Thursday, January 15, 2009

Writers: The Coffee Achievers

Santa didn’t bring me what I really wanted for Christmas, but I hardly expected him to. Don’t get me wrong -- I was good last year, and Santa was generous. But what I really wanted was a Clover® Brewing System, the kind they have at the Starbucks on Beacon Street, and in only a handful of other Starbucks around the country.

It was a lot to ask for, I knew, even before I found out that a Clover® machine costs $12,000. But I swear, if I found $12,000 on a sidewalk, I’d buy one.

If you don’t understand why, some part of your psyche will always be a mystery to me. I don’t get people who don’t like coffee, and I distrust writers who don’t drink it. How can anyone be a writer without coffee? Writers are the original Coffee Achievers. At the risk of dating myself, I still love this commercial:

Yes, that was David Bowie … and Cicely Tyson … and Kurt Vonnegut.

Coffee has been an essential tool of almost all the greatest modern writers, and certainly of the most prolific ones. Voltaire reportedly drank 50 cups a day (and I’ve seen estimates as high as 72 cups a day). Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote what amounted to a love letter about freshly roasted coffee. Arthur Conan Doyle and his fictional sleuth, Sherlock Holmes, loved coffee almost as much as they loved cocaine (Holmes: “A cup of coffee would clear my brain”). Anthony Trollope, admirably disciplined, rose every morning at exactly 5:00 and drank his coffee before writing for three hours, after which he went to work at the post office. Edgar Allan Poe drank coffee by the gallon (the tell-tale heart’s pounding: conscience or caffeine overdose?). Maigret’s creator, Georges Simenon, could write a detective novel in three days on the power of his bottomless coffee cup. Beethoven loved his coffee strong, and Johann Sebastian Bach dedicated a sonata (BMV 211) to the glories of coffee.

I would argue that coffee has been far more important to literature than alcohol. We think of Hemingway, for instance, as a hard drinker, but he was equally addicted to coffee, and wrote some of his best work with its help. If you ever visit Montreux, Switzerland, you can take a Hemingway walking tour that includes a visit to the railway café where he wrote A Farewell to Arms.

The master Coffee Achiever, though, is surely the great Honoré de Balzac. Balzac wrote 16 hours a day on specially-prepared Parisian coffee, and no writer was ever more obsessed with it. His essay “The Pleasures and Pains of Coffee” [link:]
describes its power and gives advice for overcoming caffeine tolerance (ultimately, by dumping raw grounds into an empty stomach; don’t try this at home). Once coffee hits your system, Balzac wrote, “ideas quick-march into motion like the battalions of a great army.” He once claimed he drank 50,000 cups of coffee during his lifetime. Maybe that’s how he was able to turn out 100 novels by the time he died, at 51. (Or maybe that’s why he died at 51.)

Coffee has been the official American drink since 1773, when colonists revolted against King George III’s tea tax by dumping a load of British tea into Boston Harbor (to which King George III allegedly responded, “So they threw their tea in the harbor. Let them drink coffee.”) No wonder, then, that the Continental Congress declared coffee the official beverage of the Colonies.

And yes, there have always been exceptions. Henry James was, of course, a tea drinker. Henry David Thoreau railed against coffee as an expensive luxury. “[W]ater is the only drink for a wise man; wine is not so noble a liquor; and think of dashing the hopes of a morning with a cup of coffee.” I bet he didn’t get invited to many parties… and of course, that was before Starbucks took over Concord Center.

Coffee is part of my earliest memories. My parents ground their own beans, years before it became common practice; the sound of the coffee grinder used to wake me up on school mornings, and I’d come downstairs to that intoxicating smell. I didn’t start drinking it myself until college, but once I did, I quickly figured out the difference between the good stuff and the – uh – not.

When I was a student, for example, you couldn’t drink coffee in England. The first time I drank coffee in London, I spit it out. (Agatha Christie, a tea drinker, once remarked, “Coffee in England always tastes like a chemistry experiment.”) Now, though, you can get amazing coffee in England – at the Monmouth Coffee Company in Covent Garden and Flat White in Berwick Street, among other places. And there are Caffe Neros all over the place, almost as abundant as Starbucks. Lee Child, quintessential Englishman, loves coffee and drinks it black (like his hero, Jack Reacher). My British-born assistant, Claire Baldwin, drinks only coffee, not tea.

Coffee gets credit for modern civilization, in more ways than one. Both the American and the French Revolutions began in coffeehouses. My friend Malcolm Gladwell, in a piece in the New Yorker [link:] some years ago, pointed out that coffee helped give rise to the Enlightenment: Voltaire, Robespierre, Napoleon, Victor Hugo and Rousseau gathered at coffeehouses in Paris. Coffee also fueled the American Industrial Revolution, by helping workers get up early, work long hours, and coordinate their shifts.

And what are novelists but shift workers at the fiction factory? I space my working day out in cups of coffee. It’s my reward for getting work done, and also my stimulation to do more work. I need that psychoactive alkaloid stimulant crossing my blood-brain barrier. In fact, I’m sitting here drinking a perfect espresso as I write this.

Every week I buy a couple of bags of fresh-roasted Peets coffee to make at home. At the office, though, I drink only espresso, using a Gaggia espresso maker and Starbucks pods (less mess than grinding, and fresher-tasting than the Illy pods). It’s excellent, though it doesn’t compare to the coffee produced by a machine my friend Giles McNamee recently turned me onto: the Jura Impressa Z6 [link:].

The Z6 makes espresso even better than I’ve had in Italy … almost as good as the Clover. And at a mere $3,699, it’s a bargain in comparison. I haven’t yet sprung for it, and probably won’t – but couldn’t I call it a business expense?


  1. I agree with you that coffee is essential to writing; right up there with snacking. But I have to admit, having a big family and coming from near poverty as a child, I would seriously choke on a cup of coffee that came out of a $12,000 machine. Not to say that I wouldn't try it, ha ha. For now I will make due with my cowboy coffee, and lots of it.

    Take Care,
    Kristin Callender
    The Truth Lies in the Dark

  2. Anonymous9:36 PM

    This writer can't drink coffee--or anything caffeinated--because of a tendency toward panic attacks. But I wish I could. It's so quintessentially writerly.

  3. Hey Joe,
    I'd go in half with you on that java monster if we were neighbors. We could hook the thing up between our houses and build it a shrine. For $21K, I'm assuming this BrewHaHa has a pickline down into the core of the earth and we will be able to partake of the fountain of youth. Good times, buddy, good times.
    However, I recently posted one wee problem with my own coffee enjoyment:
    You, being a dude, might not be so squeamy but me, being not a dude, will have to insist that we have some french vanilla flowing from the spigots sometimes and an anti-arachnid device. If that's agreeable, count me in.

  4. Anonymous8:33 AM

    Great post! I definitely agree with the title: Writers are The Coffee Achievers. Writing is my vice, my addiction, my fuel, my muse and my therapist.
    I totally understand wanting the best coffee machine that is out there. Nothing beats a rich dark espresso.
    I also loved all the historic references.
    Thanks for posting this Ode to Coffee.

  5. Coffee is as essential as blood to me! I really enjoyed your article, as well. I am an aspiring writer again at 60. I could not survive a morning without coffee nor the rest of the day for that matter!

    I majored in journalism many years ago, worked at a newspaper a while, but I have always wanted to be a writer of books and short stories etc. As mentioned, coffee is definitely a survival tool for many of us! Thanks for your story.

  6. I'm totally with you on this, and I solved the problem of espresso at home in front of the computer. Check out the handpresso, very fine espresso and a fraction of the price of the big machines:

    I think Amazon sell them...

  7. Coffee is as essential as blood to me! I really enjoyed your article, as well. I am an aspiring writer again at 60. I could not survive a morning without coffee nor the rest of the day for that matter!

    I majored in journalism many years ago, worked at a newspaper a while, but I have always wanted to be a writer of books and short stories etc. As mentioned, coffee is definitely a survival tool for many of us! Thanks for your story.