The Write Track: How Famous Writers Drank Their Coffee
Coffee's reputation has changed a lot over the years. It's been seen as an incitement to revolution, a fuel for the working class and, more recently, a conspicuous status symbol. One thing that coffee has always been known for, despite other prevailing attitudes toward the beverage, is its ability to get people up and moving. Perhaps no group has a closer association with running on cup after cup of coffee than writers. Whether they're spending the day scrawling away at home or camped out at a coffeehouse, the mental image of a writer almost always includes a firmly grasped coffee mug. Coffee, of course, can't make you a better writer, but if you use the bold brew to help you fill pages, you're in good company.
Too Much of a Good Thing?
One of the most famous and most devoted coffee fanatics of all time was Honoré de Balzac. The legendary 19th-century French writer once penned an essay called "The Pleasures and Pains of Coffee." While the pleasures of coffee are likely familiar to most, the pains may come not from the drink itself, but from Balzac's single-minded obsession with it. His essay opens, "Coffee is a great power in my life; I have observed its effects on an epic scale." Epic is perhaps the only way to describe the stories of Balzac's coffee habits: He reportedly drank as many as 50 cups per day.
Black Balloon Publishing's blog, The Airship, investigated the claim and couldn't find any solid confirmation or denial, but surmised that the writer may have drank nearly that much. He was known to drink coffee constantly as he wrote and spend nearly the entire day writing. In "The Pleasures and Pains of Coffee," Balzac described having so much of the drink that it caused him to become agitated and break into sweat. These less-than-ideal effects may have to do with his claimed habit of sometimes eating coffee grounds without the intervening step of actually running them through a coffeemaker.
Balzac may be far from a role model, but at least one famous coffee-crazed writer was known for his wisdom and sound advice.
"Among the numerous luxuries of the table … coffee may be considered as one of the most valuable. It excites cheerfulness without intoxication; and the pleasing flow of spirits which it occasions … is never followed by sadness, languor or debility," Kona Coffee Roasting quoted Benjamin Franklin as saying.
Franklin wrote in his memoirs of the time that he spent in London coffee shops, meeting with friends and collaborators or just listening in on others' conversations.
Another prominent intellectual, Søren Kirkegaard, avoided Balzac's habit of drinking enough coffee to give him heart palpitations, but his preferred preparation may have been just as unhealthy. The philosopher seemed to enjoy the enormous amounts of sugar that he added to his coffee at least as much as he liked the drink itself. Slate reported that, according to his biographer, Kirkegaard would dump far more than the standard spoonful of sugar into his coffee mug, heaping it on until it formed a white mound peeking above the cup. Then he would dissolve the sugar with a slow pour of hot coffee and gulp down the resulting caffeine-packed concoction.
A Measured Approach
If you're looking to the greats for inspiration on your own coffee habits, Beethoven may be the one to keep in mind. According to Slate, the noted composer treated his coffee with the respect that it deserves, measuring out precisely 60 beans by hand each morning before grinding them for his morning cup. It's just the kind of pleasure in the ritual of coffee-making that can turn the habit into a kind of meditation.