The Strange History Behind Using Match Heads in Coffee

You may have seen the recent viral trend of people dropping match heads in coffee as a flavor “hack.” While adding matches to a hot drink may seem like an odd or even dangerous trick, the practice actually has an intriguing backstory. 


The tradition of putting match heads in coffee has perplexed many who’ve only recently stumbled upon it online. As it turns out, this unusual technique dates back over a century and is tied to the history of coffee itself. 


In this article, we’ll explore the origins of dropping match heads in coffee and look at the possible logic behind this unconventional brewing method. Read on to learn why matches and coffee have been paired for generations – and whether it really makes for a better-tasting brew!


The Evolution of Matches

To understand the match head in coffee trend, you need to know a little about the evolution of the match itself. Friction matches as we know them today were invented in 1827. This provided a portable, affordable way for the average person to produce fire on demand. 


Early matches used various formulations of dangerous chemicals like white phosphorus applied to the tip. This gave matches the ability to ignite through friction when scraped across a rough surface. 


While convenient, these early matches had risks. Exposure to white phosphorus caused horrific health issues nicknamed “phossy jaw” in factory workers. 


Safety improved in the mid-1800s with the introduction of red phosphorus in match production. This less toxic formulation helped popularize match use globally.


Matches allowed people to easily light stoves, lamps, cigarettes, and more. Having portable firepower literally at your fingertips transformed daily life.


Of course, society’s growing match usage included lighting morning cooking and heating fires. This brings us to the intertwined relationship between matches and coffee.


Coffee: The World’s Favorite Morning Beverage

Coffee’s global popularity took off in the 15th century and continued growing over the next several hundred years. By the 1800s, coffee had become an integral part of morning routines in many cultures. 


No longer a luxury, coffee was an affordable, accessible drink people relied on to start their day. But brewing coffee was time-consuming using older methods like boiling grounds in pots over a fire. 


This required first starting a cooking fire using cumbersome flint and tinder or coal embers from last night’s fire. The invention of strike-anywhere matches drastically simplified brewing morning coffee. 


Suddenly, anyone could instantly ignite their cookstove to heat water and prepare a quick cup of coffee. Matches and coffee became a packaged deal – two staples people used in tandem every morning.


Matches as Currency During Hard Times

When money was scarce, matches even took on an expanded role as an alternate currency. During times of economic depression like the 1930s, matches were exchanged for goods and services among the poor.


A single match was considered worthless. But a box of matches could be traded for food, clothing, or other necessities.


Interestingly, match heads in coffee slipped may have sometimes served as a form of rationing. By reserving just the match head for flavoring coffee, the rest of the stick could be saved for trading or lighting later.


This history reveals how both coffee and matches were deeply embedded into daily survival and culture. But there’s more to the story when it comes to using matches in coffee itself.


Sulfur’s Effect on Bitterness 

Match heads contain chemicals like sulfur and phosphorus that ignite through heat and friction. When match heads in coffee, these compounds leach out into the brew.


In the early 20th century, people discovered that the sulfur from spent matches appeared to make bitter black coffee more mellow and palatable. 


This was especially helpful during eras like the Great Depression when low-quality coffee grounds were frequently over-brewed, yielding bitter, harsh flavor. Dropping used match sticks into the brew reduced bitterness and improved drinkability.


The sulfur and other match chemicals seemingly dampen the perception of bitterness in coffee. In scientific terms, the sulfur binds to bitter compounds through cysteine interactions.


The budding trend of adding matches to coffee as a “secret ingredient” took hold among housewives and home cooks. They realized a few struck matches could tame lower quality coffee’s bite.


Does Match Sulfur Actually “Intensify” Flavor Too?

Another oft-cited claim is that match chemicals like sulfur not only mellow bitterness, but intensify overall coffee flavor. Some argue dropping a match head into brewed coffee makes it taste almost twice as strong. 


Could there be some chemistry at play that both reduces bitterness and amplifies the coffee’s natural flavors?


The consensus among most chemists is that this is unlikely. Sulfur does appear to diminish the perception of sour, bitter notes. But there’s little scientific support for it boosting overall coffee flavor or caffeine content.


In fact, what’s likely happening is that the coffee only tastes stronger or more robust in comparison after its bitterness is reduced. But independent testing would be needed to prove matches boost coffee’s intrinsic flavor and potency.


So in summary, match heads in coffee introduced during brewing seem to only reduce bitterness – not increase overall coffee taste or intensity. Any bolder coffee flavor is the natural tones shining through once undesirable flavors are suppressed by sulfur.


Does This Actually Improve Coffee? Taste Test Results

Opinions are mixed on whether adding struck matches genuinely improves coffee quality. Much of the debate stems from personal taste preferences.


Those who enjoy dark roasts and strong black coffee are more likely to notice a pleasant mellowing effect from match sulfur. Removing even subtle bitter notes allows more complexity like sweetness or chocolate to emerge.


But for people who prefer cleaner, brighter tasting coffee, any sulfur can seem unpleasant. The matches can make light roasts taste dirtier or overly tamed instead of crisp.


In taste tests, about 25% of tasters noticed a “smoother” brew with less bite after adding 1-2 spent match heads in coffee. But others felt the sulfur or phosphorus imparted unwanted flavors that diminished enjoyment.


The impact also depends on freshness – stale, bitter coffee showed more improvement with matches than freshly ground quality beans.


Is This Practice Actually Safe? Potential Health Risks

While the flavor results are subjective, most experts warn against regularly consuming match chemicals along with coffee for health reasons. Here are some potential risks to consider:


– Ingesting any form of phosphorus, sulfur, or metallic compounds from matches could pose toxicity concerns over time. Their safety for consumption is unknown.


– Match chemicals may be carcinogenic or have other chronic toxicity when ingested daily. More research is needed on potential long-term effects.


– Metals like antimony on match heads in coffee could accumulate in the body after repeated oral exposure according to limited studies.


– Any contamination or bacteria on used matches could pose infection risk when added to consumables.


Until more definitive research proves otherwise, regular consumption of match head ingredients in food or drinks cannot be deemed completely safe. The sporadic practice is unlikely to cause acute harm, but daily exposure could pose undisclosed risks.


The Verdict: Should You Put match heads in coffee?

Given the questionable safety and subjective taste results, there is little compelling evidence to adopt this unorthodox coffee “hack.” While a touch of sulfur may mellow certain bitter notes in theory, the benefits likely don’t outweigh the potential risks for most people.


However, the tradition itself and ritual of adding matches remains deeply tied to generations of coffee drinkers. It offers a window into the history of how people enhanced and enjoyed coffee before modern innovations like sugar, cream, and flavor additives.


Some continue feeling attached to the nostalgia and custom of sulfiting their cup of joe with spent matches. But from a practical perspective, this extinct trend needn’t be revived in daily routines.


If you wish to experiment with match heads for historical purposes, take safety precautions. Be sure to use new, unpainted stick matches and add only 1-2 spent heads before discarding the rest. Never ingest actual matchstick wood material.


But for those who just want great tasting coffee, freshly roasted beans and balanced water chemistry are a safer bet for improving flavor. Save your match heads for lighting candles and fires instead of your morning brew!


Does the match head in coffee trend pique your curiosity or completely turn you off? Let us know if you’ll be attempting this questionable historical practice anytime soon!

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