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. I’m exhausted even by the daily mental process of figuring out how to physically transport myself into the shower and assemble a set of clothing suitable for wearing in public. And 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 leave the first coffee for too long, my body begins to rebel. 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, on account of the persistent headache and general feeling of lethargy.
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. Eventually the cogs will churn until I manage to figure out why my head feels cloudy, and limp towards the closest acceptable café for the remedy.
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, so it’s relatively easy to indulge my absurd quality standards. 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 cerebellum magically transforms into a piece of sophisticated machinery and enables me to do more sophisticated tasks like writing, thinking and deciphering the various National Broadband Network policies – unfortunately “copper” sounds too much like “coffee” for me to be able to think of anything else before this point.
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, as I discovered when I asked a colleague to get me one and she burst out laughing and flatly refused to place such an embarrassing order.
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. I’m very grateful to be able to feed my obsession so close to work, but then again, outstanding coffee is readily available throughout every major Australian city nowadays. 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, and therefore the operation of the Calculator app on my computer isn’t beyond me. 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. Which seems almost unbelievable, but numbers don’t lie, or so I’ve been told by people who are better at maths than me. Who may themselves be lying, I have no way of telling..
This is an absurd amount, and it seems even more ridiculous when you look at it as $61 per week, or $266 per month. (I’m pretty nifty with the calculator for a mathematical ignoramus.) 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, whether as an espresso shot or diluted in a long black, and served with or without milk. 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.
Next we come to the costs, which are measured not just in the rather large number of dollars I pay for the pleasure. I enjoy coffee making my brain work each and every day, and in fact I’ve discovered that the best time to do any writing is immediately after having a coffee, but this has to go into the “cost” side of the equation because of the slightly awkward topic of addiction.
Clearly, I’m an addict, and not just in the sense of “hey, I loves me a cup of steamin’ hot joe,” but in the sense that if I don’t have it, I get withdrawal symptoms. My brain views caffeination as normal. There is a chemical dependency at play.
Now, 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 pleasant, and harmless in smaller quantities. It’s not like cigarettes or, say, heroin – there’s a perfectly acceptable level of use. Also 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.
Okay, sure – if it really is dangerous, maybe tell me in the comments section below, unless you want me to die. But I’m assuming two or three per day is okay.
Thinking about it, 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?
The other thing about coffee is that you get what you pay for. Some convenience stores and fast food outlets charge a dollar for machine-made espresso, but the difference with a coffee made by someone who really knows what they’re doing is significant. Or at least it seems significant to me. While I wouldn’t mind spending less per year with experienced baristas, I don’t begrudge paying a premium for quality ingredients and skill, even though some cafés I know are now charging $4 when you drink-in.
Finally, 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.