Not Your Average Cup of Joe

Hot, black and jolting, coffee is as predictable as death and taxes for some, but a cup of joe is now more than basic beans.

Prepare to hear more PC, healthy-minded and environmentally friendly java orders like: "I'll have a shade-protected, fairly-traded, organic, memory-enhancing coffee please."

One new line of coffee claims consumers will feel more than the average caffeine jolt when they drink Java of Evolution.

KNOW J.O.E. is infused with gingko biloba (search) and claims to improve concentration and memory. GO J.O.E. is blended with ginseng (search) to increase energy and stamina.

"One of the reasons coffee fits so well for this is that people are already looking to it for energy and clarity," said company spokesperson Jules Kragan. "You're already there, why not pick of some of these additional traits?"

And the ups and downs of caffeine can be avoided, according to Kragan. "We've seen in people who've used it [GO] that because of the ginseng, which lessens the potential crash from the caffeine, they are actually drinking less coffee because they're not getting the craving back as fast."

Two types set to launch this month are COCO J.O.E., a cocoa nibs and dark roast blend and SLOW J.O.E. – an oxymoron in a cup – coffee blended with relaxing herbs such as lavender and chamomile to help relaxation (only available in decaf for obvious reasons).

But consumers have seen so-called functional foods that offer everything from happiness to sex drive before. Can coffee make it in this melded marketplace?

"I've seen other people try various things through the years," said Ted Lingle, executive director for the Specialty Coffee Association of America (search), adding that infused grounds "never get off the ground" with the exception of a few flavored blends such as vanilla and hazelnut.

While herbs like gingko and ginseng have beneficial effects such as boosting energy, they are only effective if you consume an adequate amount, said Norman Farnsworth, research professor of pharmacognosy (search) at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

"I seriously doubt you could put enough of it in coffee without destroying the taste of the coffee," he said. "This is just a gimmick I think."

Gingko, for example, has a bad taste, he said. True, a tester cup of KNOW J.O.E. left a slightly bitter mint aftertaste, but the GO variety tasted like pure coffee.

"My bet is it won't be around very long," said Farnsworth. "Americans have a very set view of what coffee is. And it is very difficult to get them to think of it in anything other than traditional way."

Farnsworth said those who seek supplementation should pop herbs in pill form. "If anybody wants the benefits of gingko or ginseng you should take the straight stuff." And he cautioned that the effects of these herbs mixed with coffee is yet unknown.

Coffee With a Conscience

Who picked the beans that end up in your cup? What conditions were they grown under? And were they traded fairly between countries? How much shade fell on the trees?

If you haven't had your morning coffee yet you may need a moment to digest these heavy agendas.

Coffee powerhouses Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts are now both offering Fair Trade Certified coffee, which is meant to ensure coffee farmers receive a premium price on their beans.

Starbucks has a line called Commitment to Origins, which supports farmers and the environment in a variety of ways. But do coffee drinkers care about anything other than a good hot cup of joe when they step into a store?

"There are a significant number of their consumers interested in these issues. To show no concern is just bad strategy," said Lingle. "Generally, it's been the upper-educated consumer that understands those issues, and that's the population the coffee industry targets."

Caffee Ibis, which offers a cornucopia of brews from organic to shade grown explains the label on its Web site: "Shade grown coffee produces fewer cherries and ripens slower than 'sun technified coffee.'" (Resulting in a greater concentration of nutrients).

Shade grown coffee also provides a "diversified economic basis for small family farmers" and "the best possible scenario for a sustainable coffee future," the company claims.

Experimentation within this broad market -- half the population 18 years or older drinks coffee either regularly or occasionally -- doesn't surprise Lingle.

"They were doing it 100 years ago, will be doing it 100 years from now," he said. "It's just such an attractive medium to try to find a new niche in. It's hard to find another product so widely consumed."

Healthy or Earth-friendly, Lingle said there's one thing brew addicts agree on.

"The number one thing people want in their coffee is good taste."