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How I learned to stop worrying and drink coffee already

A caffeine newbie tries not to lose his mind

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Until about a month ago, I had never in my 31 years drunk a cup of coffee. I'd sipped, I'd brewed, I'd sat in dank basement coffeehouses chain-smoking for hours with friends. But never a proper cup. I've always maintained fond memories of the faint morning scent of boiling water passing through low-grade robusta beans—my dad downed that dreck every morning—but drinking the equivalent of what tasted like a stomped-on pile of damp leaves has always struck me as pretty objectionable. And large doses of caffeine make me fucking crazy.

Close to 80 percent of the country's population consumes caffeine on a daily basis, and of all the caffeine ingested, 71 percent of it is coffee, according to research cited by the University of Chicago's Emma Childs and Harriet de Wit, of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience. If each coffee drinker stuck to just two ten-ounce cups of Dunkin' a day (which, let's get real, is a drastic underestimation), that's about what it would take to fill enough mugs to get you three-quarters of the way around the earth. I don't really get it, but how could I? Studies and common sense have revealed that coffee dupes you into craving it, not only through ritualistic allure but through physiological dependence. "Caffeine produces mild stimulant effects upon the brain and body by blocking the effects of adenosine," says Childs. "Therefore, indirectly, caffeine increases the activity of the central nervous system and enhances alertness, concentration, and energy."

Caffeine in fact mimics adenosine, a chemical the body produces that tells you to slow down. But instead of sending your brain's A1 receptor the memo that it's time to conk out, as adenosine does, caffeine tricks you into thinking you've got more juice left in you—like that enabling friend who shoots you a late-night text to meet at the Continental. It's the 4 AM bar of neurochemical poseurs.

I turned my back on the stimulant early on, following an obscene Mountain Dew intake that forced my cracked-out teenage brain to escape my skull and float off to distant neverlands (never mind that it also produced a state of incessant worrying about what that girl thinks of me). It was hardly a sensible trade-off for the promise of higher productivity and increased wakefulness.

After nearly 12 years without the stuff, though, I began to wonder whether adding caffeine to my diet would produce more of the hyperconcentration I sought and less of the shattered nerves I feared. Plus I wondered if Intelligentsia was really that great. I wondered if my life would improve as a result of being able to legitimately hang out in a dimly lit craft coffeehouse and pretend to read the New York Times. I wondered if I'd be tempted by pour-overs, grandes and ventis, espressos. I knew I was probably doomed to exacerbate my smoking habit, but to hell with it; I need more vices.

So I embarked on a controlled experiment (though I admittedly had no real idea what I was doing). I spent a little over two weeks cataloging my physical and psychological shifts as I eased myself into coffee, caffeine, and the surrounding culture. And then, once I was fully addicted, I kept drinking it, because, well, I had become addicted. I began at the ground floor, choking down Folgers instant, and worked my way up, through gas station coffee, Dunkin' Donuts, Starbucks, and mugs of Metropolis—hopeful that by initially subjecting myself to the worst, I would more quickly be able to appreciate the best. I eventually visited the craft slow-drips and French presses of an enthusiastic and extreme community of roasters that's rapidly setting up camp across the city. (Based on gasps and looks of bewilderment, most were in shock when I explained my prior coffeeless existence.)

It was a test of dependence and productivity (and anxiety), a test of how my sometimes-fragile mental state would handle both a steady flow of caffeine and the sometimes-overwrought coffeehouse environment without imploding on itself. After having ingested somewhere between 25 and 30 cups of coffee, I arrived at two hard-and-fast conclusions: one, drinking coffee is a simple and effective way to jolt yourself into coherence each morning, and two, coffee works as an excellent facilitator to finishing the story you're reading at this very moment.

DAY ONE: The best part of waking up?

Folgers instant coffee's freeze-dried crystals are concentrated shards of caffeine reliant on the amount of boiling water they're immersed in. Less water, less dilution. A modest six-ounce cup probably yields between 50 and 60 milligrams of caffeine, or nearly twice what's contained in one 12-ounce can of Coke.

And guess what? This tastes like shit. Actually it tastes more like the back of my tongue has been coated in a cigarette pack's worth of tar and dragged across a freshly trampled tennis court. How can something so tasteless taste so rotten?

In goes one teaspoon of sugar, which flattens the flavor and makes it tolerable to gulp. Then I foolishly opt to pair my first cup of coffee with an inaugural listening of Swans' album The Seer, a dark and formidable three-LP behemoth of goth, no-wave, and postpunk that would be better accompanied by a plague of locusts than some Folgers at my kitchen table on a chilly fall morning.

As the album peaks and dips—interspersed with chanting and other haunting repetition—so does my brain. I know the brain is floating in cerebrospinal fluid (no I don't, that's a lie . . . hat tip, Google), but the sensation is that of a half-inflated helium balloon struggling to float higher than a pair of outstretched arms.

And I feel nauseous.

DAY TWO: A caffeinated pile of sad

Today is an upgrade to a ten-ounce Dunkin' Donuts—the definition of "upgrade" being relative. A buck and a half to singe my tongue and walk back to the office spilling hot liquid out of a flimsy cardboard cup because of the oversize sleeve I hastily applied. I have no grasp of coffee protocol.

Also, because I enjoy suffering, I unintentionally planned this brilliant experiment to coincide with the implosion of my Cincinnati Reds in the NLDS, an experience I get to witness in the middle of a day at work. The approximately 130 milligrams of caffeine is doing nothing to assuage my nerves. Yet the taste of the coffee has lost some of its stank—presumably because this cup, compared to yesterday's, is less concentrated—and now smacks more of cotton balls soaked in novocaine than of hot, wet trash.

The Reds just lost and this coffee just went tepid.

Adding to today's hell, I'm sleep deprived and hungover, and the caffeine is making it feel like my eyelids are being pulled off my eyeballs—keeping me hyperalert and hyperirritable—but all I really want to do is go back to bed . . . or (shame) eat Arby's curly fries at my desk.

DAYS THREE THROUGH FIVE: Starbucks spiral

Here's the thing about Starbucks: it's not bad at all, it's just juiced with caffeine. Not Barry Bonds juiced, more Rafael Palmeiro juiced—because he didn't seem like he had it in him. Making such a significant jump in caffeine seems ill-advised, but I went ahead and ordered a 12-ounce—ahem, "tall"—anyway, nearly doubling the amount of caffeine from yesterday's ten-ounce serving of Dunkin'. I've been in a Starbucks before because I am a human, but once I was ordering something other than decaf tea or coffee cake, navigating the menu of mochas, macchiatos, lattes, and cappuccinos felt on par with placing a bet at a Vegas sports book.

My desk at work is positioned in such a way that I can see the entirety of the floor occupied by the Reader editorial staff. This works mostly to my advantage, because I'm able to avoid ambushes by editors and click over from playing Scrabble (a hilarious joke—am I right, editors?). But today I'm distracted . . . constantly. And hot behind the ears. And cracking my neck, my knuckles. Every time someone gets up I raise my eyes from my computer just long enough to lose my already-compromised train of thought. If I was a member of the Queen's Guard, I would've flinched or gone into full-body convulsions five minutes into my shift.

On my second day of Starbucks I begin to enjoy the appetite-suppressant qualities of caffeine—an attribute that nearly makes up for the heartburn and stomachaches. (I uncharacteristically got motion sick at a movie the night before. It likely had something to do with the shaky camera work, meant to emulate found footage, or the fact that the movie sucked, but the caffeine jitters didn't help. That being said, it is nice not craving Twix bars every 15 minutes.)

I'm en route with a friend down I-65 to Louisville for a wedding. It's a chilly and rainy day, or a scene that iPhone commercials tell me would be perfect for sipping on coffee, ordering tomato soup, and dancing in my pajamas with Zooey Deschanel. Sadly, though, I'm sipping on another "tall" coffee and playing the role of backseat driver more compulsively than normal.

My next morning in bourbon country, U.S.A, begins with a headache. Usually the types to go for a hair of the dog in an emergency such as this, my friend and I head to Starbucks instead, and I order a 12-ounce "blonde roast" coffee. The lightest roast of the Starbucks coffees, it's supposed to yield more caffeine because less is burned off during the roasting process (see, I'm learning). And I want to go record shopping. And I want to drop a hundo. So I need the caffeine.

At Better Days, a major destination in the Louisville record store scene, I immediately get into a discussion with the owner, who, barely prompted, reveals that he has boxes of mint-condition old hardcore-punk records tucked away for "private browsing." He asks if I want to look at them. Flipping through pristine—and I mean absolutely perfect condition—original LPs from Black Flag, JFA, GG Allin, Bad Religion, and Circle Jerks while tweaked out on a foreign (to me) substance is too much. If Indiana Jones can show the wherewithal to look away, then I need to follow suit and get the hell out of here before my face melts off.

DAY SIX: Relearning anxiety, ounce by ounce

I suffered through crippling anxiety attacks in the early aughts—like get-this-kid-on-Xanax attacks. While others may feel like their hearts are about to explode in the midst of an attack, I felt like I was going to barf. Sweating and fidgeting and sweating and not trying to puke during countless short-story critiques in undergrad was the closest I've come to hell on earth. Once the attacks were under control and medicated, I mostly swore off caffeine.

And so by the time we're heading back from Louisville, I'm out of whack. Fatigued and dazed and sweating, I'm over this experiment. I prefer the endorphins from a solid run over the caffeine "rush" I get from the Circle K coffee I just bought. Sixteen ounces of it, actually. Fuck it, lousy gas station coffee at some point is obligatory.

But as we ironically sit in a Starbucks parking lot siphoning Wi-Fi and drinking low-grade "morning blend" brewed next to a slushie machine, my mood turns. More observant and, as opposed to about an hour ago, actually confident Felix Baumgartner is going to survive his world-record space jump, I begin to fear I'm turning into a detestable "Not until I have my coffee" morning droid.

This road lunch of Mike and Ikes and White Castle cheese sticks couldn't taste any better, by the way.

   *   *   *

To combat the grossness of Circle K coffee, I'm starting my tour of Chicago coffeehouses tonight with a visit to Gaslight Coffee Roasters at Fullerton and Milwaukee. Only open a couple months, the spacious, rustic corner spot gives off a warm air, not like the smoky basement coffeehouses I became accustomed to in the late 90s, featuring a barista who'd much rather puff on a clove cigarette and read Vonnegut than lift a pained fingernail to crack an IBC Root Beer.

I order a 12-ounce mug of coffee, take a seat, and open my laptop. How very right-on of me. Having my Mac at a coffee shop feels something like wearing a crisp Starter jacket to junior high in the 90s. I settle in, ask for the Wi-Fi password, try not to look at Facebook, sip on my coffee, and look at Facebook anyway. A few minutes later a group of volunteers making cold calls for the Obama campaign sets up shop next to me. Kismet, I tell you.

Considering my diet thus far today has consisted of fried food and candy, I feel like crap (a running theme in this narrative, it seems). Compound that with drinking coffee on an empty stomach, and this is maybe not the best way to introduce myself to Chicago's indie-coffeehouse scene. Still, Gaslight's coffee is full and rich—a considerable improvement over everything else I've sampled. And the aroma of beans roasted in-house is comforting.

But this just in: drinking coffee at 7:30 PM is stupid. I mean, I knew it was stupid as I was doing it, but, as a semilegitimate researcher conducting a controlled experiment, it's important to better understand the cracked-outness as a dependent variable—and to be as groggy as possible the next morning. Am I right?

So now it's midnight and I'm watching reruns of Roseanne and devising cutthroat Obama campaign strategies.

DAY SEVEN: A sojourn at Intelligentsia

I get it, not sampling the coffee of local roasting juggernaut Intelligentsia is a cardinal sin on the same plane as slathering a Chicago dog in ketchup.

There's a level of intimidation upon entering Intelligentsia. The suits and business-casual patrons, not to mention the dapper, vested baristas, look a tad more high-society than the derelict wearing cutoff jean shorts and whatever T-shirt was on top of the laundry pile this morning. The Monadnock space is well lit, crisp, and inviting, however—with the theater of the V60 pour-over technique acting as one its main aesthetic lures.

My longest and blankest stare at a coffee menu just happened. Big day. I eventually ask a barista for his recommendation for a novice coffee drinker, and he begins by repping the Flecha Roja Costa Rica, which I order before he even finishes his spiel. One week in and flavor deconstructions like "cherry, orangeade, and pomegranate up front with refreshing acidity and a long brown finish" haven't started registering, so he can hold his breath. My palate is a few dozen car lengths shy of catching up to subtle hints of dark chocolate or jicama or lemongrass or whatever. Plus my tongue is a barren wasteland, scorched by near-boiling temperatures over the past week.

My first Intelligentsia experience is fine. I undoubtedly recognize it as good coffee—I did drink 16 ounces of gnarliness from Circle K not 24 hours ago—but my undeveloped taste thus far yields no more than just that distinction. To try and fake some haughty coffee expertise would be on par with that phony- baloney Alex Trebek pretending to know every Jeopardy! answer, though the master key is right in front of him.

Caffeine mixed with unseasonably warm weather mixed with a bike ride from the Loop to Logan Square at 5 PM equals palm sweats, pit sweats, and an incredible sense of impending doom due to an unfamiliar and too-heightened sense of focus.

But my brain isn't floating as much, so that's cool.

DAY EIGHT: Hardcorebitter-steroidhyperbrew

Zak and Tristan at Gaslight tell me that Ipsento on Western brews excellent espresso—or the coffee equivalent of a shot of adrenaline. Not as high in caffeine as a cup of coffee, espresso is more concentrated and compact, and it's "pulled" in about 30 seconds, compared to the three minutes that drip coffee is in contact with hot water. The finer espresso grounds yield a syrupy, damn-near-motor-oil viscosity and a flavor that comes out as a stupid, spliced-together adjective in my notes: hardcorebittersteroidhyperbrew. Served with a side of soda water to act as a chaser and combat the powerful aftertaste and cleanse the palate, Ipsento's espresso is a little too much, a little too soon for me. Not to mention the dainty, unwieldy cup.

Once my taste develops, though, I bet a 9:20 AM shot on my way to work would be a good jolt to the day. No dillydallying through a cup while the coffee eccentrics—forever milling around with seemingly never a place to go—get refill after refill and scribble into whatever tattered notebook you can never quite glimpse (which I guess I'm doing right now).

DAYS NINE AND TEN: From thrash to slow drip

One of my goals throughout this process has been to drink coffee and promptly enter situations—hard-core record shopping, bike riding through rush hour, etc—that are sure to exacerbate my longtime anxiety.

So I grab a 12-ounce Metropolis coffee from Kickstand in Lakeview and chug it in the cold rain outside Metro just before heading in to see Converge, Torche, and Kvelertak. Once inside the venue, I'm met with the thundering rattle of Kvelertak's bass drum, which speeds alongside the rapid throbbing of my head like an in-stride sprinter. I fervently spout compliments as the Norwegians blow through their black-metal-meets-rock-'n'-roll set in front of a listless crowd. I'm in a great mood, throwing out my voice as I'm trying to scream over the band's screaming.

If there's one thing drinking caffeine has done this past week and a half, it's made me more effusive and positive.

   *   *   *

Today begins with me cursing weather.com for a wet Friday morning that's going to deny me the ability to ride in to work. Knowing I have to grab a cup somewhere, I opt for a new coffeehouse on the Blue Line at Chicago. Big Shoulders is stark and unassuming—no kitsch or irony, just a minimalist Scandinavian design accented by jazz flowing out of the speakers. The menu is equally pared down. Add to that the genius decision to install a flat-screen TV that streams the CTA's Train Tracker website—the shop is ten feet from the Chicago train stop—and I'm sold.

I go for the slow-drip. Chef-turned-coffee roaster and shop owner Tim Coonan prefers the Clever method of slow-drip coffee, which, truth be told, yields the cleanest cup I've had during this vision quest. The flavor is thick and expansive and well extracted—no floral flourishes here, just straight black coffee that has me well convinced punching through a cinder block is a real thing I can do.

At work, I'm bug-eyed and staring straight through my computer screen, damn close to typing at a Shining level of psychosis.

DAYS 11 AND 12: Addicted to high performance, if not to caffeine

The 2006 study "Subjective, behavioral, and physiological effects of acute caffeine in light, nondependent caffeine users," by U. of C. researchers de Wit and Childs, found that "caffeine significantly increased blood pressure, produced feelings of arousal, positive mood and high, and respectively improved and impaired performance on measures of attention and working memory."

Sounds about right.

But what about coffee's potentially hazardous effects on us "light, nondependent users"? And what's the difference between how a small cup of Folgers might tweak us out compared to a Starbucks venti?

Most prior studies of caffeine's effects have focused on regular users and the way that caffeine can create and stave off withdrawals. The unique thing about the U. of C. research is that it focuses on coffee virgins like me.

De Wit and Childs noticed that their subjects—when given doses up around 450 milligrams—experienced some "negative subjective effects such as anxiety." But that's, like, a venti red-eye. Normal consumption netted much better results. "Caffeine, at doses found in commonly consumed beverages, produces net beneficial mood- and performance-enhancing effects in light nondependent users."

And as a "light nondependent user" who just gripped a delicious 12-ounce pour-over of Colombian roast from Gaslight and walked down Fullerton to Logan Hardware to buy records and play vintage video games, I've got to say, I'm in a pretty good mood about buying Master of Puppets, and my performance on Frogger right now has absolutely been enhanced.

DAYS 13 THROUGH 15: "A fickle beast"

The Chicago coffeehouse lightning round starts with a visit to Humboldt Park's Star Lounge, which has the most laid-back, bohemian vibe of any of the coffeehouses I've visited (note the cat mural, please). Having stuck with black coffee for the most part, I settle onto a dilapidated bar stool and order a specialty 12-ounce Dolor del Oro, which consists of, among other ingredients, espresso, steamed milk, honey, and habanero. It's spot on, with a refreshing, tingling burn as I take it down. It's sweet and tasty, but makes me wish a bit for the straight charge of black coffee, a blunt flavor my taste buds have been bludgeoned with these past two weeks.

   *   *   *

"Coffee's a fickle beast, man," an accommodating Ipsento barista says as he prepares my 12-ounce Guatemalan-roast pour-over. We discuss the technique and idiosyncrasies of how each roast can lend a different flavor, regardless of how it's prepared. I shoot the coffee down, not only because the sticking taste in the back of my mouth has slightly diminished over the past couple of days, but also because I'm late to work, it's an unseasonably warm October morning, and I want to ride down Milwaukee until my legs fall off.

I kill a tall medium roast from Starbucks later on and head to the Lincoln Park Apple store to watch a friend do a presentation on graphic design. During the demo, I sit dead still because I swear I'm going to ruin or break something if I move a muscle. No way I'm sleeping much tonight.

   *   *   *

When I began this self-conducted experiment (if you'll allow me to call it that), I meant to eventually wean myself off of both coffee and caffeine and record those results, too. But after coming to crave the taste, the sensation of caffeine, and even the culture to an extent, it's been harder than I thought.

I decide to settle into a groove that will allow me to rationalize my continued use of a "psychoactive substance" that only weeks earlier I considered unnecessary. Coffee helped me to think outside the stuffy confines of my long-familiar box. Or to, you know, not feel dead inside.

I'm comatose on the train and my thoughts are static, because I haven't had coffee yet this morning. (Yes, I'm that dude now.) I walk briskly to Caffe Streets on Division, order a 12-ounce pour-over of Kenyan roast, sip on it, and stroll back to the Blue Line with a lazy ease. There's a certain comfort in walking with a hot, steaming beverage in hand on a cold day. Plus I know I'm about to be made functional. The taste no longer reminds me of sweaty basketballs. It's actually familiar. I want to drink this.

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