How I learned to stop worrying and drink coffee already | Food & Drink Feature | Chicago Reader

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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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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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