Coffee is not just a drug to make us good worker bees. It’s a pleasure.

Penguin Random House
“Coffeeland: One Man’s Dark Empire and the Making of our Favorite Drug.

For Valentine’s Day, my wife bought me an espresso maker. It’s not one of those $1,000 contraptions on which you push a button and wait for the coffee to stream robotically into a demitasse. This is a hand-cranked job. You have to grind the beans yourself. You have to heat the water to two different temperatures. You have to use your whole arm to pull an espresso, making sure to apply the right amount of pressure.

I can hear you groaning, but here’s the thing: This toy makes me ridiculously happy. I look forward to using it because of its elaborate preparation, not despite it. The process appeals to some part of my brain that loves math, ratios and all things mechanical. The best part is I get rewarded for the effort: I get a frothy shot of espresso, a little sweet, a little acidic, a little jolt of caffeine.

My point here is not that you should go from zero to full-blown coffee geek in 24 hours flat. My wish is that however you take your coffee – hand-cranked espresso, pour-over, automated drip, Starbucks latte, viscous diner mud – you reconsider your relationship with the drink. For as long as I can remember, coffee has been viewed as little more than a drug to perform a task: to wake us up, to focus our thinking, to make us more productive cogs in the capitalist machine.

Washington Post photo by Jahi Chikwendiu
Michael Pollan, author of the audiobook “Caffeine,” in 2011.

My hope is that, at least on some lazy Sunday morning when you’re not doom-scrolling on your phone, you can think of coffee as a pleasure, divorced from its skill at “reassembling your ego” after the fog of a full night’s sleep, as author Michael Pollan poetically describes it.

Coffee is a drug, of course, the most popular one on earth, as Pollan wrote (and read) in his 2020 audiobook, “Caffeine.” Then again, alcohol is a drug, too, and we don’t treat it solely as a social lubricant or a stress reliever, although those are two of the primary reasons we drink beer, wine and spirits. Even the language we use around coffee and alcohol is telling: We dose ourselves with caffeine during “coffee breaks,” so we can continue unabated through our work days. We knock back beer during “happy hours” to forget about our work days. We pop champagne to celebrate. We brew coffee to study.

The fun/no fun dichotomy with alcohol and coffee, it seems, did not happen by accident. Over the centuries, the ruling and managerial classes have had a love/hate relationship with coffee and tea, depending on their agendas. Monarchs feared coffee because it brought commoners together to discuss the day’s news. Rulers understood coffee’s ability to create community and, potentially, to foment dissent.

Shervin Lainez/Penguin Random House
Augustine Sedgewick, author of “Coffeeland.”

But even as early researchers were trying to understand what coffee does to the human body – both then and now, caffeine is a polarizing subject when discussing its health benefits – business leaders saw how the drink improved worker productivity. In his authoritative book, “Coffeeland,” Augustine Sedgewick delves deeply into the relationship between caffeine and work life, and how planters, roasters and business executives aimed to take advantage of it.

The Joint Coffee Trade Publicity Committee was established in 1918 by Brazilian growers and American roasters, Sedgewick writes in his book. Among other things, the committee took out ads in major magazines and sent pamphlets to U.S. schools and homes, informing Americans that coffee “helps men and women to endure exposure and withstand hard work,” Sedgewick quotes from one advertisement.

One of the committee’s pamphlets, Sedgewick explains, detailed an experiment at the W.S. Tyler Co., a metal manufacturer in Cleveland, where managers in 1918 started giving workers free coffee during lunch. Writes Sedgewick:

Following World War II, the coffee break became a standard amenity in American factories and offices, demanded by workers and heralded by managers for keeping employees alert. Yet, even though the coffee break was known to benefit employers, the bosses didn’t want to pay for the short periods when workers might be drinking joe, working on a crossword puzzle or just staring into space.

The question of whether those breaks should be compensated was decided in a mid-1950s case between the U.S. Department of Labor and Los Wigwam Weavers, a Denver company accused of violating minimum-wage standards because the employer refused to pay workers during their mandatory coffee breaks. The trial court sided with Los Wigwam, but the Labor Department appealed.

The U.S. Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit, would reverse the ruling. “Coffee breaks bore ‘a close relationship’ to work, and therefore counted as working time, to be compensated as such,” Sedgewick writes.

“In that way, the principle that physiologists and bosses had already discovered in practice – that coffee adds something to the working power of the human body independent of the processes and timescales of eating and digestion, something beyond what the science of energy and laws of thermodynamics say is possible – became itself a kind of law,” Sedgewick adds.

Over time and generations, all of this – the legal decisions, the magazine ads, the studies and experiments – confirmed our own lived experiences: Coffee was here to benefit our work lives, or just the part of us that wants to be productive in whatever capacity. Some TV commercials in the latter half of the 20th century made a play for consumers’ palates, with pitches about “mountain grown” and Colombian coffee being the “richest” in the world. But I’m not sure how much, if at all, this was fooling drinkers, who continued to buy hazelnut-flavored coffees and add long pumps of French vanilla and peppermint syrups to their caffeinated beverages. Anything to enhance the pleasure of these stale coffees and help folks get on with their day.

The third-wave movement, with its emphasis on higher-quality beans, lighter roasts and better brewing methods, contributed greatly to our appreciation of coffee as a seasonal product, and not some canned good that can sit on a shelf for months on end. It also introduced us to a wide variety of coffees and processing methods, making for caffeinated drinks every bit as complex as wine. But I’m not convinced the movement has changed our fundamental beliefs about coffee: It is still, as Sedgewick calls it, a “work drug.”

My suspicions are grounded (sorry) in a joint report last year by the National Coffee Association and the Specialty Coffee Association. One of the key findings is that specialty coffee/gourmet coffee consumption has actually gone down over the past few years, although the pandemic may be partly to blame for that. Another key finding? Drip coffee makers and pod-based systems were the top two brewing devices for home drinkers.

These are clear signs that coffee continues to be little more than a caffeine-delivery system for those who value speed and automation above all else. More signs? Just listen to your friends, colleagues or even yourself. Listen to the way we continue to use coffee as a scapegoat, to blame it for the minor mistakes we make during the day. The misread email. The poorly composed tweet. The meeting you forgot about until 10 minutes into it.

“Sorry, I haven’t had my coffee yet” is the standard-issue excuse, as if the drink’s sole purpose were to make us complete, fully functional humans.

My issue with our current relationship with coffee is that it aligns too neatly with the people who have, over the decades, viewed us, the worker bees, mostly through the lens of our ability to produce. It’s like identifying with the abuser. At times, I want to be able to drink my coffee for pure pleasure, without assuming, however unconsciously, that this substance is necessary to meet the demands of my job.

During a chat last month, I put the question to Pollan: Is it even possible to separate coffee’s functions from its pleasures? He had a compelling response.

“I don’t think so, because I think it’s all of a piece. I mean, feeling alert, feeling capable, feeling powerful is a pleasure, even if that pleasure can be applied to work,” Pollan says. “That first cup of coffee is part of, like, reassembling your ego after it’s been dispersed during the night, and sharpening that point of the human pencil. Even though you need all that for work . . . and it benefits you at work, it also is a pleasure.”

I don’t disagree with his take, but I also get the sense that it’s distinctly American. Consider the etymology of coffee. As Sedgewick points out in “Coffeeland,” the word is derived from the Arabic “qahwa,” which originally meant “wine” in Arabic. “Coffee,” Sedgewick writes, “was ‘the wine of Islam.'”

And that is how I would want to think of my coffee: As the wine of my household, a Bacchanalian experience in which I’m not sloppy, joyful and drunk, but fully alert and just happy to be.