I came home from a trip the other day with a small plastic bag filled with 4 ounces of brown powder that, truth be told, made me a little nervous.
The powder had a strong odor that reminded me of badly burnt coffee, with perhaps a note of brown sugar.
I didn't dare open that bag. It contained crude caffeine, about 90 percent pure. That small bag held as much caffeine as 1,000 tall lattes from Starbucks, or 2,000 cans of Coke or Pepsi. It was enough to kill several people.
This was my first encounter with the substance that comes up so often in daily conversation. We speak of being "caffeinated" — sometimes too caffeinated. We consider the choice of caf versus decaf coffee, and whether there's entirely too much caffeine in energy drinks. Rarely, though, do any of us ever see caffeine, or consider where it comes from.
This particular caffeine, as it happens, was created on a quiet hillside somewhere in the tropics. Slowly and quietly, driven by the energy of sunlight, it formed inside coffee beans hanging on thousands of trees, most likely in Brazil or Vietnam.
Those beans were harvested, loaded on ships bound for the port of Houston, Texas, and ended up at a factory within sight of downtown Houston: Atlantic Coffee Solutions. It's owned by one of the world's largest coffee traders, ECOM Agroindustrial Corp., which is based in Switzerland.
This factory creates many different versions of coffee: whole roasted beans, packaged ground coffee and even instant coffee. All of these products are sold under other brands — including some of the top-selling coffee brands in the country. But a third of the beans — tens of millions of pounds each year — come to this plant to be separated from their caffeine. And the man in charge of that process, Boris Wheatley, takes me on a tour.
He points high in the air toward a set of tall storage bins. "Those silos are green coffee silos," he shouts over the noise. "They hold approximately three trailers: approximately 120,000 pounds."
Hour by hour, batches of beans drop from those silos into a pair of stainless steel cylinders. They're marvels of engineering, 60 feet tall, with walls half-a-foot thick to withstand incredible pressure. Over 10 hours, the beans slowly work their way from top to bottom, while "supercritical" carbon dioxide, a special form of the chemical that forms under high pressure, is pumped through the bed of beans. "The supercritical CO2 penetrates the beans and pulls the caffeine out," Wheatley says.
The decaffeinated coffee beans go off for further processing, but that still leaves the task of recovering the valuable caffeine. A water spray washes the caffeine out of the carbon dioxide, and then the water is evaporated, leaving behind crude caffeine — that smelly brown powder. (That smell and color, by the way, are from coffee oils that left the beans along with the caffeine. Pure caffeine crystals are white and odorless.)
Boris Wheatley shows me where crude caffeine powder drops from the bottom of a metal drum into plastic-lined cardboard boxes, each one big enough to hold a person.
"We fill these cardboard totes with 1,200 pounds of caffeine, and they get shipped to customers," he says. It goes first to refiners who remove all the impurities, and then it goes to beverage companies — like Coca Cola or Pepsi — that mix caffeine into their products.
Other decaffeination companies, in other parts of the world, use slightly different processes to do this job. A factory in British Columbia, Canada, uses water to capture the caffeine. Others, in Europe, use solvents such as ethyl acetate.
Germany, where caffeine was first removed from coffee beans, has several decaffeination plants, including the world's largest. In fact, more than half of the decaf coffee sold in America first makes the long voyage from the tropics to Germany to get its caffeine removed before heading to the U.S.
If you're a beverage maker looking for caffeine, though, there's also another source: big factories in China.
Those factories accomplish, with lots of noise, heat and pressure, the same thing that a coffee tree does very quietly. They arrange atoms of some of the most common elements in nature — carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen — into the particular structure of caffeine.
Most of the caffeine that's used in the beverage industry is this synthetic version.
None of the companies that sell caffeine, whether it's the natural caffeine, extracted from coffee, or the synthetic version, are well-known. They stand in the background, hidden behind well-known brands like Red Bull and Rockstar, not to mention Coca Cola and Pepsi.
When Wheatley goes into a supermarket and sees those products on the shelf, he does feel a touch of pride, knowing that he might have had a hand in making them. "I do drink some of the energy drinks," he says with a smile. "And I do wonder sometimes if the caffeine from our plant ended up in that product. I do think about that sometimes."
But what I kept thinking, as I looked at that bag of caffeine, was that it brings the world together. This powder links a forest of trees in Vietnam or Brazil, and the people who harvested them, with American truck drivers and nurses and college students trying to fight the urge to sleep. It's a global web of caffeine.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
I learned this the other day when I wandered into one of our studios. And at the time, I had no idea what was next on my plate. And here's what happened.
Coming into the studio, Dan Charles, food and agricultural correspondent for National Public Radio.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: I went on a trip, David, and I brought you back a gift. You want to describe it there?
GREENE: I would love to. It's a plastic bag full of, like, brown sugar in front of me, sort of like the size of a playing card.
CHARLES: Does it smell like anything?
GREENE: Yeah, it smells like something.
CHARLES: Strong smell.
GREENE: Strong, just a little sweet, maybe pungent.
CHARLES: Pungent smell.
GREENE: Really pungent.
CHARLES: Yeah, some people have said maybe burnt brown sugar.
GREENE: Burnt brown sugar is exactly what I was thinking.
CHARLES: Burnt coffee.
GREENE: Yes, that, too.
CHARLES: OK, turn it over.
GREENE: OK, it says in black magic marker, caffeine sample. You have brought me a bag of powdered caffeine.
CHARLES: This is really scary stuff.
CHARLES: Do not open the bag.
CHARLES: That is enough caffeine for 1,500 cans of Pepsi.
GREENE: Oh, so if I downed this, it would not be good.
CHARLES: Hundreds of cups of coffee, that would kill you, David.
GREENE: That would kill me. You know, your colleague, Allison Aubrey, brought me a chocolate cake last time I came into a studio, and you brought me a lethal dose of caffeine in a plastic bag. What gives here?
CHARLES: What kind of - don't you feel the tension rising in the studio?
GREENE: I do, yeah. It feels like we're in some sort of thriller movie.
CHARLES: So you may want to set it aside.
GREENE: Yeah, I will set that aside. So, Dan Charles, why did you bring me plastic bag full of powdered caffeine?
CHARLES: OK, so that caffeine was originally made on a quiet hillside somewhere in the tropics.
CHARLES: It was made by a coffee tree.
GREENE: That's where caffeine comes from.
CHARLES: It was created naturally within the bean, probably Brazil, Vietnam.
CHARLES: And they brought it in big, you know, tractor-trailer loads unroasted to a factory in Houston. And that is where I met it.
GREENE: You met the caffeine in a factory in Houston.
CHARLES: (Laughter) The caffeine.
GREENE: Sounds like the beginning of a love song.
CHARLES: OK, so think about this factory. I'll try to draw you a picture here. We can hear it a little bit in the background.
GREENE: All right.
CHARLES: This is Atlantic Coffee Solutions, big chemical kind of looking place, big pipes, big tanks. And a man named Boris Wheatley showed me around. He sort of pointed to some tall containers up in the air.
BORIS WHEATLEY: So if you look up here, these silos here are green coffee silos, and they hold approximately three of these trailers of coffee, approximately 120,000 pounds.
CHARLES: And this is where the beans get separated from their caffeine.
GREENE: So coffee beans from Brazil, they separate caffeine. Then the coffee goes somewhere else.
CHARLES: This is one of only a few decaffeination plants in the world, really. And the process by which they do it is amazing. So the beans go into this huge stainless steel tank, the beans are under incredible pressure, and they pump through this substance. It's carbon dioxide, but it's under such pressure that it's - they call it supercritical carbon dioxide.
WHEATLEY: It's not really a liquid anymore or a vapor. It's a combination of both. And a supercritical CO2 penetrates the beans and pulls the caffeine out.
CHARLES: So what you're left with is decaf coffee.
GREENE: So this is a factory that makes decaf coffee by taking caffeinated coffee beans and getting rid of the caffeine.
CHARLES: Right. And so now you have the caffeine, but they don't just flush it down the drain because the caffeine, actually, is valuable. So first, they spray water through the carbon dioxide to basically wash out the caffeine. Then it's in the water. And they boil away the water, and what you're left with is that brown powder. It comes out of this big metal tube and drops into this huge plastic-lined cardboard box.
GREENE: As powder.
WHEATLEY: So we fill these cardboard totes with 1,200 pounds of caffeine, and then they end up getting shipped to the customers.
GREENE: Dan, are you wearing a mask or something? I mean, some of this powder has to be kind of up in the air, right? It's - this is lethal stuff you've told me.
CHARLES: Well, it was just sitting there in the box...
CHARLES: ...So I don't know. If it had been coming out of the pipe at that point, maybe I would've had to be in a different place. I don't know. But it seems safe enough. Boris said it was fine.
It's kind of incredible to me. So each of these boxes, you said 1,200 pounds of...
WHEATLEY: Twelve-hundred pounds, yes.
CHARLES: ...Of raw caffeine.
WHEATLEY: That's right, yes.
CHARLES: And that gets shipped off to some refiner.
WHEATLEY: That's right, to our third-party customer that refines it and then sells it to whoever their customers are.
CHARLES: Coke or energy drink manufacturer.
WHEATLEY: That is correct.
GREENE: Oh, so he's making decaf coffee, and he's making caffeine that ends up going into energy drinks and sodas, and he sells it to those companies.
CHARLES: Exactly. Exactly. So you could think of it in a way - so here I have in my left hand...
GREENE: A cup of coffee.
CHARLES: Cup of coffee, so you can think if you're taking the caffeine out of that coffee...
GREENE: That's decaf coffee you're saying.
CHARLES: ...And you're putting it over here in your right hand...
GREENE: Oh, it comes out of the coffee mug, and the caffeine goes into a Pepsi can.
CHARLES: ...The can of Pepsi, a little bit of caffeine goes in that Pepsi.
CHARLES: Now I should say you do it that way with what you might call natural caffeine, the caffeine that comes out of the coffee bean.
CHARLES: But there is another source of caffeine, too, for the soft drink industry, and that is big factories in China because you can also rearrange those atoms that make up caffeine, the carbon and the oxygen and the hydrogen and the nitrogen, and you can make it, you know, very noisily in a factory, and that's what they do. And that is actually the major source of, you know, pure caffeine, you know, for this beverage industry.
GREENE: Oh, so coffee plants are naturally making caffeine in the process of growing coffee, and that's what Boris is doing. He's taking the caffeine out of that. But then you can have other factories that do it synthetically and basically do the job of a coffee plant but in a fake way.
CHARLES: Yeah, exactly. And it's a very kind of little known anonymous industry that does that, either Boris' side, the natural side, or the synthetic side. But still, you know, Boris Wheatley says when he goes into a grocery store, let's say, and he sees all those beverages, he does have to kind of wonder.
WHEATLEY: I do wonder sometimes. I wonder if the caffeine that came out of our plant ended up this product. I do think about that sometimes.
GREENE: There's so much pride in his voice. I like that a lot.
CHARLES: And the thing that struck me, OK, so this is partly like, where did caffeine come from? But the thing that really struck me when I was there is this substance, that thing in your little plastic bag there...
CHARLES: ...It kind of brings the world together, right? It is the link between those hillsides in Vietnam and, I don't know, some college student up late trying to study for the exam the next morning.
GREENE: It's that thing that we all are familiar with and, you know, drinking it so often but never thinking about the process that brought it into our hands.
CHARLES: It's the global web of caffeine.
GREENE: Dan Charles, thanks for coming by.
CHARLES: It was a pleasure.
GREENE: And please take this with you, OK?
CHARLES: (Laughter) OK.
GREENE: That was Dan Charles. He's NPR's food and agricultural correspondent. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.