John Walker, a freelance gaming journalist in the UK, wrote in his blog today about his experiences giving up coffee — on doctor’s orders to relieve anxiety symptoms: bothererblog » Diary Of A Coffee Addict. I commented in his blog about my own experiences of giving up all caffeine for a couple of years back in 2000. Clearly, from the looks of CoffeeRatings.com, I have been what you might call “off the wagon” (or is that “off the Swiss water”?) for years now. But because the story is relevant enough, I felt it worth repeating here — with a bit of my own personal coffee history.

Not trying to sound like this month’s Barista Magazine interview with David Schomer, my first memories of drinking coffee go back to when I was about eight-years-old during the 1970s. This was in an era when corporate America was not yet savvy enough to squeeze every penny of profit out of customers. Retailers, from the local A&P to the neighborhood savings & loan, frequently offered free coffee to their customers. (Contrast with today, where a recent trip to BMW of San Francisco revealed that even a potential $40,000 car buyer must carry quarters to pay for their own cup of coffee.)

From then on, I had coffee off and on, but I still didn’t quite buy into the adult mystique of it. Then in 1989, while living and working in Maryland, I visited U.C. Berkeley as a potential grad student. I was easily impressed when a professor nonchalantly invited me to talk shop over a cappuccino (“heard about them, never had one”) from one of the many espresso kiosks along Bancroft Way. It was coffee like I never had before; though by today’s standards, Starbucks was likely a step up. That year, I moved to California to start graduate school at a joint Berkeley-UCSF program. And although it wasn’t the West Coast espresso that brought me here, it was occasionally a nice convenience compared with the one-dimensional coffee served in much of the rest of the country at the time.

From Addict to Recovering Addict

It slowly evolved into a regular habit, with my awareness of better coffee growing over time. But after several years of being a daily drinker of good coffee, drip as well as the occasional espresso, some evil voice of a modern temperance movement got into my head. Noticing the caffeine headaches I would get if I went a day without coffee, I started to think that giving up the stuff — and all caffeine for that matter — might be personally purifying and a healthier alternative. (Of course, I am also a former vegetarian who gave up meat for a couple of years during grad school, so perhaps there’s a pattern in this.)

Then in early 2000, I stumbled upon the most convenient timing: I decided to quit caffeine the day I scheduled my elective sinus surgery. Oh sure, I would have a massive pounding headache for a while. But would I really notice the difference between that and having my sinuses packed with gauze during my recovery? My doc even prescribed all the Vicodin I would ever need to get through it. (Not that I was worried about going down the road of a Brett Favre or Rush Limbaugh, but I’m a bit of a masochist who prefers to endure the pain unless I really need the meds. And on the theme of personal purification, ultimately I took none of it.)

I was coffee-free for the longest time; I missed the flavor, but not immensely. And while the purification thing seemed like a nice purge, it truly had little effect on my quality of life. The caffeine never had much effect on me, other than my withdrawl headache symptoms; I could always down a couple of double-espressos an hour before bed and still sleep like it was a glass of milk. Unfortunately, I believe some people are genetically/biologically predisposed to heightened chemical sensitivity to caffeine — not unlike the way some people can fall violently ill with just the smell of perfume.

“Again, can someone explain to me why this was a good idea?”

Then came a 2002 return trip to Italy, and, as with my prior vegetarianism stint, the whole denial thing suddenly seemed absurd. And while Italian espresso suffers from a sort of sameness, their baseline was (is) so far and away better than the U.S. baseline, I revelled in the convenience of being able to go anywhere and have good espresso. I decided then that I was born to be a coffee drinker, and I was only betraying my true nature as a human being. Who am I to defy God’s gift of my caffeine insensitivity?

Of course, the rest is history. A familiar story to anyone who has caught the good coffee disease, my death spiral into the pursuit of better and better coffee only accelerated. Italy was my gateway drug to the hard stuff of home espresso, home roasting, and cries for help that lead to CoffeeRatings.com.

In the end, the caffeine angle is an amusing one — given that espresso, my coffee beverage of choice, is one of your better options. Culturally, at least in America, we errantly behold espresso as if it were an intravenous drip of pure caffeine. Writers and editors constantly riff on espresso as a euphemism for the most potent infusion of caffeine your veins can handle. Pulling an all-nighter? Six cups of coffee won’t do, but six espressos will keep you awake from now until Christ’s second coming. (For example, last year, San Francisco magazine even resorted to calling me a “caffeinista”.) Yet if made properly — i.e., without all the water-soluble muck that comes tumbling out into your typical over-extracted American espresso — it has less caffeine than your average drip coffee.