Coffee Beyond the All-nighters: A Med Student’s Perspective

As a med student, I used to have a love-hate relationship with coffee. While it served as my most reliable companion while cramming a semester’s worth of topics the night before an exam, it also kept my heart rate up when I was finally settling down in bed after deciding that my brain has had enough of the Krebs Cycle. Regardless of the situation, it was clear that my relationship with coffee was solely contingent on its practicality, as a source of caffeine to keep me awake. This all changed when I was offered a summer internship as a proposal writer by Tere Domine, the Country Director of Kalsada Coffee. Despite having no direct relationship with my course, I felt that this could be a refreshing break from the long hours of rote memorization in school.

The best of both worlds

My first meeting with Tere was after a cupping session (tasting coffee beans of different origins laid on a long table) at The Curator. It was my first time to be in the midst of such a wide array of coffee artisans—roasters, baristas, and cafe owners—all working towards perfecting their respective crafts. At the start of the session, the host asked everyone to introduce themselves and their favorite coffee. I didn’t have one, so I mentioned the only specialty coffee I had bought in my life at that time, beans from Yirgachefe, Ethiopia, roasted by The Coffee Academics in Hong Kong. I thought I was safe, but the next challenge was providing an adequate explanation without sounding pretentious. I don’t recall the exact words I said, but I do remember coming clean and telling everyone in the room that I was new to coffee. There was no judgement, and I felt welcomed. 

During the cupping session, I was beside the roaster of the coffee we were tasting. I could hear him whisper his thoughts about each cup to himself, detecting the differences in roasting that distinguished the samples of the same beans. I was inspired by the passion that came in two forms: the feeling of disappointment for the extra minute of roasting that led to an unpleasant burnt taste, and the sense of accomplishment resulting from the vibrant fruity notes that followed grueling days of trial and error.

Cupping session

Cupping session

This was when I learned that just like most art forms, there are set criteria for evaluating coffee. There are also experts who have the authority to dictate what is good and what is not. Tere even taught me about the 100-point scale that certified Q graders use to evaluate coffee; a score below 80 would disqualify the beans from specialty grade. Closely following these standards are the artisans I met, dedicated to serving the perfect cup. This required mastery on every level of the supply chain—cultivating the best possible fruit in their barest form, roasting the carefully processed beans to unleash their full potential, and brewing the grounds with the right grind size, temperature, timing, pH level, water hardness, rate of pouring, and plenty of other factors that a casual drinker couldn’t possibly think of, but are actually crucial to the taste of the final beverage. I was so fascinated by all these quantifiable variables that had to be accounted for. Everything had to be measured to the unit, just to achieve such subjective qualities, defined by the extent of each consumer’s preferred taste and standards.

As someone whose strengths lie in the social sciences and humanities but is taking up arguably the most science-heavy course, I saw this as an opportunity to learn to love the hard sciences, specifically biochemistry, which is a quintessential subject in med school. Luckily, Tere is a biology major, and the Operations Manager, Ivy Soon, is a licensed chemist. We understood each other and bonded over the similarity of our respective fields. Through brewing coffee, they explained and demonstrated the relevance of the Krebs Cycle in cultivation—how cherries harvested during the latter part of the year tend to taste like alcohol due to excessive fermentation activity. They taught me how something as fundamental as water actually plays a large role in the taste of coffee, how the amount of cations (positively charged ions) has a direct relationship with the rate and extent of extraction. They did this by letting me try three different cups of coffee, all with the same beans and preparation procedure except for the type of water that was used—mineral, distilled, and filtered.

It was interesting to see familiar scientific concepts applied to preparing specialty coffee. Here, I saw the duality of the beverage—coffee-making as a science, just as much as it is an art. More importantly, however, after years of not being critical with the information I absorbed, I was introduced to the idea of looking beyond the theoretical and seeking real life examples. I learned to be curious about whatever fields I encounter, to appreciate their cross-sectionality, and to actively search for how they relate to other disciplines.

Not just for art’s sake

Over the summer break, when I had more time on my hands, there were nights when I was preoccupied reflecting on my activities during the day. One thought that kept me up was the sense of fulfillment, or lack thereof, from what I was doing. Was I making a difference? Was I helping anyone? Or was I only doing it for myself, as a hobby to pass time?

I had this notion that specialty coffee, just like fine art, fashion, and wine, was clouded with exclusivity—that only the privileged few were qualified to appreciate, evaluate, and indulge in the art form. In an attempt to bridge one of my interests with medicine, I thought of conducting research on the biochemistry behind specialty coffee and its effects on human physiology. But with epidemics rising on a national level, is this something that the country needs? Would the university even allow such a topic? With this thought process sullying the validity of what I was doing, I began to question the movement against what coffee enthusiasts call the “3-in-1 culture” that is definitive of how Filipinos enjoy their coffee—powdered Robusta beans, with its already faint hint of coffee, further masked with sugar, milk, and artificial ingredients. To me, this felt like experts going against a commodity accessible to everyone and instead advocating for a luxury, solely for the sake of art.

While I was writing proposals for Kalsada, however, I realized that there was more to the beans than the art. While there are countless institutions pursuing coffee to push the craft to new horizons, at Kalsada, it isn’t about getting a higher grade on the 100-point scale or winning international competitions. The idea of making better-tasting coffee is simply a means to a more noble end. The core of Kalsada’s mission is to improve the living standards of the farmers by ironing out the inefficiencies on the agricultural level, thereby increasing the quality of their beans. Better practices and facilities would mean better coffee, and better coffee would mean higher price points that the farmers could sell their beans for. At the end of the day, it was about redirecting art to align with service for humanity through using it to provide opportunities to the marginalized. Upon realizing this, my internal conflict came to an end, and I could rest assured that what I was doing was truly meaningful.

Auntie Asthrine tending the coffee seedlings

Auntie Asthrine tending the coffee seedlings

A Mix of Learnings

My stint as an intern at Kalsada challenged me to explore specialty coffee from different angles. It taught me how the variables governed by the science could be manipulated to create a cup that would reach the standards set by the art. It helped me understand the delicate interactions between elements in the supply chain. It showed me a model institution making use of art to stir meaningful change for those who need it most. And most importantly, it gave me a new mission to staunchly rally behind.

Despite my newfound learnings about coffee, I don’t think I’m going to stop depending on it as my main source of caffeine when I return to med school. While equipped with a better palate that can appreciate the art form, my relationship with coffee will still be one of practicality, and I will probably still regret the nights I’d consume too much. However, this time, whenever I take a break from memorizing transes and grab my mug to take a sip, I will be reminded of the much larger world out there. I will be comforted by the fact that whatever I am learning will be useful, even in fields outside of my own.


Written by Leonard Lim.