December 11, 2020

Introducing children to coffee

Coffee is one of the world’s most popular drinks. The ICO estimated that in the 2019/2020 period, we consumed almost 170 million 60kg bags of it. But how much of that figure are children and adolescents responsible for?

In some cultures, it’s common that children drink coffee from a young age, while in others, it is more regarded as an adult’s drink. In producing countries, for example, children are often exposed to coffee at a younger age than they would be elsewhere around the world.

Altogether, this raises a cultural, medical, and ethical question that has been asked for years: when should people start drinking coffee? To get some first-hand accounts, I spoke to a few professionals and enthusiasts from across the world. Read on to find out what they said.

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A Drink For Adults?

For many children, coffee is an “adult’s drink”. To them, it’s something that’s restricted or off-limits; as a result, many will develop a curiosity about what it actually is before taking a single sip.

Frank Kohl is a German anthropologist and coffee trader living in Brazil. He tells me that he first drank coffee when he was five or six years old. He says that his grandmother would occasionally give him coffee to ease a headache, but that he never had more than necessary. 

“In Germany, kids aren’t supposed to drink coffee on a regular basis,” Frank says. “It’s regarded as a stimulating drink that isn’t suited for kids, as they’re already active.”

However, when children grow up around coffee, and when it’s a part of their life and their daily routine, it becomes something that they naturally engage with. Brazilian barista Amanda Albuquerque tells me that coffee was an ever-present part of her childhood, and that she became curious about it almost immediately. 

“I remember my grandmother batch brewing traditional dark roasted coffee several times a day,” she says. “I couldn’t drink it, but I loved it. At the age of six or seven, I enjoyed pretending to make it. I had a sock that I’d put dirt in. I’d pour water over it and pretend I was brewing coffee.”

Children are also influenced by the social aspects of coffee consumption. Adriana Lemus is an architect and coffee enthusiast from El Salvador. She says: “I remember seeing my parents and older people drink coffee whenever they got together. I was curious about it… it seemed like a grown-up thing to do.”

Furthermore, it seems that children who spend a lot of time around coffee are likely to engage with it as a social activity. Martha Grill, the 2019 Brazilian Barista Champion, says: “My coffee habit started with drinking coffee with my classmates for the [social aspect]. Back then, I didn’t think it had a pleasant flavour.”

She says she first tried coffee when she was 12 years old at a friend’s house. “I’d never had coffee before, so I didn’t know how to make it,” she explains. “I used a very concentrated ratio and it was bitter. I hated it and couldn’t finish it.”

Children who first try coffee at a young age might also struggle to enjoy it without plenty of milk and sugar. Adriana confirms that this was how she was introduced to coffee in the first place, but even then, she says the taste didn’t make a great impression on her at the time.  

Accessibility & Culture

André Eiermann is 2017’s Swiss Barista Champion; he works for Victoria Arduino Australia. He tells me that, when he was a child, his parents bought and drank what was available in Switzerland at the time: low-quality instant coffee.

“Your individual cultural background and family context influences how you start to drink coffee and your coffee-drinking behaviour,” he says. After that, he says, he stayed away from coffee for years; until he tried espresso at the age of 26 for a job interview. 

“It was a short, dark roast espresso shot. I didn’t particularly like it… the strong, bitter taste didn’t match the great smell,” André adds.

Even though the quality of coffee in countries like Switzerland has improved tremendously over the past few decades, children in producing countries understandably have a fundamentally different relationship with it.

“The first time I tried coffee I was three years old,” Adriana explains. “Coffee, after water, is the second most likely drink you’d expect to be offered when you enter someone’s home [in El Salvador].”

Amanda hails from Paraná, where her family has consumed coffee for generations. She says: “Drinking coffee was like brushing your teeth. It becomes a habit without you even realising you’re doing it.”

She adds that when she was growing up, her family was based near Norte Pioneiro, a coffee producing region. “Because we were closer to production, we had easier access to cheap, low-quality coffee. This made it easy to try coffee from an early age,” she says.

On the other hand, Martha comes from Rio Grande do Sul, where the hot beverage of choice is chimarrão or maté. As a result, Martha only started regularly drinking coffee when she moved to São Paulo a few years ago and ended up working in a café.

What Do Doctors Say?

According to the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, little concrete research exists on the long-term impact of coffee on children. 

Naturally, caffeine has more of a profound impact in similar doses on children, mainly because of their size. And while coffee has proven health benefits for adults, long term studies will be needed to determine if the same can be said for children.

However as much as we associate caffeine with coffee, children also ingest it through teas, sodas, and chocolate, among other things.

Ana Luiza Camara Araújo is a neuro-pediatrician. She says: “Because we don’t know exactly how caffeine affects a child’s growth, we don’t recommend it for young children.

“From two to six years old, a child could have a small dose of coffee sporadically. After six, it gets safer to offer them small doses more regularly. However, we must keep in mind that no one, at any age, should be drinking unlimited amounts of coffee.”

Caffeine can also disrupt children’s sleeping patterns, at an age where many already experience difficulties sleeping. Ana Luiza says: “Around 20 to 30% of children experience insomnia. Offering them stimulants later in the day can make it worse.” For this reason, she advises against giving children anything containing caffeine after sunset.

She adds that a number of scientific and medical bodies (such as Health Canada and EFSA) provide individual figures for how much coffee a child can consume without experiencing adverse effects. “This is [generally] calculated at a 2.5 mg/kg rate per day,” she says.

“For example, a child weighing 14kg would have a 35mg caffeine daily limit. If the average 240ml cup of coffee has between 95 and 200mg of caffeine, they could consume [roughly] a quarter of a cup. For adults, the recommended limit is 400mg per day, and for pregnant women, 300mg per day.”

Growing Up Around Coffee Professionals

Early coffee consumption also looks a little different in the homes of those who work with and around coffee. Amanda’s six-year-old son Bernardo consumes small amounts of coffee, but only when he feels like it. 

She says: “He’s not always in the mood and enjoys making coffee more than drinking it. I don’t push him to taste it. He drinks the amount he wants, as long as it’s within the established limit.”

She tells me that she’s worked in specialty coffee for over two years, which means her son has been exposed to it since the age of four. Over time, she says he’s developed a preference for medium roasts with sweetness and low acidity. 

André has a six-year-old daughter and a two-year-old son. He says that both will try a sip of his coffee once in a while, and he says that each child already has their own preferences. He tells me that his daughter prefers filter coffee and his son espresso. They both also enjoy steamed milk prepared on an espresso machine. 

“Both like to get a ‘baby cappuccino’, which is steamed milk with no coffee. They’re very picky, and if the milk isn’t perfectly textured in consistency and temperature, they won’t drink it.”

André adds that he has recently started teaching his children more about being a barista. “It’s great fun, and kids learn fast. My son can already extract a coffee according to the Technical Score Sheet of the World Barista Championship,” he explains.

During the lockdown for the Covid-19 pandemic, he explains that they built a coffee machine and grinder out of cardboard and foil to practice pulling espresso shots. “The kids love to understand what I do as a profession,” he says.

“You can start early with them in a playful way. Of course, you have to be careful about their caffeine intake… as long as you keep that in mind, it’s never too early to start with coffee.”

It’s clear that your surroundings, culture, and early experiences influence your early thoughts and feelings about coffee. Low-quality beans or intense tastes at a young age may put children off coffee, while spending time around higher-quality coffee is more likely to give you an early taste for it.

However, no matter when, how, or where children are introduced to coffee, the important thing is that they drink it responsibly, in reasonable quantities, and develop a positive relationship with it. 

Some quotes translated from Portuguese by the author.

Enjoyed this? Then read “Strong Coffee”: Definitions From Around The World

Photo credits: Adriana Lemus, Amanda Albuquerque, André Eiermann, Gladstone Campos, Frank Kohl

Disclaimer: This article should not be interpreted as medical advice regarding caffeine intake in children.

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