Does Match Head coffee Taste Better?

If you spend any time exploring coffee culture online, you may have encountered the resurging trend of adding match heads in coffee. Proponents claim the sulfur and other chemicals released from lit matches can reduce bitterness and improve flavor. 


This match head “hack” seems to defy logic at first glance. But looking back through coffee history reveals people have been spiking brews with spent matches for over a century. 


Where did this unusual practice originate and does sulfiting coffee with match heads really transform taste as promised? Let’s dig into the possible science and subjective experience behind match head coffee.


A Brief History of Match Head Coffee

Before exploring how match heads affect flavor, it helps to understand the tradition’s origins. Using matches and coffee in tandem became common globally in the mid-1800s as both rose in popularity. 


Matches provided convenient fire for heating up coffee brews. But a serendipitous discovery kicked off the practice of adding them directly into the cup.


People noticed spent match heads dropped into bitter, overcooked coffee seemed to mellow out the harsh taste. The sulfur and other chemicals apparently reacted with compounds contributing to acidity and astringency.


This hack spread through early 20th century restaurants and home kitchens to improve bad diner coffee. It even allowed using lower grade beans during eras like the Depression without undrinkable results.


While the resurgence of match head coffee is often treated today as some clever modern “life hack”, it clearly has decades of history behind it. Now let’s analyze if the chemical reactions actually work to reduce bitterness scientifically. 


The Chemistry Behind Match Head Coffee

Lit matches contain various chemicals that allow them to combust, most notably phosphorus and sulfur. Trace amounts of metals like antimony are also present on match heads.


These compounds don’t disappear when the flame goes out. Plunging a extinguished match into hot coffee releases sulfur dioxide, phosphoric acid and other byproducts that diffuse into the brew.


Of these, sulfur has the biggest impact on perceived bitterness. Sulfur bonds chemically with bitter compounds through cysteine interactions. This essentially “traps” those taste molecules, limiting how our taste receptors perceive them.


Researchers found sodium hydrogen sulfite (used as food preservative) lowered bitter notes up to 79% in black coffee. Sulfur from matches likely works similarly. 


But matches also introduce trace metals, the impacts of which are less studied in coffee. Some suspect it impacts molecules contributing “stale” or ashy flavors in poor quality grinds. 


In any case, sulfur is the primary bitterness-blocking mechanism validated by research. But the other match chemicals likely also transform taste in complex ways.


Does Bitterness Reduction Improve Overall Flavor?

Here’s where subjectivity comes in. Just because sulfur can mask bitter notes doesn’t automatically mean the coffee will taste better to all drinkers.


For those who enjoy ultra-dark roasts and strong black coffee, removing even slight edges of bitterness can allow for richer chocolate and caramel notes to emerge.


But for people preferring lighter or brighter coffees, any sulfur addition can make it taste muddled or flat. Too much bitterness reduction can strip away the acidic vibrancy valued in some beans.


It also depends which specific compounds are being blocked. As organic chemist Derek Lowe explains, sulfur may blindly react with multiple bitterness contributors like peptides, alkaloids, and phenols without nuance.


This somewhat uncontrolled bitter-blocking can dampen complex flavor mixtures in unintended ways. Taste testing shows mixed results.


Can Match Heads Intensify Overall Coffee Strength Too? 

Some claim match heads don’t just reduce bitterness – they boost overall coffee strength and flavor. But this is dubious. 


Lowering bitterness may allow certain inherent flavors to stand out more. So the coffee tastes stronger only relative to its now-suppressed bitter bite.


In theory, sulfur or phosphates could react with aromatic compounds in ways that enhance their volatility or perception. But no research has identified a mechanism for matches boosting coffee’s intrinsic flavor.


For now, there’s no clear scientific basis for match heads enhancing overall taste and caffeine content versus just mitigating bitterness. But more study is needed to conclusively disprove the notion.


Variables Impacting Taste Outcomes  

As with any coffee intervention, results will depend on the various factors:


– Roast style – Light vs dark roasts respond differently to matches in the cup.

– Freshness – Fresher coffee showed less bitter transform from matches in testing.

– Brew method – Subtle flavors impacted more with immersion vs drip methods. 

– Match amount – Too many heads can over-sulfite the cup.


– Water chemistry – Chlorinated water accentuated sulfur notes in tests. 

– Personal taste – Desired levels of acidity and subjective enjoyment vary.


With so many variables at play, it’s impossible to predict universal match head coffee taste outcomes across drinkers. But what about potential safety issues?


Are There Any Risks to Drinking Match Head Coffee?

While the flavor impacts may be debatable, health risks are the more pressing concern with match head coffee. Several points give toxicologists pause:


– Ingesting sulfur, phosphorus and metals like antimony from matches may have chronic toxicity in excess. Their long-term safety via ingestion remains unclear.


– Compounds in matches, even in small amounts, may pose carcinogenic effects over a lifetime of consumption. Further research is needed.


– Risk of contamination or bacteria on match sticks being introduced into food/drinks. This could lead to foodborne illnesses.


– Acute risks like nausea may emerge at high match head doses due to zinc phosphide or other contents.


Until more rigorous safety testing is conducted, routine consumption of match chemicals in coffee or food cannot be deemed risk-free based on current toxicology knowledge.


Should You Try Match Head Coffee?

Given the questionable benefits and potential health risks, there seems to be little reason to adopt match head coffee over simply using high quality beans and balanced water.


However, as a novel taste experience once or twice, match head coffee may satisfy your curiosity safely if taking precautions:

– Use only 1-2 recently blown out, wooden stick matches. No matchbox strikers or treated matches.

– Discard the stick and paper after infusing to avoid ingesting.

– Don’t make a habit of daily match head coffee given unknown chemical consumption risks.


While match head coffee has a fascinating backstory, its merits in modern high-end coffee making are mostly debatable, if not ill-advised. But if you must revive this vintage brewing technique, take care to avoid any habitual health hazards.


Have you tried match head coffee before? Or does this traditional practice strike you as outdated and risky? Let us know if you’ll be sulfiting your morning Joe with matches anytime soon!

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