Coffee and Me: A Seven Year Love Affair

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This is a weird post, huh? I’m participating in April Cools: a bunch of folks who typically make things for you, myself included, are making a thing today that is completely different than our usual things, but up to the same standards of quality as usual. This feels more fun and less dweeby than tweeting some lie about my career. I almost did a piece on my beauty routine or queer slang, but in the end I chose coffee for breadth of appeal. If someone wants to get me on their podcast to talk about one of those other things, let me know.

Fresh cup of coffee. PC: Unsplash.

My first coffees had a job to do.

I bought them in college. I had just started running up against life demands exceeding my natural rest capacity. I had not yet learned that the excess accrues interest continuously after that ;). On this occasion, it was the combination of my studies and a demanding rowing schedule. I could usually get by on my own, but at the and of an especially long week with a higher-than-normal amount of sleep deprivation, I’d pop into Starbucks and ask for a cup—”black as sin and bitter as divorce.” The barista would look at me, a twenty-one year old who had experienced neither sin nor divorce, and roll their eyes. I deserved it. But they fetched me the thing.

Later, when I was doing epidemiology research in New York City and working at a marketing agency, I needed coffee again. I remember it clearly: the morning of my research defense, my brain felt…cobwebby. A cup of coffee from the continental breakfast table just, sort of, cleared the cobwebs away. It felt like magic to me at the time. I’ll never forget that cup.

I started drinking it more regularly when I started weightlifting.

I never wanted to get to where I relied on it, but my trainer at the time insisted that it would help make the barbell feel more manageable early in the morning. This happened a long time ago now; my max deadlift was maybe 200 pounds lighter than it is today. I had just started in tech, and I felt useless a lot. The deadlifts made me feel better because, and this is a direct quote from my brain at the time, “Nobody who can lift 200 pounds is useless.” So I wanted to get there, and the coffee helped.

Eventually I started making cold brew.

I liked how smooth it tasted relative to heat-brewed coffee, and I liked that I could easily mix it into a cold protein shake with some blueberries and almond milk.

Eventually, I started adding flavor to my cold brew experiments. I added mint and cocoa. I added licorice root powder. I also added cardamom and vanilla, which I let other folks try, and which they liked. So I started selling that by the bottle.

That began a fun foray into owning a food business.

I’d do little taste tests of different flavors at Pivotal Labs, where I worked at the time. I also sold bottles at my gym, and eventually my office director sourced the office keg from me. I had to purchase a keg and a larger brewing setup. So far I had avoided food regulation procedures by just selling to friends, but I began the process of finding approved kitchens and approved equipment. I never ended up needing it; my girlfriend at the time got fed up with my antics and insisted that I either quit my job to do cold brew full time, or quit the cold brew. I chose the latter. I still make it, but just for me.

My favorite cold brew flavor to make these days is an acquired taste.

Unlike the cardamom vanilla flavor, which has broad appeal, my latest concoction is a polarizing one. I brew the coffee grounds with lapsang souchong leaf—a type of smoked black tea evidently banned in some countries for its theoretically carcinogenic properties—and black pepper. I have decided that one serving’s worth of lapsang souchong in a week’s worth of coffee is nothing compared to whatever other environmental carcinogens I encounter, and the coffee tastes like something a whiskey drinker might like. Which is funny, because I personally don’t like whiskey, but I like this coffee. I’ve been told it tastes like “Memorial Day Coffee.” It’s not alcoholic. Not even a little.

But lately, I don’t even make that. I’ve been going with instant.

A lot has come up in my life: a pandemic, a war, a job change, an illness in the family. After each thing I tell myself “Wow, I’m so tired. I can’t wait until goes away and I have energy again.” And then another thing happens. Another coping mechanism gets taken away. I have another thing to think about. What if it’s like this, forever, endless?

If so, I’ll eventually have to figure out how to find joy and peace and contentment and energy in spite of circumstances. In order to live my life, I’ll have to do it one day at a time, regardless of what the last day brought. But I’m not there yet, and so I’m not back to making cold brew coffee. Now I drink instant. It’s mostly Cafe Bustelo. Yes, like a Brooklyn hipster, I know. But I think it tastes a little like bacon, and I like that about it.

I’m also a sucker for a latte.

Vanilla, with whole milk, if I have my way. I like the moment of peace that I get from the trip to the coffee shop, and I always appreciate the little art they draw in the top of the beverage. In the Before Times I’d take my own mug—a golden owl mug, 16 ounces—and photograph it with my fancy beverage inside. To this day, my dating profile says “If you hand me a latte at just the right time, I’m putty in your hands.” It’s kind of a joke, but not exactly. So far, no one has succeeded at this challenge. In fact, no one has knowingly attempted it. I have had friends and colleagues hand me a latte at the right time on accident, having never read my dating profile.

Were someone to attempt it, they wouldn’t have a very hard time. “The right time” is a day that I plan to work out, before I have had other coffee. That’s it. I drink one coffee on training days, before I train. I don’t usually drink coffee on non-training days, but if someone had bought it just for me, I probably would.

Though I don’t personally drink all that much coffee, I don’t really buy into the righteousness around “cutting down” or quitting coffee.

For a hundred years, study after study has tried to nail coffee on its health adversities. They have all failed. No one has managed, with any statistical rigor, to lampoon coffee. Is it hard on some individuals’ stomachs, or do some folks have a low caffeine tolerance? Yes. Do I see any evidence that coffee, broadly speaking, is bad for you? No, I do not.*

*This is actually the case for the majority of food studies. Almost any article entitled “Does [X super specific food item] kill people???” can basically be summarized with ‘probably not.’ I explain that phenomenon in this post over here. The short version: these studies usually look at 60-200 different foods in the diets of two populations that already have different health outcomes, and when you’re doing that many comparisons, usually some stuff correlates with the health outcome by pure chance.

That’s the case with any food item in these studies, and that’s where you get Daily Mail clickbait like “Do EgGs cAUse cAnCER???” But coffee, in particular, seems especially impervious to this. Even in the studies where it should look “bad for you,” it seems to sail through. Sometimes it even flips the researchers the bird on the way out by looking like it correlates with better health outcomes.

So I have never, not once, felt drawn to cut down on coffee out of some moral or health-oriented fervor. I think people should do what’s right for their bodies, but this one hasn’t tempted me, personally, even a single bit.

Look, I have a lot going on in my life right now, and lately I think people who read the actual piece don’t really need the conclusion, so I’m not writing one. You now know more about my relationship with coffee. Happy April Cools!

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