How much coffee can you drink?
Coffee got its start in the Muslim world, probably in the 1400s, and then the magical brew made its way to Europe, where it was sent to the rest of the world. It's been caffeinating humanity ever since.
And I -- a coffee drinker since the ripe, old age of nine -- couldn't be happier.
When I was a senior in high school, Starbucks opened a store in Utica Square. My friends and I were thrilled: for us it meant that Tulsa was finally big enough and cool enough to have its own Starbucks. We were coming up in the world.
You would be hard-pressed to find that sentiment among young adults in Tulsa today. For them, the cool thing to do is to hang out at a local shop.
Going to Starbucks is seen as too corporate. And what's more, we're told, the coffee's bad.
It's this latter idea with which I wanted to experiment to find out if Tulsa's coffee drinkers can really tell the difference between local, artisan-brewed coffees and a cup of joe from a major chain. Or do we buy our coffee as a statement of status instead of taste?
I could taste test for quality. But there's also the amount of coffee that Tulsans drink. Do the people populating seemingly every coffee shop in town actually even drink the stuff? Or, again, are they just trying to look cool?
To get that answer, I'd have to ask local baristas and coffee entrepreneurs.
From those responses -- no matter your personal taste preference -- it's clear that Tulsa has become a coffee town.
But the answer as to whether it's coffee we love or the image of being coffee drinkers? That's a bit more complicated.
Conquering a Nation, Cup by Cup
In some ways, coffee has become the quintessential American drink. The French may have their wine, the Germans their beer, the English their tea. But we Americans have our coffee. And thank God, am I right?
It makes sense, given the hustle and bustle with which we Americans are expected to live our lives. As early as the 18th century, colonial Americans gathered in coffeehouses, which were the places where "social, political, scientific, and intellectual" matters could be discussed, according to the website for the Colonial Williamsburg historic area.
We need something to keep us going, and frequently that something is not-so-sweet nectar of the coffee bean. It's in our American DNA.
It was only a matter of time (and western expansion) before coffeehouses became part of Oklahoma's culture as well. According to historians Rodger Harris and Baxter Taylor III, two of the first coffeehouses in Oklahoma were the Gourd and the Buddhi, which both opened in Oklahoma City in the 1950s. Strongly associated with folk and bluegrass music, beat poetry, and bohemian culture, several shops opened in Tulsa as well, including "Le Cirque, the Rubiot, the Gallery, Folkland, the Gourd (of Tulsa), Saint Michael's Alley, [and] the Purple Cow," Harris and Taylor wrote in an article published recently in The Chronicles of Oklahoma.
Many coffeehouses operated out of churches as well, Harris and Taylor wrote. Some nondenominational churches in Tulsa continue this tradition by offering low-cost gourmet coffee before or after services.
A few of the musical acts that came through Oklahoma coffeehouses became well known. The Smothers Brothers, for example, played at the Buddhi. They were later given a CBS variety show and infamously fired for criticizing the Vietnam War.
However, Oklahoma coffee culture appeared to have taken a dive by the end of the 20th century. Many of us remember our parents drinking a cup or two a day (often with cigarettes), but invariably, those cups came from pre-ground blends bought in large quantities from the grocery store.
No one can claim that the daily Folgers ritual tasted very good, but it certainly got Americans through the day.
Tulsa Gets Thirsty
In the last decade or so, however, coffee culture in America -- or at least in Tulsa -- has begun to change.
When the Gypsy Coffeehouse opened in the Warehouse District in 1999, there was only one other coffeehouse in Tulsa, according to owner Bradley Garcia. But the demand was present; the Gypsy quickly became an underground hot spot. "The kids kept us alive the first few years," Garcia told UTW in March. "They came from everywhere. We were a destination spot."
Now there are approximately three dozen coffeehouses in Tulsa, according to one recent estimate, including both locally-owned businesses and chains.
"The coffee industry has had a revitalization in the past few years," said Rob Stuart, who owns the Chimera Café at 212 N. Main St. "People don't want a cup of tar from a machine anymore. Coffee culture has kind of grown up, and now people can make more of an event out of it."
One must be careful, though, not to overemphasize this coffee renaissance. Tulsa has always had a coffee culture -- Mecca Coffee House on Brookside has been open since 1928 -- and the transformation isn't complete yet. Yet there are signs of life in Tulsa coffee.
There are also signs of increasing pickiness among coffee drinkers, especially the younger, hipper set.
"My favorite drink is a 16-ounce café Americano," said David Fell, general manager at the Phoenix Café at the corner of East 6th St. and South Peoria Ave.
Fell admitted to drinking two Americanos a day, and sometimes as many as three or four. He said he enjoys the "fresh, hot water with three shots of espresso poured directly in it."
"That is basically the freshest cup of coffee you can get," he said. "It makes a really awesome cup of coffee if you like that coffee taste."
Dylan Aycock, a barista at Shades of Brown -- 3302 S. Peoria Ave. -- said he has similar coffee habits.
"I guess I could drink two Americanos a day ... two super strong cups of coffee," he said. "Or if was just coffee, four cups."
Aycock doesn't consider this to be very much coffee, at least compared to his customers. Most of the regulars at Shades drink more, he said.
He believes that he doesn't drink as much because he works in a coffeehouse. "I think it's something about being around [coffee]," he said. "You don't crave it because you have access to it."
Aycock didn't speculate on whether this means he would drink even more Americanos if he were in a different line of work.
Justin Carpenter, on the other hand, knows he drinks a lot of coffee. "If I'm not drinking water, I'll definitely get jittery," he said.
Carpenter, who owns Foolish Things Coffee -- 1001 S. Main St. -- with his wife, Katie, said that on average he'll consume "probably two or three espressos a day, an Americano, and a cup of drip coffee."
He added that the staff at Foolish Things drinks a similar amount. "Most of them, when they're dialing in, will drink two to three espressos to taste them ... then throughout the shift drink two to three more," Carpenter said.
To keep staff from bouncing off the walls, Carpenter added that "getting food or water in our systems while we're working" is important.
Cheri Asher, who owns the Coffee House on Cherry Street at 1502 E. 15th St., also encourages eating to prevent over-caffeination.
But that's to be expected: her coffeehouse has a full kitchen.
"The people who hang out here can really put some coffee away," Asher said. "Customers get a bottomless cup, and they would fill it up ... I've seen people drink 64 ounces of coffee sitting here over six hours. I don't know how people can put that much coffee in their belly," Asher said.
She herself drinks only (a relative term if ever there was) four cups per day. "Because I live around it all the time, I try to be mindful" of overdrinking, she said.
But Asher has another reason for avoiding too many cups. The Coffee House on Cherry Street serves high-caffeine coffee. "When you get a locally roasted bean like that, the caffeine level is so much higher than the domestic coffee you get at home," she said, adding that she buys beans from Double Shot, a local company.
Hodges Bend, Tulsa's newest coffeehouse (and wine bar), opened last month at 823 E. 3rd St. I sent a Facebook message to the company to ask how much coffee the staff drinks in a day. I got a most succinct response: "More than I should."A Brief interlude to Focus Your Health
So, should we all slow down on the caffeine?
Quick research reveals several noteworthy bits about the caffeine that so many coffee-drinkers crave.
We all know someone who drinks tons of the stuff, can't get their brains functioning without that first cup of the day, and occasionally gives lip service to the idea of being addicted to it.
And while caffeine is, in fact, a drug -- and one that shares more than a few qualities with cocaine and heroin -- its addictive powers turn out to be a little over-hyped. It is mildly addictive, but one would be hard-pressed to come up with a real-world example of someone whose physical well-being, social status, housing situation, or employment was threatened by a coffee addiction as would, say, a meth-head.
Scott C. Litin, a doctor who contributes health-related articles to the Mayo Clinic and its publications, did write, in 2011, about the negative effects of consuming too much caffeine, although even that is a relative term, as different people exhibit different sensitivities to the stuff.
"Although moderate caffeine intake isn't likely to cause harm, too much can lead to some unpleasant effects," Litin wrote. "Heavy daily caffeine use -- more than 500 to 600 mg a day -- may cause insomnia, nervousness, restlessness, irritability, stomach upset, fast heartbeat, or muscle tremors."
Those who don't drink coffee now may want to reconsider any plans to start, right? Cocaine? Heroin? Muscle tremors?
However, according to the American Dietetic Association's Complete Food and Nutrition Guide, moderation, as always, is the key.
"For most healthy adults, moderate amounts of caffeine 200 to 300 milligrams a day, or about two cups of coffee poses no physical problem," the tome said.
Fortunately, a taste test doesn't require going much beyond those limits.
I gathered four of Tulsa's most distinguished coffee drinkers -- by which I mean the two people who responded to my Facebook post and two of my co-workers -- and asked them to drink two cups of coffee.
The first cup was a medium roast from Topeca at 115 W. 5th St. Topeca prides itself for owning its coffee from "seed to cup," according to its website. For six generations and 150 years, the same family that owns Topeca has owned the plantation in El Salvador where Topeca gets its beans. Such great care for coffee is rare, even among other local companies. It's safe to say that it doesn't get more artisan than that.
The second cup came from Starbucks -- the same Utica Square store that my friends and I were so excited about in high school. I asked the barista for nothing fancy, just a regular, medium roast.
I didn't tell the experiment participants which cup they drank first. They only knew that one cup was locally-sourced and the other was not.
The first person to arrive was Timothy Putnam, a manager at an office in Broken Arrow. Putnam is a self-professed coffee fanatic -- just a few years ago he might have been considered a coffee snob. He enjoys grinding his own beans and takes a fair amount of time each morning preparing his coffee.
He said he drinks about four cups a day, especially preferring coffee made from African beans. "Rwandan, Ethiopian, Kenyan, they seem to have a sweeter taste," he said.
Then with a smile -- not knowing what he was about to drink -- he said, "That just means no Starbucks."
The second participant was Emelia LaFortune, a nurse who lives Tulsa. Like Putnam, LaFortune drinks about four cups of coffee a day. It particularly comes in handy due to the grueling schedules nurses frequently have to put up with. Long shifts, especially overnight, require coffee simply to get through the workday.
In fact, LaFortune was happy that our experiment was scheduled for 4pm. While many people wouldn't want to drink a caffeinated beverage that late in the day, she was on her way to work. Two cups of coffee were just what she needed.
The third participant was Shane Oliver, one of UTW's illustrious account executives. As you might expect from a salesman, Oliver drinks quite a bit of java. Like Putnam and LaFortune, he confessed to imbibing four or five cups a day.
Coffee is definitely the sort of thing that would help in looking excited while on sales calls.
The final coffee tester was Jakub Krzyzostaniak, who was until recently a classified account executive at UTW. He has since moved to New York to work as a journalist covering Major League Soccer.
One might think that a pedigree like Krzyzostaniak's might lend itself to heavy duty coffee drinking. However, when asked how many cups he drinks daily, he said, "Zero." Instead, he said he recently "switched to green tea."
Still, it's useful to have an outsider's perspective in coffee judgment. I respect Krzyzostaniak's decision not to drink coffee, but I'll never understand it.
Cup #1: Topeca
Except for Krzyzostaniak -- who doctored his cup with cream and sugar -- all our participants drank their coffee black.
Putnam, before he even tasted it, smelled his cup and said it was from South America. In fact, he said it was "one of the most South American [blends] I've ever had."
El Salvador is actually in Central America, but hey, that's pretty close. When asked why he thought the blend was American as opposed to, say, African, Putnam responded, "I can smell the overtones. ... You can tell where the beans come from."
Yes, but how did it taste?
"Almost like vegetable beef soup," Putnam said.
LaFortune more or less agreed. "It tastes like tomato soup," she said.
Unlike some coffee blends, which have a reputation for a biting taste, "I don't find this too bitter," LaFortune said. "I don't think I'd actively seek it ... [but] it still has a taste to it."
"I taste no bitterness," Oliver said. In fact, he found it a bit "bland."
Krzyzostaniak could not detect much smell -- unlike Putnam. "It's not very aromatic," Krzyzostaniak said.
But, he said he still liked it. "It's fine," he said.
All in all, not a ringing endorsement, but still generally good marks for this Topeca blend.
Cup #2: Starbucks
"It hurts my nose."
That was LaFortune's first reaction to the Starbucks coffee. As she continued to drink it she added, "When I drink it, it's not got a lot of taste. ... It tastes like burnedness."
Putnam's reaction was rather more descriptive. "They must have forgotten to take the beans out of the dirt before they roasted them," he said.
Putnam only had two sips of his Starbucks cup. He didn't want to finish it.
He couldn't tell where the beans came from either, noting "competing flavors," which he called "non-descript in a bad way."
There was general agreement (and some laughter) when Putnam imagined that the beans went into this cup were "vacuum-packed and sealed ... best by 2018."
LaFortune added that in the need for a caffeine rush, she would still drink the Starbucks coffee, but "I want to sip this one [Topeca]; I want to shoot that one [Starbucks]," she said.
Oliver had a similar approach. He would "drink [the Starbucks cup] for the cause, not for the taste," he said. He also noted how "smooth" the Topeca cup tasted compared to the Starbucks cup.
Krzyzostaniak was just as skeptical as the others. He didn't comment on the taste, but said that the Starbucks cup has "a medicinal smell."
None of the participants in the experiment were surprised to learn that the second cup was corporate while the first was local. The reaction was so overwhelming, so universal that it raises the question of why anyone buys corporate coffee at all.
The answer may boil down to some combination of convenience and non-coffee products. I don't like Starbucks coffee myself, but I do need to drink coffee daily. My wife likes Starbucks chai lattes. On a recent Sunday, she asked me to go to Starbucks to get one for her, and I found myself buying a large (or "venti," give me a break) coffee, too.
It saved me a trip, and I didn't have to think of where the nearest locally-owned coffee shop was.
But given how detested the Starbucks coffee was in comparison to the Topeca coffee, I may have to rethink this policy.
Quality or Cool?
In times gone by, there was the three-martini lunch. A fat steak, maybe a cigar, and an hours-long lunch where wheeling and dealing wasn't only the norm, but was the point. Now, though, that has been replaced. Now, we hear, "Oh, well, let's get coffee."
Chimera gets its share of businessdrinkers, according to Stuart.
"We have a huge crowd that comes in every day just for business," he said. "Whether they're working on computers, like graphic designers who base their business on the computer, as well as others. And I've seen more than one set of blueprints laid out during business meetings here. Last week, we had a group of artists come in for a portfolio review kind of meeting."
One wonders why this has happened, but Stuart thinks he knows.
"I'd just go with pop culture and people becoming more health-conscious in general and what's socially-acceptable," he said. "You know, going back to work with a pretty good martini buzz isn't exactly standard-issue these days."
So it would seem, then, that health concerns and a decided need to be sober for the last half of the work day have triumphed over the old school notion of the Don Drapers of days of old and the alcoholic haze in which Draper's television show companions seem to live.
So there's the coffee in your house that you brew when you get up in the morning. There's the coffee that you and your coworkers quaff throughout the day. And you can't swing a dead cat in this town without hitting a coffeehouse. We Tulsans have embraced the stuff, and we've made it a much bigger part of our lives than just a morning-starter.
A hot cup of coffee -- even in the summer -- goes a long way toward making life a little better.
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