Dependence: Coffee in College

A student’s complicated relationship with coffee

by Zoe Ferguson


The collective relationship Americans have with caffeine is a kind of polymorphous perversion. Though caffeine is a drug, and people overdose on it just like any other drug, coffee has saturated our collective consciousness to such a degree that to dislike coffee is almost akin to being un-American.

What does it mean to be a coffee drinker? First, let’s consider what it means to not be a coffee drinker. If I don’t drink at least one cup a day, I can never live up to the ideals of my biggest role models. Most notably, the four role models who raised me: my mother, my father, and Lorelai and Rory Gilmore have a passion for coffee at all times of the day and night that seemed to fuel their ability to pull off weird outfits and hilarious quips. When I was 12 years old, my dad noticed my increasing inability to get up in time for school and decided I was probably “a coffee person.” This characterization made me feel validated, like I had been initiated into a way of life, or a very unsociable fraternity. Now that I drank coffee to get things done, I could be just like Mom and Dad, who slept at odd hours and caffeinated all day and in the middle of the night. Having coffee in the morning became an act of self-validation: if I drank this, I was officially in The Adult Club. It set me apart from my younger siblings and my seventh-grade classmates. When I couldn’t focus on a test in geometry class, I remember thinking, That’s the last time I skip coffee in the morning. In the spring of seventh grade, I had to give it up for a mandatory three-day class camping trip, and I experienced withdrawal headaches and sickness.

In high school, I didn’t caffeinate as much. I found more energy (and solace) in food, so I got high—and crashed—on carbs and sugar. It all went downhill in college. While it’s true that coming to Cornell was a great move for many reasons—friends, learning, gorges, etc.—in other ways, it doomed me to an existence of wavering dependence on and a strange existential attachment to the drink. I place part of the blame on Cornell’s coffee card program, which allows you to get a free drink after 10 cups, but Collegetown’s plethora of coffee shops doesn’t exactly help either. What’s a girl to do when she passes Starbucks, Collegetown Bagels, and now Dunkin’ Donuts on the way to class?

The whole university system seems to be enabling caffeine dependence. It prioritizes independent individuals. Yes, it’s cool to have friends, but what’s really cool is being a self-made person in America. That’s what this country is all about. But for many, being a student at a highly competitive university also means being dependent on something—and if it’s not drugs or alcohol, it’s probably caffeine. Being a caffeine addict is part of the canonical life of the college student. Staying up all night in the library stacks is even easier with Libe Café serving coffee until midnight every weeknight. Independence is a function of how much energy you can muster up every day, and that energy is facilitated by a daily caffeine dose. In an environment where everything else is shifting—friends and relationships come and go, jobs and classes are fluid, even living situations are often in limbo—coffee becomes the friend we didn’t know we had.

At some point though, we develop a tolerance for caffeine, just as we do—to an extent—for the rain and hills of Ithaca. We drink it for the routine, to keep ourselves on a schedule and plan a no-fuss date at Stella’s, but it doesn’t give us the high anymore. We don’t feel the effects until we’ve drunk three cups in a row and start to get the shakes.

For a bunch of intellectually curious people, it’s odd that we don’t think more about the physical effects of the caffeine we consume so habitually.

“While it’s true that coming to Cornell was a great move for many reasons—friends, learning, gorges, etc.—in other ways, it doomed me to an existence of wavering dependence on and a strange existential attachment to the drink.”

As much as it pains me to say this, coffee stunts your growth, dehydrates you, and dims your teeth. The English still insist on drinking tea, which has one-third the caffeine of coffee, and they seem to be doing all right. But coffee remains a super-giant, $30 billion industry in America. Thanks largely to the development of K-Cups—nine billion of which were sold in 2014 alone—Keurig Green Mountain made $4.7 billion in 2014. As James Hamblin argued in The Atlantic, Keurig machines are relatively cheap compared to most espresso machines, “but once you have one, it has you, too.” Both mainstream and artsy coffee brewers are seeing enormous profits as well: according to market research firm Mintel, cold brew coffee grew in the U.S. by 115 percent in 2014 and made $7.9 million. Starbucks’s profits also climbed by 22 percent from 2014 to 2015, bringing their profits up to $626.7 million, according to The New York Times. This fall, West Coast-based Peet’s Coffee bought Portland’s pet coffee company, Stumptown, eliminating competition and raking in profits.

The branding efforts for coffee are also insane. Not only has the annual release of Starbucks’s PSL—pumpkin spice latte, for those who live under a rock—become basically a national holiday, but smaller brewers are getting smart, too. In September, Stumptown partnered with The Late Show with Stephen Colbert to give out 10,000 bottles of “Col’ Brew” (get it? Colbert? Col’ Brew?) on the streets of New York City, to promote Colbert’s new position on the show. This is a step ahead of branding ice cream with celebrities’ names. (Colbert has his own Ben & Jerry’s flavor, too: Stephen Colbert’s Americone Dream.) Emblazoning his face on a bottle of artisan cold brew coffee seems different, but truly, the appeal of coffee is just as universal nowadays as that of ice cream.

The pull of coffee, like the pull of ice cream, isn’t one with an aim. Much like in Freud’s admittedly weird theory of the sexual aim, the consumption aim (a term I just made up) is actually perverse in almost everyone. Freud says that “perverse” isn’t a pejorative term. Instead, it just means that we’re attracted to people for reasons other than procreation. Such is coffee. It’s not exactly a practical drive that steers us towards caffeine. Though it might have the temporary effect of getting us through a few more hours of studying, coffee is really a fix, a stopper for an emotional life that goes wild once we start abandoning our routines. Most people would probably be fine without coffee, and I’ll bet that a large percentage of self-proclaimed “coffee addicts” wouldn’t know the difference if they were served decaf. That’s how strong the placebo effect can be. Of course, ice cream also serves an emotional purpose, but we’re vocal about it. When you get dumped, you get a pint of Americone Dream. But we don’t talk, as a society, about the emotional void coffee is filling. This is the void that makes us feel like we are “less than.” Without coffee, we may feel useless, anchorless, and friendless. Drinking coffee even becomes a moral value when you look at it this way. What does it mean if I give up coffee? Does it make me a quitter—have I given up on the relentless ambition that I promised to follow when I accepted my spot at Cornell? Does it mean I’m somehow doing it wrong, showing weakness, if I add lots of milk and sugar?

Clearly, I don’t know the answer to these questions, because I am the person who spends a ton of money on coffee, takes one sip, and then holds onto the full cup for the rest of the day, hoping that carrying it around will somehow validate my spending and make me cool and motivated by osmosis. All I can say is that the emotional side of coffee drinking is real. Any quiz that purports to tell you what kind of person you are by what coffee drink you prefer is a waste of time. What you really need to ask yourself is why you’re drinking it in the first place. When you figure it out, let me know.

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