I'd like to subtitle this article “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Herbal Tea,” but that statement simply isn't true. I don't love herbal tea. I love coffee.
In the spirit of journalism (and because my cruel bosses forced me to), I quit coffee for a week. And since I'm a glutton for punishment, I went without caffeine altogether. It wasn't easy.
I'm smiling because I'm caffeinated
A little about me: coffee is a central part of my life. I just got back from a tour of Brazilian coffee farms. I've written 25 coffee articles on Thrillist, ranging from the country's best coffee shops to the worst coffee in grocery stores, and I'm working on two more coffee stories this week. It's understandable that my bosses would think I need to detox.
But despite my love of coffee, I don't run an IV line from a French press and hit the pleasure button all day. I usually drink one Aeropress cup in the morning, and have an iced coffee or Americano in the afternoon.
For someone with my level of intake, the fine folks at Coffee Chemistry say my body will be as caffeine-free as camomile tea in three days. So for good measure I abstained for a week and kept a running record of my actions, emotions, and nightmares. Yeah, I really did have nightmares. And a glorious eye twitch.
If sleep is the cousin of death, coffee is the cool uncle that lets you stay up past your bedtime.
“I'll have a lemon ginger herbal tea, please,” I say to the barista. For the first time ever.
She eyes me suspiciously, like I'm a spy sent into enemy territory. She is not mistaken, I am not a regular at this coffee shop. It is a crappy coffee shop.
The primary reason this place sucks is the bad coffee. But after spending more time here, I can tell you that the crappiness doesn't end at the brew. The furniture looks like it's from my first apartment, back when my favorite store was "the side of the road." The WiFi is split into eight networks with passwords so complex they'd elude even a hacker of Matthew Lillard's caliber. And everyone here is a student wearing sweatpants.
I'm feeling sluggish, but a more pressing issue is my raging headache. I'm pretty sure it's the lack of coffee, but the fact that I paid $2.50 for a bag of Bigelow tea doesn't help. Also, I just spent an hour sorting 25 pages of transcribed notes from cafe owners about how to open a shop. That also doesn't help.
Ok, time to write some glorious coffee observations!
... this is proving very difficult. I'm having trouble writing about not having coffee... because I haven't had coffee. I'm like a modern-day Yossarian, tip-toeing through the trenches of Internet journalism without my greatest weapon.
I often refer to that weapon as a “power-up.” Sometimes I'll save it until late in the afternoon or even early evening, like holding onto a Mario Kart thunderbolt until the last lap.
Right now, my body could use a boost mushroom. Everything's happening very slowly. The headache is still lurking. My eyelids are rebelling, drooping as if I'm sitting through a bad college lecture. And my right eye is twitching relentlessly.
Okay, my eye was twitching before I started this story. I have strange eye problems. I emailed my doctor about it last night and am still waiting on a response. Is it weird to email your optometrist regularly?
As I reach for my morning Cheerios, my eyes glance past my coffee equipment. It's like when you drive past a car wreck and know you shouldn't look. But you look.
I'm uncontrollably compelled to work from my couch. My posture is suffering and I still have a raging headache, but the good news is that I received a reply from my eye doctor. She says the twitching is nothing to worry about. It could be the result of stress, lack of sleep, or... caffeine intake! So this experiment might actually pay off.
I stumble onto a recording of the lost score to the film 2001: A Space Odyssey on YouTube and play it as I'm working. It's a collision of timpani, dissonant strings, and stomping brass. It sounds like how I feel, and it's never good to feel like the score of a Kubrick film.
Suggestion: hit play on this song and listen as you read the rest of the article because ALL WORK AND NO PLAY MAKES DAN A DULL BOY.
My adorable Shih Tzu is clawing for attention and uncharacteristically bites my hand. I jump up and sternly yell, "NO, PEANUT, NO!" The dog breaks into hiccups and sulks to her bed where she lays still for an hour. I am turning into a monster... and it feels good.
What doesn't feel good is that my sink is full of dirty dishes because I always wash them when the water is boiling for my morning coffee. I'll deal with that later!
I feel like I really need to leave the house, so I go to an f'ing tea shop. This is so funny to me that I tweet about it. They're playing Feist and I want to kill myself. The tea list is several pages long, so I ask for the tea-rista's favorite non-caf selection. She tells me she doesn't have one; she drinks it for the caffeine. She gives me a condescending look she must've learned from a barista.
I choose "Offering of Mint" with cardamom and a buffet of other spices. It's actually pretty good, and I feel guilty about my tweet. No matter how much I drink, my mouth stays dry.
I fall into a deep sleep around 7pm, then wake up two hours later and do the dishes like a damn adult.
Holy cow, I'm really awake! And only hit snooze once! I slept a full eight hours, the white whale of slumber that I haven't found in years. I feel like a million bucks, which is like hundreds of thousands of cups of coffee. Nothing can stop me. I am invincible!
One hour later...
I am not invincible! I'm actually super-tired. It's the first rainy fall morning of the year in Austin, TX, and man would it be nice to have a cup of coffee. That aroma, mixing with the softly falling rain and smell of wet grass, it gives me chills. Or maybe that's just my eye twitching. But at least the headaches are gone.
I am a golden god. My adenosine receptors must be doing yoga, because I am made of bliss.
My brain is in high gear. I'm out doing "research" for a story about camping in coffee shops. At the cafe counter I'm greeted by a chalk sign announcing the Four Barrel pour-overs of the day. I feel panicky, like a football player who fumbles at the goal line and has no idea where the ball went.
Shamefully, I ask the cute barista for the tea menu. She looks at me like a stray dog she feels bad for, but would never touch. I go with Honeybush, a rare South African tea that tastes like dirty water with a little bit of cumin. It makes my mouth dry.
I bring water to a boil, open an unused tea ball (impulsive IKEA purchase), and crack a canister of mint tea leaves. My corner of coffee gadgets is staring at me longingly. Beans from three of the best new roasters in America go stale on the shelf.
My brain is kicking at a decent speed, but I'm not powering up like usual. I can already feel a droop in energy that would be easily fixed by hanging out with my friend Joe.
Man, I need to get to work. Crank up the energy. Turn the dial to 11. Think up some more creative metaphors. But my eyes are drooping and twitching. I eat leftover Halloween candy to stay awake.
I've drunk every liquid in my fridge that isn't alcoholic, caffeinated, or old milk. I cut up a lemon and put it in water as a last resort. The lemon is past its prime.
I really want a cup of coffee. I crack open another tea-related impulse purchase, a box of pomegranate rose tea from Spices and Tease in New York City. It is delicious, but it is not coffee.
Surprisingly I'm not too drowsy, despite staying out late on a bro-date with the best pizza in Texas. So the desire for coffee at this point doesn't feel neurological. There's just something about the way coffee coats the mouth that is truly fantastic. The sensation of exhaling after a long sip, the chocolatey notes clinging to your tongue, the acidity lingering in the back of your throat.
At random moments I find myself missing coffee like an old friend. Like, man, I'd really enjoy hanging out with that guy. Just sitting listening to some music, maybe playing a game of FIFA. I'd probably even let coffee win.
I eat a fun-sized Crunch bar instead of coffee, as a little reward. Candy turns out to be a much better substitute than tea. Full disclosure: I have not been totally forthright about how much candy I've been eating this week. I have been eating AN UNHEALTHY AMOUNT.
I finish a story about food at the White House and bike to the first day of Fun Fun Fun Fest, a music festival. I walk past a cooler full of free Red Bull and think, boy would it be nice to have some wings right about now. Instead of powering up, I devour a Judas Priest-themed hot dog as "research" for a potential story.
The best performance of the day is Run the Jewels, an energetic hip hop group with excellent on-stage banter. One of the rappers goes on a lengthy monologue about self-confidence and how everyone should pretend that they're wearing an invisible 36in gold chain. I realize that coffee is my invisible 36in gold chain.
I bike home and am feeling pretty beat, so I make myself some chicken soup and watch the movie Sleepwalk With Me. It's about stand-up comedy, sleepwalking, and a disastrous breakup.
I am very interested in the scenes in which the characters are drinking coffee. The other scenes are good, but very depressing. By the end of the film, I relate strongly to both Mike Birbiglia's coffee drinking and his reluctance to get married.
I wake up to play soccer, but my game is canceled. I let out that adorable Shih Tzu that I yelled at on Day 2, then pause to consider how to spend these extra hours. Instead of making a cup of coffee and going about my day like a well-adjusted 30-year-old, I fall into a deep sleep on my couch.
I dream I'm eating at a diner that serves single bites of exotic meats. My mysterious dining companion looks like he's out of a Jodorowsky film, and holds a steaming cup of coffee that looks like it's on fire. A cup is supposed to arrive for me but never does.
Suddenly I'm playing football in the parking lot of the diner and I return a kickoff for a touchdown. Go me!
Then I'm supposed to judge a coffee competition. Since I can't drink coffee, I naturally run away from the competition with the speed of a very promising punt returner, traversing several levels of a parking garage to an indoor pool where I take a nice swim.
I don't sleepwalk, I sleep run.
I'm back at the music festival. I eat a second Judas Priest hot dog ("The Ripper"). Every time I see someone holding a cup of coffee I feel incredibly jealous.
Nas plays Illmatic in its entirety and it's awesome. I know most of the words to that record, so I rap along. I'm pretty sure several nearby girls want to make sex with me.
There are lots of other nerdy white dudes rapping too, and on "N.Y. State of Mind" we all scream out that we never sleep, because sleep is the cousin of death.
If sleep is indeed the cousin of death, coffee is the cool uncle that lets you stay up past your bedtime.
Late, late evening
I end up on Dirty Sixth Street around 3am, a full hour after the bars close. It's apocalyptically empty and I eat a heartburn-inducing piece of pizza. I desperately wish that it was a cup of coffee.
I wake up hungover and regretting that piece of pizza. I pull up Instagram and there are five photos of coffee p*rn waiting for me. You really shouldn't look at Instagram on Sunday morning.
An old friend is in town and I meet him at one of the best breakfast spots in America. I order a tall glass of orange juice instead of coffee. This feels wrong.
I bike back to the music festival and could really use some water. I go to the media area and there's no water, only Red Bull. The media needs caffeine more than water.
Next up, rapper Freddie Gibbs tells the crowd to yell "f*** police" roughly 100 times while Madlib scratches out beats in the background. Madlib is kind of my hero, and not just because he has his own Intelligentsia blend named after him.
After their set I try to order the third and final Judas Priest-themed hot dog (the "Screaming For Vengeance"). They're sold out, so I order chili cheese fries instead. I should probably start eating better.
On my way to watch Flying Lotus, I pass a promotional stand for Cafe Bustelo Coffee. It has a big yellow & red wheel that people spin to win prizes, like coffee beans or fanny packs or I Heart Cafe Bustelo shirts. For a moment I'm transfixed. It's like a hallucination, a carnival game temptation where I could sell my soul for a much-needed power-up to help me make it through the evening.
But I'm a changed man. This is the first point in the experiment where I don't actually want a cup of coffee. And as soon as you don't want a cup of coffee, it's time to start drinking it again.
When I began this experiment, I made a post to Facebook in order to keep myself honest. Within 15 minutes my supportive friends told me I wouldn't last a day, and sent me a BBC article about caffeine addiction. The chorus continued with several resounding “nopes.”
The first few days were rough, there's no denying it. The headaches were very real and I hadn't experienced droopy eyes at the workplace in years (I love my job and my generous, handsome bosses!).
I certainly felt a decrease in motivation, but I didn't fall into a black hole of nothingness. There were moments in which I felt strangely empowered, with a natural streak of manic energy not unlike a jolt of caffeine.
What I learned about coffee, myself
What I missed the most about coffee wasn't necessarily the stimulant properties, but its dual function as both carrot and string. Reward and motivation. I rely on coffee to help me start a task, then promise myself a cup for completing it. Which seems like an incredibly unhealthy philosophy if applied to just about any other drug.
But aside from that whole double-bind addiction thing, I think the main takeaway is that I just really love the taste of coffee. Nothing else feels the same in your mouth. The level of complexity, the immense breadth of flavors, the array of different preparations. It's a wide world of its own, and I don't want to live anywhere else.
Dan Gentile is a staff writer on Thrillist's National Food and Drink team. Two sips into his first cup back, his heart felt like it was going to explode. It was truly glorious. Unfortunately his eye is still twitching, but he's been told that it isn't a big deal. Also, this article makes it seem like he only listens to hip hop, which isn't accurate. Follow him to more double binds at @Dannosphere.