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The Pleasures and Pains of Coffee (1830) (blissbat.net)
218 points by benbreen on Feb 15, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 75 comments

Balzac was a wild guy, and prolific. Here's how he worked:

Balzac drove himself relentlessly as a writer, motivated by enormous literary ambition as well as a never-ending string of creditors and endless cups of coffee; as Herbert J. Hunt has written, he engaged in “orgies of work punctuated by orgies of relaxation and pleasure.” When Balzac was working, his working schedule was brutal: He ate a light dinner at 6:00 P.M., then went to bed. At 1:00 A.M. he rose and sat down at his writing table for a seven-hour stretch of work. At 8:00 A.M. he allowed himself a ninety-minute nap; then, from 9:30 to 4:00, he resumed work, drinking cup after cup of black coffee. (According to one estimate, he drank as many as fifty cups a day.) At 4:00 P.M. Balzac took a walk, had a bath, and received visitors until 6:00, when the cycle started all over again. “The days melt in my hands like ice in the sun,” he wrote in 1830. “I’m not living, I’m wearing myself out in a horrible fashion–but whether I die of work or something else, it’s all the same.”[1]

[1] http://meaningring.com/2015/05/06/daily-rituals-balzac-by-ma...

Alexander Hamilton's practice was similar but not extreme. From Chernow's Hamilton, this quote reflects on both his work ethic and superb thinking and writing abilities:

"When he had a serious object to accomplish, his practice was to reflect on it previously. And when he had gone through this labor, he retired to sleep, without regard to the hour of the night, and, having slept six or seven hours, he rose and having taken strong coffee, seated himself at his table, where he would remain six, seven, or eight hours. And the product of his rapid pen required little correction for the press."

Heh, "to reflect on it previously," this sounds like a highly optimized form of hammock-driven development.

I admire this focus quite a lot. For the most part it was sustainable, although at times he nearly wore himself out and his in-laws the Schuylers had to drag him outside more to walk and ride horses to rest his mind and restore his body.

And wear himself out he did, dying barely into his fifty-first year.

Not that far off from the life expectancy of the age, 60.

Is that a life expectancy including infant mortality, though? The life expectancy of someone who survived to 20 would be much higher.

You just reminded me of something I've learned about in school:


Adults could expect to live longer than that though, because infant mortality skews it lower. If you made it to your 20s back then, you could expect to live into your 70s

I've also heard "50 cups a day" estimated for Voltaire. If true, it probably means something more like 50 shots of espresso, but I'm still skeptical in both cases.

50 cups is up around the LD50 for caffeine if drinking drip coffee, iirc.

A typical cup of coffee has ~100 to 200 mg of caffeine. Here is what happens when people are dosed with 30,000 mg in one go[1]

It’s not clear just when someone realized that things might have gone a tiny bit wrong, but the story does mention “violent side effects”, which you’d have to think were neurological seizures, and those must have kicked in pretty shortly. The students were hospitalized immediately and put on dialysis, and appear to have recovered with no permanent damage, which is pretty remarkable (one of them has some short-term memory loss). Each of them apparently lost over 20 pounds during the whole thing, which makes me hope that this doesn’t catch on as some sort of idiotic emergency weight loss plan. Being hospitalized near death will take off the pounds, but it’s not recommended. There’s a literature report of a fatality with a 12 gram dose, so I think we can conclude that (1) taking multigram amounts of caffeine is extremely dangerous, and (2) these two students were fortunate to have survived, and without immediate medical care they might well not have.


Yeah, the LD50 of water is maybe ~6-7 L [0]. If ~100 mL / cup, you're approaching that volume of coffee with 50 cups. The small amount of sodium in coffee may help. (Ignoring how fast these are being consumed.)

I'm sure the Voltaire thing is just "the dude drank a lot of coffee."

[0] http://www.sciencelab.com/msds.php?msdsId=9927321

Depends on body mass obviously, but it's closer to twice that. Also depends on the coffee, whether you're talking traditional 6oz coffee cups or standard English 8oz cups, etc.

Maybe not if you work up to it.

Exactly, tolerance is a massive factor in whether you get a headache, or a seizure.

I've heard that too (and the associated joke—someone: "Don't you know it's a slow poison?", Voltaire: "It must be very slow.") but have never been able to authenticate either. Anybody have sources?

Thanks for your comment - it (as well as the original link) inspired me to head to Wikipedia and I started reading about Balzac and literary realism and other relevant subjects. I had vaguely heard of Balzac, but never given him much thought and definitely not read any of his novels. I'm now busy reading Father Goriot which is available on Amazon for free (and probably Gutenberg too):


(Shameless plug) Check out the free Standard Ebooks edition: https://standardebooks.org/ebooks/honore-de-balzac/father-go...

It corrects a lot of typos in the Gutenberg/Amazon edition. It also corrects missing accent marks on French names/words and a bunch of other transcription errors.

Father Goriot is an excellent book, and this translation is very fresh and modern, considering its age.

I could write similar paens to Matcha, and the harsh truth, coffee lovers, is that the top feature of green tea is that it is not coffee.

Coffee , as is this piece by Balzac), is like dramatic prose, whereas green tea is like a haiku. Coffee seeks to kick the door open with it's legs, applying the full force of the femur (caffeine), sending the imbiber into a frenzy of activity, while green tea knocks on the door first (L Thanine). And isn't a polite knock enough to open many a door?

Coffee's influence is like a sugar rush, an exaggerated high followed by an artificial low, while green tea's influence is like a smooth lift-off.

For some reason, I end up choosing coffee when I'm stressed, and it worsens matters. I go for matcha when I'm well-rested and want to be productive, and it always leads to a good work session.

> and the harsh truth, coffee lovers, is that the top feature of green tea is that it is not coffee

Indeed, which is why I don't bother with it =)

You can always take l-theanine with coffee, the combination is a common nootropic.

Indeed, YMMV but I take 200mg of L-Theanine with my morning coffee and I find it does a lot for my "caffeine jitters'. Research is mixed, but some trials suggest it is a real and substantial effect. Supposedly they have a synergistic effect when taken together, helping focus/attention even more than caffeine alone. It's not airtight, but L-theanine is cheap enough and the effect is noticeable enough for me to make it worth it. Probably the only nootropic I feel that way about. Some of my friends describe it as the closet thing to "legal adderall" you can get.

I've tried coffee / tea with L-Theanine and haven't really noticed a difference in focus, jitters, or anything like that. Then again I don't really get coffee 'jitters', or at least I don't notice it.

I was very interested in caffeine / theanine as a nootropic but after a few days of trying I've given up on the pursuit.

Yeah it's very YMMV. Although if you've never had caffeine jitters then you just may not be drinking enough to notice the effect. And supposedly the ratio matters. I "dose" at a 100mg:200mg caffeine:theanine ratio.

Also the brand/form of L-theanine seems to matter as well. I've tried several and the random cheap brand I purchased at the local health food store seems to have had the most noticable effects.

I found that tolerance/habituation to L-Theanine built up fast in my case. It's best as an occasional-use nootropic.

> For some reason, I end up choosing coffee when I'm stressed, and it worsens matters. I go for matcha when I'm well-rested and want to be productive, and it always leads to a good work session.

The starting point may have a larger effect than your choice of stimulant; any stimulant is likely to make stress worse, and being well-rested and energized is probably going to result in a good work session regardless.

> For some reason, I end up choosing coffee when I'm stressed, and it worsens matters

I used to this a lot and it never worked for me personally. Coffee used to give me so much rush that i couldn't focus at all sometimes.

It's also expensive and goes off quite quick...

Pretty impressive from a linguistic standpoint how close an 1830's document reads like something that could have been written today (with perhaps a touch of pretentious formality). Try reading the communications of the US Founding Fathers less than a century before, and the stylistic changes are like night and day.

Translation from French, as others have pointed out. The original text is longer, and covers stimulants other than coffee, such as tobacco and sugar:


The French is slightly dated in some ways, but definitely could have been written today (albeit by an old school literary type, of which we have plenty).

it sounds like you are fluent in french. how closely does the phrase "liver spots" match the original text?

Here is the relevant French excerpt:

"Enfin, j'ai découvert une horrible et cruelle méthode, que je ne conseille qu'aux hommes d'une excessive vigueur, à cheveux noir et durs, à peau mélangée d'ocre et de vermillon, à mains carrées, à jambes en forme de balustres comme ceux de la place Louis XV."

The original text states "... with mixed/blended ochre and vermillion skin"

This is a translation of the original French. The translation was done within the past 50 years, I think.

Well, that would explain it.

It has been translated from french, maybe the translator has taken some liberties.

Well, and I find a lot of English language texts of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries far less stale and much more contemporary sounding than similar offerings in my native Danish. Kierkegaard and to a lesser extent Hans Christian Andersen (sort of well known examples, I suppose) sound dated, Dickens doesn't really.

As others point out, this translation was done more recently, though I have experienced your general point: that the writing of a skilled author can endure a few centuries longer than that of their contemporaries.

The Journal of John Woolman and Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography are both autobiographies written by Colonial Americans in the 1770's. Franklin's prose (save for obvious allowances, like the presence of obsolete words like breed, 'to rear [a child]') is much more lucid. He avoids the ambling conga lines of clauses that characterize the prose of the founding fathers and John Woolman, and he has a much better control of vocabulary and imagery.

Compare these two passages. First, Franklin:

>[B]ut they voted an aid to New England of three thousand pounds, to put into the hands of the governor, and appropriated it for the purchasing of bread, flour, wheat, or other grain. Some of the council, desirous of giving the House still further embarrassment, advis'd the governor not to accept provision, as not being the thing he had demanded; but he reply'd, "I shall take the money, for I understand very well their meaning; other grain is gunpowder," which he accordingly bought, and they never objected to it.

>It was in allusion to this fact when in our fire company we feared the success of our proposal in favour of the lottery, and I had said to my friend Mr. Syng, one of our members, "If we fail, let us move the purchase of a fire-engine with the money; the Quakers can have no objection to that; and then, if you nominate me and I you as a committee for that purpose, we will buy a great gun, which is certainly a fire-engine. "I see," says, he, "you have improv'd by being so long in the Assembly; your equivocal project would be just a match for their wheat or other grain."

Now, Woolman:

> If any, who through the love of gain engage in business wherein they dwell as among the tombs and touch the bodies of those who are dead, should through the infinite love of God feel the power of the cross of Christ to crucify them to the world, and therein learn humbly to follow the divine Leader, here is the judgment of this world, here the prince of this world is cast out. The water of separation is felt; and though we have been among the slain, and through the desire of gain have touched the dead body of a man, yet in the purifying love of Christ we are washed in the water of separation; we are brought off from that business, from that gain, and from that fellowship which is not agreeable to His holy will. I have felt a renewed confirmation in the time of this voyage, that the Lord, in His infinite love, is calling to His visited children so to give up all outward possessions and means of getting treasures, that His Holy Spirit may have free course in their hearts and direct them in all their proceedings. To feel the substance pointed at in this figure, man must know death as to his own will.

Not as clear, right? Though I wonder if Woolman's writing was transparent even to readers in his own time.

We're reading this in a modern (1990s) translation - Balzac wrote in French.

I alternate coffe with orzo coffee, barley coffee, or chicory coffee. They look like coffe, taste like coffe but have no have caffeine. And "natural". It's good to trick the addiction.


In the UK, a traditional 'favourite' dating back to the British India times is Camp Coffee, which is caffeine free and mostly made out of chicory:


It comes as a black treacley syrup in a jar, which you mix with hot milk.

I'll admit to never having been brave enough to try it; these days you mostly find it in the cooking section of the supermarkets, as it has a following in cake-making.

Disturbingly, I think Camp Coffee might be less frightening than another old UK 'favourite', Mellow Birds:


(which does have caffeine in it, but not much)

> taste like coffee

For wildly varying values of 'taste'...

> For wildly varying values of 'taste'...

Well there are a lot of coffee flavours and a infinity of opinions on them. So this will not be different.

For me there is more to it than the taste of a "good coffee", which I obviously also can't replace. Like coffee, these hot drinks, provide me a comfort, that no hot chocolate or tea can achieve.

Yeah, I'm not sure what coffee they've been drinking, but I've never found e.g. chicory to be anything even slightly like good coffee.

Try barley then

I much prefer chicory to coffee. It tastes like coffee but without the bitterness, and without the caffeine (which is a big plus for me, as I try to avoid it).

I had an experience the other day that fit the later scenario he describes. Had to go home and take a nap. It was a throbbing headache and feeling to vomit, all because of coffee on an empty stomach!

I guess I don't have thick black hair and enough liver spots to handle it. :(

I'm not terribly addicted to coffee and actually prefer decaf (hate the jitters), but for the last few weeks I've been drinking 2-3 cups a day at work. I got a terrible headache on Saturday, just because there was no longer a steady supply of caffeine. Caffeine hangover is real.

Did you replace the coffee intake with other liquids? Usually when I see people experience "caffeine headaches", they tend to be the types who get most of their liquid intake from caffeinated sources. So, they end up with a headache from mild dehydration.

I was starting my day with a pot of coffee, and water/herbal tea throughout the day. I figured a pot a day wasn't good, so I went cold turkey after I ran out; had a horrid dull throbbing headache for the next few days (thought I was coming down with something till I realised).

I'm typically not a coffee drinker but do have "binges" that last a few weeks at a time. I've actually been making sure to drink at least two liters of water a day, so that's puzzling.

poor poor man. That sounds terrible. To not be able to consume coffee because of an empty stomach!? But it does happen. I typically see it in individuals that aren't used to drinking coffee. Are you in that category or is there maybe another reason you had an adverse reaction?

Was your coffee black?

I drink coffee often, but I think I was also dehydrated. It just all caught up to me at once!

I recently had to undergo an appendectomy after drinking 5 cups of black coffee straight (no cream or sugar) on an empty stomach followed by a very spicy (and questionable?) burrito. Would not recommend; I have made it a point not to drink so much coffee on an empty stomach again.

That's not how appendicitis works - it's not brought on by a single event of binging...

It's pleasing that a great French writer expounds on coffee, and (a century later) a great British one treats us to the requirements for a nice cup of tea: https://www.theorwellprize.co.uk/the-orwell-prize/orwell/ess...

Is coffee a zero sum game? for me, I noticed that with time you have to keep increasing the dose to keep the same level of effect.

Supposedly, the number of adenosine receptors in your brain increases over time with caffeine consumption, creating a tolerance to caffeine.

I've read articles [1] which suggest that cycling off caffeine for 7-12 days helps reset the number of adenosine receptors to the baseline.

[1] http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/this-is-how-you...

There is a limit to how many receptors you can have, which limits how much "wakeup" coffee can produce. Once you hit the limit and fill them up, the only affect you get from more coffee are the negative problems. I vaguely remember it being like 400mg of caffeine or something like that.

400mg is about 3-5 cups of coffee a day depending on the roast.

Except at Starbucks, where their coffees are large and strong!

Tall 260mg Grande 330mg Venti 415mg

Venti=20oz, a 'cup' of coffee is typically considered to be 5-6 oz, so the numbers still line up.

It's also three shots (by default) making the lining up even clearer.

I've always thought that changes to receptors are how tolerance to any stimulant works.

I go cold-turkey every once in a while. I've just come off a 12-day abstinence, which was prompted by an eyelid twitch that I couldn't get rid off with simple sleep. Dropping caffeine did the trick.

The best part is the first morning coffee after a long abstinence: you feel wired, motivated and productive like you've never been before.

My observations seem to differ. Every now and then I slip into increasing my dose. But, for 90% of the time I drink one shot of espresso in the morning. It keeps me alert for most of the day. When I feel a bit bored or lazy after lunch, I'd have another one. If I keep doing that for a week, I realise the days when I don't I get particularly sleepy and low energy. 3 days after sticking to morning coffee only reverts me back to previous energy levels. I'd say if you are disciplined with your dose, it helps just the same as it did when you started drinking it.

Is drinking coffee on an empty stomach actually considered harmful? I do it daily every day of the week. My first meal of the day is lunch a few hours after I've had either an Americano with 2-3 shots of espresso, or a regular coffee with 1-2 espresso shots in it. Almost always black.

On a low carb diet, I get GI distress generally after eating lunch, but outside of dieting I haven't noticed any adverse effects related to it. I've been doing this every weekday for over 2 years now.

"Doctor, doctor! I haven't any symptoms!"

I remember reading this on HN like 4 years ago and have been trying to find it again ever since! Thanks for posting.

Ah yes - previous discussion, 37 comments. 108/125 points depending on who you ask ;)


That's eloquent and evocative, and resonates just as well today, 200 years later. I was going to comment on how such a mundane observation from long ago makes for an interesting read in and of itself, but it's clear from the content that this wasn't a condition oft-encountered by common folk; there was significant social stratification that made coffee (and coffeehouses) a pastime or performance-enhancing substance of the haute and petite bourgeoisie and not of everyday wage-earners, while the same is hardly true today.

From nightshift millennials to busy gen-X professionals, from the purpose-oriented to the traditionalists, from the pines of the Nordics to the pampas of South America, the populace of lots of countries is quite caffeinated throughout.

Reading that essay, I kept thinking if his next step would be inserting the coffee rectally. I'm surprised he never got to that point.

Would love to find the original french.

It was linked elsewhere in this thread: http://www.bmlisieux.com/curiosa/excitant.htm

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