Caffeine is not a miracle (drug)
For most of my life I did without coffee. I never felt like I wanted it and so never had it. I’ve always enjoyed green teas like sencha or matcha and would have few cups a week. Then the 2020 lockdowns hit and I thought “why shouldn’t I get into brewing my own coffee like everyone else?”
As a miracle “smart drug”, caffeine ultimately disappointed me. It turns out different people take coffee for different reasons and enjoy different outcomes. Below is my own take that I feel goes against the grain of the mainstream coffee glorification.
On the preparation methods
There are two main reasons people like coffee: the buzz and the taste (and aroma). They form two major groups of coffee drinkers: those who are in it for the buzz (buzzers) and those who are in it for the sensual enjoyment (connoisseurs). They both tend to silently downplay existence of the other reason why they drink coffee: the buzzers will resort to all sorts of subpar beverages (instant, old office drip machine, unfiltered pour-over popular in Eastern Europe during most of the 20th century). The connoisseurs talk about the beans’ origin, preparation, roasting process, aroma and tasting notes, but would not admit the caffeine kick is a huge part of their kicks.
In reality these groups overlap: the smell of freshly brewed cup starts the positive response for the buzzers.The connoisseurs meanwhile rarely prefer the decaf, as they want the hit as much as everyone else and will claim caffeine adds flavor (which it does, and it’s just bitter).
I saw the false dichotomy early on in my coffee journey and strove to be honest about being both: I want the buzz and I want the coffee to taste fresh, not burnt, with some fruity acidity.
The preparation methods I’ve seriously practiced are moka pot, V60 and aeropress. I’ve never managed to get a good cup out of a moka pot, my aeropress is consistently meh, my V60 used to be hit & miss and hovers around 75% success rate currently. I caught myself couple of times researching an espresso machine but fortunately always stopped: a good espresso is expensive, needs servicing regularly and takes serious kitchen space as it’s two new machines actually: an espresso and an electric grinder.
As for the beans, I’ve tried roasters from all over the UK and my go-to is Hasbean, I cannot recall getting less-than-great beans from them. Getting good beans, especially when traveling, is hit and miss.
While I’d grab an espresso-based beverage on the go sometimes, I am skeptical when it comes to all the major chains. As I wrote in my treatise of nutrition, the big coffee shops will by default lace coffee with substantial volume of sugar, and still taste mediocre. Their filters taste downright shit because at the coffeehouse price point a V60 or a Kalita brew is not viable and they’ll have some old, filthy machine in a corner do it.
During my coffee honeymoon in 2020 I was careful not to become a full-on caffeine addict and drank up to about five cups a week. Still, about four months later, it stopped working. I was still enjoying the preparation and the taste but the energy hits became tiny.
I found myself low on motivation the days when I’d skip the morning cup. This was quite untypical of me. It also meant that having the cup only brought me to the baseline I had before I even drank any coffee.
Worse, on the days when I took coffee after lunch, I had troubles falling asleep at 10:30 pm and would be tossing until well after midnight. It is an unpopular notion that regularly losing more than 30 minutes of sleep at night is a significant hindrance, especially for athletes. Again, it goes against the caffeine productivity benefits: as ther/nootropics Beginner’s guide will tell you readily, the best cognitive booster is consistently getting enough nighttime sleep (7.5 hours at least for a typical adult).
It turns out individuals metabolise caffeine at different speeds. In most people the typical half-life is 5 hours and they will do fine with two cups a day. However, at an extreme, people report full on effect of a single cup lasting 12 hours or more. There are also drug interactions of caffeine which make its half-life as much as 56 hours. Combining caffeine and MDMA is another particularly bad idea.
Caffeine spikes cortisol, the stress hormone. It also boosts activity of sweat glands which, in an office setting particularly, is undesirable.
A small group of people are sensitive to drinking coffee on an empty stomach. I unfortunately belong to that group and first need to get a breakfast before a morning cup. This impacts my intermittent fasting (IF) schedule which impacts optimal training nutrition on some days.
Cycling on caffeine
One caffeine upside is indisputable. Most competitive cyclists use (and abuse) the fact that coffee boosts one’s power output on the bike. It feels like your legs want to naturally push harder and the same relative effort hurts less. Studies indicate a trained cyclist gains about 3% of maintained power output caffeinated, amateurs probably even more. Three percent looks small for non-cyclist but trust me, it is major, an improvement which would otherwise take months of training to achieve or be downright impossible for an elite, peaking athlete.
It is contested whether or not caffeine tolerance dampens its positive effect on cycling performance. Some studies have shown it does. Subjectively I have not observed this: even at times when I no longer get any sizable buzz from a daily coffee cup I still feel the same significant boost when doing medium and hard bike workouts.
One does not need to get the caffeine from coffee for riding. SIS and others offer maltodextrin gels with 75 mg caffeine (equivalent to an espresso) a pop. Super-useful for the last 50 km to get you home.
The Optimal Regime™
With the exception of bike-training, coffee has not worked for my benefit as advertised. But I still love the buzz and the taste. Is there an intake balance to strike to get some of the benefits and minimize the costs?
There is, I developed a regime the seems to work. After a period of caffeine abstinence I pace myself of doing three cups a week at about 150 mg caffeine each. I do this for three weeks, then abstain for a week. That’s it. It turns out of course I was not the first one to invent this sort of programme, otherwise known as coffee cycling (not to be confused with riding bike on a coffee, see above).
To make it not mess with my sleeping patterns I try to have the drinks no later than 9 am and do them on the days where I have a hard, short and measured cycling effort scheduled during the midday or in the afternoon (examples for cyclists: 45 minutes at or beyond FTP, VO2 intervals). Subjectively I feel the exercise also helps me burn out the remaining caffeine so I improve my chances of getting a good sleep. I only do morning IF on the days when I do not take coffee which is still four days a week.
Three cups a week looks too little for usual coffee consumers, but I found it prevents me from developing a noticeable degree of tolerance. In other words every cup is still special and I can fully enjoy the taste and the buzz, every time.
When I do four or more cups of coffee a week I find coffee having almost no positive effects about 4 weeks later, yet lot of the downsides including troubles falling asleep and a subtle afternoon anxiety pang associated with caffeine withdrawal.
Inside the cycle I do two or three additional cups of green tea a week (50 mg caffeine per cup). Green tea comes on gently and it is stimulating constantly for about three hours. It even brings some calmness I need for less mechanical tasks. A great aspect of green tea is that I can take it as late as 3 pm and not have troubles falling asleep. This is crucial in my case since I am more likely to experience an energy dip in the afternoon than in the morning.
The aspect I absolutely hate about coffee is addictiveness. It is not the natural state of mind to crave, particularly things it did not even know existed as a child. I have heard people complain that they are tired all day if they don’t have caffeine and if they have it they aren’t sleeping well. Sounds like someone should go cold turkey.
I have concrete doubts caffeine increases my overall long-term productivity. It gives me fidgety mind that wants to “do” and not “think”. It thus works well for mechanical tasks like editing documents, refactoring code, reviewing triathlon training plans, doing chores likes paying bills or shopping online. But I feel like that cost of becoming sharper at mechanical tasks, my mind becomes narrower. Abstract or creative tasks become harder. They might get done quicker but neglect key concerns. I feel like I specifically perform worse on coffee if the tasks includes absorption of (to me) new information, e.g.when proposing high-level plans, starting a research into an unfamiliar domain, tackling complex code reviews or writing distilled presentations.
Having a coffee itself means one needs to spend the time and energy to buy or make coffee which could be spent on the task instead. It is worse yet for green tea which is more work to prepare properly and costs more per cup too.
Coffee is a massive business with serious marketing. You are unlikely to hear about negatives of farming, transporting, roasting, selling or consuming coffee. We talk little about deforestation, chemical pesticides, water pollution, disposable items like capsules and cups. The narrative paints a peachy picture: we support small farmers in poor countries, independent small business in our country and in turn we benefit in anti-oxidants and get healthier by drinking coffee overall.
Arabica, the kind of bean which is widely considered most desirable for its taste and aroma, could go extinct in this century.
The health-benefits side of things is interesting as well. I cannot imagine that disturbing one’s sleep cycles can help. Cardiovascular benefits are possibly present but, buyer beware, they depend on the preparation method
Of course, there are variables to tweak and things to try out to maximize caffeine upsides and limit downsides. One supplement promising this is theanine. Theanine is an organic compound naturally present in teas, especially the green tea. It lends the drink the umami flavour and is attributed with calming, stress-relieving effects that last for hours. It is possible, although not entirely confirmed by data, that theanine is what makes the difference between tea and coffee experience: both are energy-boosting but tea also brings calmness while the positive, productive comfort lasts longer.
Those who take theanine with coffee typically do so by supplement capsules. This is where the trouble comes: while the data supporting theanine-in-tea’s effects are imperfect, the data supporting theanine-via-capsule’s effect is nonexistent. Anecdotal r/nootropics posts doubt any positive effect on concentration or calmness too.
Everyone loves coffee. Ever since the third-wave coffee came around the drink has been glorified ad nauseam. All the good things everyone says about it would have you believe caffeine has no downsides.
I doubt all of that. Caffeine effects are individual, and I found that coffee works best for me in amounts of zero (ideally) to 3 cups a week. Other people claim to do well on three cups a day. So, don’t feel bad if you are at the poor tolerance extreme.
There is a rarely mentioned middle ground: drink controlled amounts and have periods of abstinence.
There is also something to be considered about a lucid mind unaltered by substances, however wonderful their short-term productivity gains might be.
Appendix A: caffeine in various beverages
The numbers below are a ballpark. Exact amounts depend on many factors like the beans (kind, origin, processing, whether blended with Robusta) and preparation method (setup, timings, water). There are rather expensive tools to get the precise numbers for your specific cup, watch James Hoffmann doing it.
Although I found them on their own website you’ll notice that the caffeine amounts in Starbucks drinks don’t really add up. I think this is either some sort of a marketing gimmick or a result of the current seasonal roasts they are brewing.
The table entirely omits the French press because the levels for this method vary even more wildly than for others. As an immersion method, all else equal it will extract more caffeine than an espresso or pourover.
|espresso (25 ml AKA single-shot)||77 mg|
|lungo (60 ml)||77 mg|
|pourover 220 ml (typical serving)||150 mg|
|aeropress 200 ml||150 mg|
|Starbucks latte tall or grande (two shots)||70 mg|
|Starbucks latte venti (three shots)||100 mg|
|Green tea 250 ml||50 mg|
|Oolong tea 250 ml||60 mg|
|Black tea 250 ml||75 mg|
|Coca cola 330 ml||28 mg|