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Coffee Week

Friday, December 7, 2012

Double tall nostalgia with a shot of obnoxious

Posted By on 12.07.12 at 05:13 PM

I love people - I swear
  • Charles Baudelaire, by Nadar
  • I love people—I swear.
"It is not given to every man to take a bath of multitude," Baudelaire wrote. "Enjoying a crowd is an art." And while the poet may have written this line as we are tempted to picture him, alone and shivering in some candlelit garret, Baudelaire enjoyed an active social life in Parisian cafes in the company of other artists like Edouard Manet and Nadar. Though we tend to think of art as a solitary and serious process, divorced from the social realm, an artist needs the noisy distraction of the outside world as much as the cloistered quarters of his own mind. Artists also need other artists, like-minded people who understand the joy and agony of the creative process. And artists need to be challenged—they need dialogue and criticism—lest they become solipsistic navel-gazers whose ideas don't translate in the world outside themselves. Perhaps that's why the vibrant cafes of fin-de-siecle Europe, where so many now-famous names passed their days, gave rise to some of the most progressive movements in art.

Before I go on, it should be said that I am one of those people who assumes that the past was better—especially the Europe of the past. Like Owen Wilson's character in Midnight in Paris, I grow nostalgic for things I've never known and sometimes wallow in the idea that I was born too late and on the wrong continent—which makes me a romantic or kind of a dick, depending on how you want to look at it. But it's difficult to compare the bohemian splendor of Baudelaire's Café Tortoni to, say, the Starbucks near Kinzie and Orleans and not find the latter somewhat lacking. It may seem like a false analogy on its face, but the European cafe, with its collection of newspapers and little cakes, where it was not uncommon to pass hours at a time, was the forerunner to our modern coffeehouse. And while today you may be able to find a decent cafe creme or the occasional linzer torte, the European cafe's role as the heart of creative and intellectual life is something coffeehouses can't seem to capture.

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This is your brain on coffee

Posted By on 12.07.12 at 09:29 AM

The structural formula for caffeine
  • Photo from
  • The structural formula for caffeine
My coworker Kevin Warwick recently took a plunge that I've often considered but never actually followed through on: learning to drink coffee. Part of my hesitation is that while I'd like to learn to appreciate the taste, I don't want the addiction; I've seen what certain friends are like before their morning coffee, and it's not pretty. I'm not a caffeine purist—I drink black tea pretty much every morning—but I don't go through any kind of withdrawal if I don't have it, and I like that freedom.

For a long time I had only a vague idea of what caffeine addiction actually meant in scientific terms. I'd read that, as with many drugs, you build up a tolerance to caffeine and need more and more to achieve the same effect—but most articles didn't go into detail about exactly why. A year or two ago, I came across the fascinating blog You Are Not So Smart, written by journalist David McRaney "to publicly explore our self delusions through literary journalism." Most of the posts focus on psychology, presenting a commonly held belief about the way we think and then meticulously explaining why it's wrong, often over the course of several thousand words. The one McRaney wrote about coffee stood out to me because it's the best explanation I've seen of caffeine addiction.

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Thursday, December 6, 2012

Brew your next cup of java through a civet

Posted By on 12.06.12 at 06:46 AM

Our friend the civet
  • Our little friend the civet
I'm not certain I know how to read a morning newspaper other than with a cup of coffee, but this often solitary brew is just as adept in social situations. Though coffee may not be absolutely essential to satisfactory conversation, a leisurely and urbane exchange of views on God, sex, and human folly—topics that tend to travel in each other's company—is unlikely to take place without it. (Risk the same conversation at night, when the coffee, if any, has turned to decaf, and you can be sure someone will go to bed sulking.) Julius Meinl is my regular Sunday-morning forum for such exchanges, and when that cafe changed (for the worse) the make of biscuit it provides with each cup, not only was the coffee sipping compromised but also the wellspring of my intellectual life.

You may already know this, and if so my apologies, but the Spanish language has a single word that means both scatology and eschatology—that word is escatologia. You might say that the sensible Spanish see no reason to distinguish between divine and earthly rewards. You might not. At any rate, it's a matter that begs to be discoursed on, and this kind of discourse is what coffee was put on earth to abet. There is, in fact, a particular coffee that perfectly suits the occasion.

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Wednesday, December 5, 2012

"Go ahead and drink as much as you want and can"

Posted By on 12.05.12 at 06:49 AM

Nectar of the Finns
  • Nectar of the Finns
Just the day after Kevin Warwick's coffee saga ran in the Reader, the Atlantic's blog featured a post on new research showing all sorts of beneficial effects from drinking coffee. Most recently, a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition shows that coffee consumption is associated with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes (interestingly, this holds whether it's regular or decaf). Coffee drinking's also been linked to lowered risks of colon cancer and heart disease, and may help delay the onset of Alzheimer's. That's why some doctors are now recommending that people drink at least a couple of cups a day. Some go further—"What I tell patients is, if you like coffee, go ahead and drink as much as you want and can," Dr. Peter Martin told Lindsay Abrams, author of the Atlantic piece.

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Tuesday, December 4, 2012

How the smoking ban changed coffee shop culture

Posted By on 12.04.12 at 06:50 AM

Simple pleasures
When the Smoke Free Illinois Act went into effect in 2008, it seemed as if bars would take the biggest hit. After all, any smoker will tell you that a cigarette is most necessary during or shortly after imbibing an alcoholic beverage. And anyone with a steady drinking and smoking habit was irritated. The smoking ban was probably the right idea—but while I don't smoke or have much of a desire to smell like cigarettes any longer, there is one thing I miss, and that's smoking in coffee shops.

In Europe, Central America, and the Middle East (the only places outside of the U.S. that I've traveled, not counting Canada), one thing you notice is the number of coffee shops full of young people sitting around tables and chatting, smoking cigarettes, and drinking coffee or eating small sandwiches. The last time I traveled out of the country—to Israel, 15 months ago—an American expat friend of mine told me that one thing she loved about her new home was the act of socializing at coffee shops over cigarettes. It reminded me that this used to be one of the best parts of living in Chicago, a scene that in hindsight was its own little subculture, the loss of which is palpable today.

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Monday, December 3, 2012

Hey, we're writing about coffee this week

Posted By on 12.03.12 at 09:29 AM

What a bunch of beans!
  • MarkSweep
  • What a bunch of beans!
This week's Variations on a Theme is a no-brainer: Kevin Warwick's cover story, in which he recounts the effects that caffeine had on him after having never been a regular coffee drinker, is the ideal opportunity to write about something that most of us ingest every day. Furthermore, it's a blossoming niche industry, with a proliferation of high-end coffee shops and newfound techniques for brewing and crafting coffee beverages; coffee isn't just a routine part of the morning, it's a new boutique business. But there's also another part of coffee culture to keep in mind, one that exists in coffeehouses and diners, not to mention in commutes and workplaces. A topic with a number of alternate routes and tangents, it's an obvious choice for us to write about. So check back all this week to read Reader writers on all things java. And if you missed it, check out Consumerism Week, last week's Variations on a Theme.

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