Why are we so obsessed with coffee?

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Photo: Sahlan Hayes

I drink alcohol rarely, I’ve never smoked so much as one cigarette, and my experiments with more potent substances have been so infrequent that in certain circles I’m considered a limp Puritan. But there is one substance that’s approximately as essential to my day as oxygen, and that’s coffee.

Before the first flat white of the morning (well, skim flat white nowadays, in a fairly token concession to the get-fit programme I keep writing about in the hope that words on a screen will somehow magically translate to action), my head feels woozy. Using my brain feels like trying to operate one of those old-fashioned hand-operated rail cars that crawls reluctantly along the track, its rusty cogs grinding and squeaking.

If I go coffee-free until 10 or 11am, I get a headache which increases in intensity as the day progresses, as though I were Monkey, and Tripitaka were chanting the mantra to makes my headband shrink. Sometimes I even wonder whether I’m coming down with the flu. Cruelly, my brain is working so poorly at these moments that I’m not always able to reason that I feel bad because I haven’t had a coffee yet.

My list of acceptable cafés is ridiculously small, by the way. I am a hideous coffee snob, and live in a part of the inner city that is packed with excellent, albeit expensive cafés. I have no idea about wine and dress in cheap clothes from mass-market chains, but when it comes to coffee, I consider myself quite the connoisseur, chucking about the term ‘crema’ as freely as confetti at a stationer’s wedding.

Eventually I will order my morning coffee, and the day can begin properly. Within a minute or two of appeasing its caffeine craving, my brain has snapped to attention and I gain the power to address the day.

My first coffee tends to be followed in short order by the second, which is often a macchiato or perhaps even a piccolo latte – a delicious variant, but difficult to order without feeling ridiculous.

Midway through the afternoon, my synapses start to become sluggish again, and I stroll down to one of the three thoroughly excellent cafés located at the perimeter of my workplace for a refuelling session. This will be enough to get me through the rest of my day. I’ve learned not to drink coffee after dark, because it makes it difficult to get to sleep.

So, here’s a bit of maths, which I can do because I’ve already had two coffees today. I drink approximately 2.5 coffees a day, since I have fewer on weekends and don’t always have two in the morning. I generally pay $3.50 per coffee, because I go to swanky coffee shops. Multiply that out by 365 days and you get...

YOU GET $3193.75.

Yes, apparently I spend over three thousand dollars a year on coffee.

This is an absurd amount, and it seems even more ridiculous when you look at it as $61 per week, or $266 per month. But perhaps it’s worth it for the sheer joy coffee brings to my life each day?

The chief benefit is that I really like the taste of coffee. The unfortunate thing here is that I only like the taste of fancy espresso coffee, made by professional baristas with borderline OCD. I dislike instant coffee, and even the stuff made in plungers tastes sour and bland to me. Worse still is the drip-filter stuff they drink in America, which tastes of drab misery.

I realise that this makes me seem like a wanker – or at least, it might have until a few years ago - because as the ever-growing popularity of swanky coffee demonstrates, Australians’ obsession with the bean is only growing. So, part of what I’m paying is undoubtedly a snob tax.

Also, and this will make me seem an even worse person, I like cafés. I like sitting and chatting and reading the paper and thinking, and I like their atmosphere. Sure, I could drink herbal tea, I suppose, but drinking coffee in places specifically designed for the purpose is something I very much enjoy.

I could detox, but that would require several weeks of agony, and more self-control than I generally possess. Besides, I don’t really want to give it up. It’s not like cigarettes or, say, heroin – there’s a perfectly acceptable level of use. Unlike cigarettes and heroin it also doesn’t conveniently make you thinner, especially if you drink it with full-cream milk. Or kill you, admittedly, but life is full of trade-offs.

There’s also a question of quantity. Are three cups a day too many? Well, an article I randomly found on the internet says that three cups a day makes you live longer, and this entirely unrigorous scientific approach is good enough for me.

The obvious solution is to limit myself to one café-made coffee per day, at a cost of around $1000 per a year. And then if I need a second or third, I can learn to live with the taste of plunger coffee or get a home espresso machine – some of the pod ones produce surprisingly good results, and are very easy to use. They can cost several hundred dollars, but given my annual expenditure, I’ll nevertheless be saving.

The most sensible solution, of course, would be to give up coffee. But I enjoy it, and it doesn’t seem to be especially bad for you. Besides, Al Pacino drinks it, and so does George Clooney. So it must be good, right?

Besides, there's the image factor. Drinking coffee is associated with inner-city types who like sitting around and having pointless, pretentious conversations about things like literature, often while wearing skivvies and using words like "ephemeral" and "performative". And that's undoubtedly me. So in the end, if I'm going to be judged as a coffee-swilling wanker no matter what I do, I may as well enjoy my daily cuppa.

83 comments

  • DYI Expresso, the way to go. After 10 years I have perfected my skill and enjoy barista quality coffee at home. The amount people spend at cafes could pay their home loans off earlier. Thing that amuses me is milk coffees after midday and the silly coffee art.

    Commenter
    Rodney the toff
    Location
    Brighton
    Date and time
    April 19, 2013, 5:02AM
    • But where's the fun? We all have to slow down and enjoy ourselves, and if Dom enjoys a damn good coffee, then what's the harm? WGAF about the mortgage and the bills? We're all muddled up. Work to live, not live to work.

      'Normal is getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work and driving through traffic in a car that you're still paying for - in order to get to the job you need to pay for the clothes and the car, and the house you leave vacant all day, so you can afford to live in it.' (Ellen Goodman)

      Commenter
      grooviechickie
      Date and time
      April 19, 2013, 8:10AM
    • +1 on this

      We have a good coffee machine at home. It cost us about $1700 6 years ago. We spend about $30-$40/month on coffee beans and the machine counter shows it has made around 8000 coffees in that time.

      So say $3/cup if it was bought at a cafe, those 8000 coffees would be $24000. Instead, we've paid all up about $4500 in machine and beans over 6 years.

      Also if you do get a good machine at home, find some quality beans that you like (not supermarket stuff), and take the time to learn how to make a cafe quality coffee at home, you will be very surprised at how good the results can be.

      Commenter
      Battered
      Date and time
      April 19, 2013, 8:17AM
    • The thing that amuses me are people that think their smug about milk coffees after mid-day. Guess what mate, I drink what I enjoy whether its before mid-day or after. And I can't stand Expresso's (no need to prove my manhood in a male pecking order by drinking it strong and black). Attitude is a bit like stating you can only have toast and jam for breakfast (never in the evening) or steak for lunch or dinner. Now IT IS quaint that their are still people on this planet with such quaint notions that there are 'certain' times when you can drink 'certain' coffees.
      As long as its milky, strong or mild, I enjoy it.

      Commenter
      Andrew
      Location
      Elsternwick
      Date and time
      April 19, 2013, 8:31AM
    • Expresso? Do you mean Espresso - sorry coffee snobs know the difference.

      Commenter
      Stephen25
      Date and time
      April 19, 2013, 9:43AM
    • Firstly, it's espresso not expresso.
      I agree that home machines are great and fun to learn how to use but you can also get fully automated ones, as well as the pod machines which are pretty good. Plunger coffee has it's place and if you get good beans it can be quite good. But if you what to take the snobbery to the next level get a mocha-pot.
      Finally, I would say that if you solely drink milk coffees you're not really a coffee snob, as much of the nuances of the coffee are lost in the milk.

      Commenter
      Porter
      Location
      Adelaide
      Date and time
      April 19, 2013, 10:14AM
    • In my quest to find the perfect cafe (my fellow Italians understand that I am referring to espresso and nothing else) I have come to the conclusion that coffee blends in Australia tend to be slighly amaro and brucciata (burnt). This is not a criticism and I drink at least 4 coffees a day (God I love my employer - we have 4 machines at work and whilst I have a Rancillio and grinder at home I adore my stove tops - they are part of our famiglia). However it does explain why the majority of Australian coffee drinkers are happy to have milk with their coffee at any time of the day. So the moral of the storey is drink what you like and may you like what you drink.

      However when I got to Rome or Napoli, my taste buds come alive and I cannot resist to have a cafe standing up at the bar. My genes make me do it. Does this make me a snob? I don't think so. If you were with me I would be buying you a coffee. I've been drinking coffee since I was 7. It is part of me.

      Oh look! It's time for a cafe!

      Commenter
      MondoStef
      Date and time
      April 19, 2013, 12:54PM
    • Oops - make that bruciato ;-)

      Commenter
      MondoStef
      Date and time
      April 19, 2013, 2:15PM
    • 'The amount people spend at cafes could pay their home loans off earlier.' Not this sucker. I would drink no more than 3 cafe-bought coffees per week. I only drink one cup a day anyway, usually plunger coffee. OK, it's not as good as home-made espresso but I wouldn't contemplate a multi thousand dollar espresso machine for the marginal difference it makes to me.

      Commenter
      rudy
      Date and time
      April 19, 2013, 3:19PM
    • "Expresso" could be a true representation of Australia's multicultural society in that "espresso" is Italian for "express", used also in terms of mothers expressing milk: make of that what you will.
      On the other hand, mistakes in spelling (it's = it is or it has, not to be used as possessive pronoun "it/its"), punctuation, grammar and syntax are still mistakes. #anyonecanbeapedantictwat

      Commenter
      tan
      Date and time
      April 19, 2013, 3:31PM

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