One of the earliest things I wrote online was a piece called “Why I don’t drink coffee“, a bold declaration against the bitter brown beverage being in my life. But it was less about coffee and more a rage against social culture of Hamilton in the mid 1990s. People kept offering me Nescafe; I didn’t like Nescafe. And what about my friends who were obsessed with “caffeeeeeine!!!!”? And why were people so fixated on having a “hot drink”? So many questions. So much confusion. I was only 21.
But perhaps that piece should have been titled “Why I don’t drink coffee yet“, because within a couple of years, I had become a coffee drinker. One of those people.
I was one of those people who took photos of swirly latte patterns
The blame lies firmly with Starbucks. One day after work in 1998, my friend Dylan and I ventured into deepest darkest Parnell to check out the fancy new American cafe that served coffee in those white paper cups, just like in the movies. I ordered a grande decaf non-fat latte with hazelnut syrup. Grande because it was the biggest size, decaf because I had to get up early in the morning, non-fat because I was a girl, and hazelnut syrup because I was even more of a girl.
Starbucks was the gateway drug. Soon I’d pared down my beverage of choice to just a latte, and got it from better cafes than Starbucks. It felt good to go to the cafe around the corner from work, get a coffee and mooch around with the cup. Yeah, I’m a grown-up. Glad you noticed. I have a job *and* a cup of coffee, which I am drinking. Because I’m a grown-up.
I was addicted to caffeine. I figured this out when I started getting headaches if I stayed in bed for too long on the weekends. A few times I tried to stop drinking coffee but the resulting headache felt like someone was kicking my skull from the inside. I couldn’t handle that. Once I had to leave a party because the withdrawal headache had turned me into a vile whingebag. Or at least that’s what I blamed it on.
I got to know baristas at the local cafes and coffee carts that I’d go to. They’d remember my order, and we’d chat about the news of the day. My favourite barista was a fellow who worked at the Wellington railway station coffee cart. One day he mentioned he’d been working out with a new personal trainer and he was really seeing some definition coming through in his abs. He lifted up his t-shirt to demonstrate this. Oh, yes. You just don’t get that level of service at Starbucks.
I was right into the power combo of iPhone and coffee – taking photos in cafes. Oh look, the barista has swirled a heart shape on the top of my latte. I will take a photo, whack a vintage filter on it and call it art. Even a provincial cafe with a name like Aromas looks good with an Instagram filter.
I became a little obsessed with brewing methods, enough so to start reading CoffeeGeek.com (but not posting – I wasn’t that obsessed). I would visit local cafes that brewed coffee using devices like a syphon, the Chemex, or the fancy one that uses a gold filter. And none of these coffees were served in a takeaway cup, so it would force me to sit down and contemplate life, watch the world passing by, maybe write some poetry… only to get bored and just end up mucking around on my iPhone.
I'm not sure what to do with these now
Then a funny thing happened: I stopped drinking coffee.
When I came back from Japan in March, I stayed at my parents’ place for a couple of weeks. Initially I’d go down to a local cafe for a coffee, but one day I couldn’t be bothered. I accidentally went cold turkey.
The familiar headache came and went within a couple of days. I was feeling pretty pleased with myself for sticking it out, but then the awfulness came. I felt so ill. It was the classic “flu-like symptoms”. I was tired all the time, I couldn’t sleep when I wanted to, I was achy and just generally felt like the undead.
But that passed. I hauled myself off to Napier for a few days, got back into a regular sleep pattern and realised I’d finally made it out the other side. And I was surprised at how normal I felt in the post-caffeine world.
It was almost disappointingly normal. I felt a little bit let down because things generally didn’t feel any different to how they had felt on coffee. While I didn’t get the dramatic highs and lows of alertness any more and I could stay in bed on weekends for as long as I liked, everything else just felt normal.
But worse, being caffeine-free ushered in a whole new level of social awkwardness. If someone nicely offers to buy me a coffee, I can’t just say “No thanks”. I feel like I have to explain that I’m not deliberately rejecting their kind hospitality. And I probably explain too much, leaving the person wishing they’d never said anything in the first place. I’ll still meet someone “for a coffee”, though. It’s a useful shorthand.
Peppermint tea: it's ok
As yet, I don’t have a substitute drink to enjoy in a cafe. I once tried decaf but it tasted empty, and I have mixed feelings about herbal tea. Peppermint and camomile are ok, but everything else usually tastes like twigs dipped in Fanta. Coffee is so tied up with cafe culture (after all, café is the French word for coffee) that it seems completely wrong not to have a coffee in a cafe.
Because coffee is such an adult beverage, I feel like I’ve taken a step away from adult life, like someone’s who’s quit their job to pursue a career in clowning, crossed with someone doing a weird restrictive diet. Yeah, giving up coffee = Chuckles the Gluten-free Clown. It’s like I’m missing out on the secret fun adult coffee society, and I’m due to be exiled to the kids’ corner along with schoolgirls clutching giant hot chocolates and four-year-olds getting fluffies all over their face.
So now I’m left feeling like I have a coffee-flavoured void in my life that I need to fill. But with what? Reality TV? Nail polish? Ponies? I’m sure I’ll figure it out soon enough, but whatever it is, it will have to look good in Instagram photos.
A cafe, in happier times