I’ve done a post on coffee in the past, but I had a really odd moment of perspective this morning. Caffeine-addict that I am, I was preparing my daily intake… drip coffee for the morning and a thermos full of black tea to last me the rest of the day (tea is less expensive to brew in bulk). It’s a daily routine, so I didn’t think much of it, but when the caffeine high started to kick in on my way out, it somehow hit me that…
…Douglas Adams (author: Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and various other projects) once wrote an email instructing an American tourist on how to brew a proper pot of tea. (The email was later published in a posthumous collection of some of his shorter works called The Salmon of Doubt. If you’re a DNA fan and have not read it, go do so. Now.)
…George Orwell (author: 1984, Animal Farm, and various other books and essays) also wrote at length about the proper way to brew tea. Like Adams, he was very picky about the details of brewing tea, and had his own quite strong opinions about how it should be done. Orwell had chosen some weird essay topics in his life, but I always thought this one was particularly odd.
…Malcolm Gladwell (author: The Tipping Point and Blink) wrote an article for The New Yorker about the joint cultural history of coffee and revolutionaries, with the subtitle: “How caffeine created the modern world.”
…Frank Sinatra (if you don’t know, I’m not telling you) performed a song called The Coffee Song about coffee obsession in Brazil. (“The politician’s daughter/Was accused of drinkin’ water/And was fined a great big fifty dollar bill/They’ve got an awful lot of coffee in Brazil… And when their ham and eggs need savor/Coffee ketchup gives ’em flavor/Coffee pickles way outsell the dill/Why, they put coffee in the coffee in Brazil”)
…And countless other people who have made creative contributions to society have commented on, or made tributes to, coffee/caffeine culture.
Which led to my moment of perspective, captured beautifully by artist/physicist Randall Munroe in his webcomic xkcd:
Coffee/tea is a drink.
What is wrong with us?
That feeling of sudden perspective quickly faded away, as in the comic, but the idea had already taken off. Coffee is a drink; tea is a drink. They contain caffeine, a mild stimulatory drug. It makes us more alert and energetic… not much else. Yet there’s an entire coffee-culture and tea-culture built up around these drinks. A caffeine culture.
Sugar and energy drinks increase energy and alertness, too, but do we see famous figures writing/singing/painting odes to sugar and energy drinks? Maybe if energy drinks had a longer history, but not really, no. What about detailed instructions from famous writers on how to squeeze oranges for the optimal production of orange juice? No. Do we have sugar or orange juice subcultures that have contributed to the development of modern culture? No.
Maybe we idolize and romanticize caffeine consumption as a drug that’s not dangerous enough to really harm us, but enough to give us a little buzz. It would explain the existence of Jolt and cannabis culture, but those two still fall into separate stereotypes (geek and hippie – though the latter is changing) while coffee culture is more widespread. Similarly with tobacco; though with its relatively recently discovered health complications, smoking is increasingly regarded as belonging to a more delinquent stereotype.
When I think about it, even the stimulation seems like something so trivial to build a whole subculture around… much less one that has impacted human cultural development. Coffee is a drink. A damn good drink, but a drink nonetheless. It just boggles my mind that we – collectively, I mean, over history – have become so enchanted by it. It’s an odd thing for me to say, personally, because I’m probably more addicted to and enthralled by caffeine than anyone I know (my excessive coffee consumption has raised eyebrows at many social functions). I once wrote that coffee is not just a drink but a lifestyle. But why? How is this feeling so universal? What is it about coffee and tea that holds us spellbound? Are we as a society just held captive under the effects of a mild drug?
Why does coffee have a subculture? For heaven’s sake, it’s just a drink!