffee as part of a healthy lifestyle.”

Ido emphasises that no one is encouraging consumers to drink more coffee for their health, but does note that drinking moderate amounts of coffee is linked to lower rates of cardiovascular disease, contrary to what many might have heard about the dangers of coffee or caffeine. So, unless you react badly to coffee or you’re advised to abstain for medical reasons, moderation is key.

Evil twins

But, I ask, as a supplier of coffee alternatives, aren’t you supposed to tell me how bad coffee and caffeine are for us? Not so, says Ido: “I love coffee and even roast my own beans. As I said, it’s all about moderation. We are not trying to compete with coffee; rather, we’re complementing it by developing a new way to enjoy coffee … with less caffeine!”

Our customers come to us for a multitude of reasons, he explains. “Some love the taste of coffee, but for one reason or another have developed a sensitivity to either the caffeine or the acid(s) that full-strength coffee contains. Because caffeine has a diuretic effect, it can cause dehydration. We have customers who made the switch because they suffer from acid reflux and have alleviated that issue by drinking our coffee alternative."

"Other customers suffer from various caffeine-related problems and some are simply looking for healthier beverage choices. On a couple of occasions, we’ve received thank you letters from customers whose medication conflicted with the high caffeine content in full-strength coffee but can now finally enjoy a “real cup” every once in a while. The list of reasons is almost endless.”

Interestingly, he adds, some of our elderly customers write to us to say that they can finally enjoy a good cup of “coffee” after 3 o’clock in the afternoon without it interfering with a good night’s sleep. There are always the classic drinkers who are trying to quit coffee because of the jitters they get, and they can finally cut down on full-strength coffee with Date Mate coffee alternative. “One of my favourite reasons why customers stick with our coffee-alternative is that they simply enjoy our beverage, and often purchase one or two bags as gifts for their friends,” he says.

Date Mate

Asked to describe Date Mate, Ido sees it as a date seed beverage that predates Kaldi the goatherd — and regular joe — by a couple of millennia. “Date Mate is a date seed beverage that has existed for thousands of years. It was enjoyed by the ancient Israelites and the peoples of the entire Middle East region who first observed the many health benefits derived from this beverage. For thousands of years, this date seed beverage has nourished the inhabitants of one of the toughest and most demanding environments on Earth.”

Whether or not the original “coffee” was date seed coffee would make for an interesting discussion, peruses Ido; but, putting ancient history aside for a moment, he explains what he believes to be essential to develop a good coffee alternative. A coffee drinker has to satisfy six needs to successfully make the transition from full-strength coffee to a coffee alternative, he says:

  • it needs to brew like coffee
  • the beverage should be robust, full-bodied and well-roasted
  • it needs to have an enticing coffee aroma
  • the beverage needs to provide an energy lift
  • it should offer health benefits
  • there must be a social aspect.

“Alternative coffee shouldn’t be an acquired taste,” he adds: “And, until we felt that all six objectives were met, we didn’t make the beverage commercially available.”

So, does it really taste like coffee? Every producer of coffee alternatives claims that their product offers the real taste of coffee but with the health benefits of herbal tea. “Personally, I have never tasted a coffee alternative that really tastes like coffee,” says Ido. “Plus, coffee itself is so varied. Take Nespresso and Keurig coffee capsules, for example; people will only buy certain types or flavours … but it’s all coffee.”

And there’s the rub. Even bad coffee has a unique taste and is instantly recognisable as coffee. So, if you want that distinctive coffee taste — that you know and love and want — your coffee alternative needs to contain some premium coffee. “For our product, Date Mate, adding coffee helps in two ways. First, it adds that unique coffee flavour; secondly, it helps to regulate your caffeine intake, which, when taken in moderation, is actually good for your health,” states Ido.

So, what does date seed coffee taste like by itself? “That’s an interesting question,” notes Ido: “Like coffee, tea, olive oil or wine, for example, the taste of any agricultural product that is processed into something more complex depends on many variables. With the rise of inexpensive coffee and modern living, the art of preparing and roasting date seeds has almost vanished. So, to revive this ancient beverage, we had to do quite a bit of experimenting. First, we had to choose from the different date varieties and the areas where they’re grown. Next came the selection and preparation of the seeds, including washing and drying, etc.”

Things really got interesting when it came to the roasting, says Ido, with a smile. “Initially, we thought modern-day coffee roasters would do the job. The results were disappointing and nothing like what we expected!” Discover more in Part II.

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