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The Pleasures and Pains of Coffee

Honoré de Balzac

Translated from the French by Robert Onopa

Originally published in the Michigan Quarterly Review, Volume XXXV, Issue: 2, Spring 1996, pp. 273-277.
Translator’s note: This essay was written in the 1830s by the great French novelist as part of an appendix to an "enhanced" edition of La Physiologie du Gout by Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. The full appendix, subtitled Traité des Excitants Modernes, deals with coffee, wine, and tobacco. The translation is based on the authoritative modern edition of Balzac’s works published in Paris by Le Castor Astral in 1992.

On this subject Brillat-Savarin is far from complete. I can add something to what he has said because coffee is a great power in my life; I have observed its effects on an epic scale. Coffee roasts your insides. Many people claim coffee inspires them; but as everybody likewise knows, coffee only makes boring people even more boring. Think about it: although more grocery stores are staying open in Paris until midnight, few writers are actually becoming more spiritual.

But as Brillat-Savarin has correctly observed, coffee sets the blood in motion and stimulates the muscles; it accelerates the digestive processes, chases away sleep, and gives us the capacity to engage a little longer in the exercise of our intellects. It is on this last point, in particular, that I want to add my personal experience to Brillat-Savarin’s observations, and to add some remarks about coffee from the great sages.

Coffee affects the diaphragm and the plexus of the stomach, from which it reaches the brain by barely perceptible radiations which escape complete analysis; that aside, we may surmise that our primary nervous flux conducts an electricity emitted by coffee when we drink it. Coffee’s power changes over time. Rossini has personally experienced some of these effects, as, of course, have I.

“Coffee,” Rossini told me, “is an affair of fifteen or twenty days; just the right amount of time, fortunately, to write an opera.”

This is true. But the length of time during which one can enjoy the benefits of coffee can be extended. This knowledge is so useful to so many people that I cannot but confess the secrets of releasing the bean’s precious essence.

All of you, then, you illustrious Human Candles—you who consume your own brilliant selves with the heat and light of your minds -approach and listen to the Gospel of the Watch, of Wakefulness, of Intellectual Travail!

1. Coffee completely pulverized in the Turkish manner has a much richer flavor than coffee ground in a coffee mill.

In many of the mechanical aspects of pleasure, Orientals are far superior to Europeans. Their particular genius—to observe as carefully as do those toads who spend entire years squatting on their haunches, holding their unblinking eyes open like two suns—has revealed to them what our science has only recently been able to show us through analysis. The principal toxin in coffee is tannin, an evil substance which chemists have not yet studied sufficiently. When the stomach membranes have been ‘tanned,’ or when the action of the tannin particular to coffee has numbed them by overuse, the membranes become incapable of contracting properly. This becomes the source of the serious disorders affecting the coffee connoisseur. There is a man in London, for example, whose immoderate use of coffee has left him with a stomach twisted in knots. An engraver in Paris I know personally needed five years to recover from the physical state his love of coffee had put him in. Finally, an artist, Chenavard, was burned to death by coffee: all because he went to cafés excessively, as workers go to cabarets, on the flimsiest excuse. Connoisseurs pursue coffee drinking the way they pursue all their passions; they proceed by increments, and, like Nicolet, move from strong to stronger stuff, until consumption becomes abuse. Yet when you pulverize rather than grind coffee, you crush it into a unique form of molecule which retains the harmful tannin and releases only the aroma. That is why Italians, Venetians, Greeks, and Turks can drink coffee incessantly without harm, a coffee the French contemptuously call cafiot. Voltaire drank just such coffee.

Remember, then. Coffee is composed of two elements: one, the extractable matter, which hot water or cold water dissolves quickly and which conducts the aroma; the other element, the tannin, is less dissolvable in water, and emerges from the surrounding plant tissue only slowly and with more effort. From which follows this axiom: To brew coffee by contact with boiling water, especially for a long time, is heresy; to brew coffee with water that has already passed through coffee grounds is to subject the stomach and other internal organs to tannin.

2. Using as a benchmark coffee brewed in the immortal coffeepot of my secretary, Auguste de Belloy (the cousin of a Cardinal, and, like him, related to the ancient and illustrious Marquis de Belloy), the very best coffee is made by an infusion of cold rather than boiling water; controlling the water temperature, after pulverizing the beans completely, is a second method of managing its effects.

There are, as we have seen, two basic types of coffee which you might brew with hot or cold water: coffee pulverized in the Turkish manner, and coffee that is ground. As we also have seen, when you merely grind coffee in an ordinary grinder, you release the tannin along with the aroma; pulverized coffee flatters the taste even as it stimulates the plexus, which reacts on the thousands of capsules which form your brain.

3. The quantity of coffee in the upper receptacle, the way the beans have been crushed, and the amount of water passed through them, determine the strength of the coffee; this three-part formula constitutes the ultimate consideration in dealing with the beverage.

Thus, for a while—for a week or two at most—you can obtain the right amount of stimulation with one, then two, cups of coffee brewed from beans which have been crushed with gradually increasing force and infused with hot water.

For another week, by decreasing the amount of water in the upper receptacle, by pulverizing the coffee even more finely, and by infusing with cold water, you can continue to obtain the same cerebral power.

When you have produced the finest grind with the least water possible, you double the dose by drinking two cups at a time; particularly vigorous constitutions can tolerate three cups. One can continue working this way for several more days.

Finally, I have discovered a horrible, rather brutal method that I recommend only to men of excessive vigor, men with thick black hair and skin covered with liver spots, men with big square hands and with legs shaped like bowling pins. It is a question of using finely pulverized, dense coffee, cold and anhydrous (a chemical term meaning without water), consumed on an empty stomach. This coffee falls into your stomach, which, as you know from Brillat-Savarin, is a sack whose velvety interior is lined with tapestries of suckers and papillae. The coffee finds nothing else in the sack, and so it attacks these delicate and voluptuous linings; it acts like a food and demands digestive juices; it wrings and twists the stomach for these juices, appealing as a pythoness appeals to her god; it brutalizes these beautiful stomach linings as a wagon master abuses ponies; the plexus becomes inflamed; sparks shoot all the way up to the brain. From that moment on, everything becomes agitated. Ideas quick march into motion like battalions of a grand army to its legendary fighting ground, and the battle rages. Memories charge in, bright flags on high; the cavalry of metaphor deploys with a magnificent gallop; the artillery of logic rushes up with clattering wagons and cartridges; on imagination’s orders, sharpshooters sight and fire; forms and shapes and characters rear up; the paper is spread with ink-for the nightly labor begins and ends with torrents of this black water, as a battle opens and concludes with black powder.

I recommended this way of drinking coffee to a friend of mine, who absolutely wanted to finish a job promised for the next day: he thought he'd been poisoned and took to his bed, which he guarded like a married man. He was tall, blonde, slender, and had thinning hair; he apparently had a stomach of papier-maché. There had been, on my part, a failure of observation.

When you have reached the point of consuming this kind of coffee, then become exhausted and decide that you really must have more, even though you make it of the finest ingredients and take it perfectly fresh, you will fall into horrible sweats, suffer feebleness of the nerves, and undergo episodes of severe drowsiness. I don't know what would happen if you kept at it then: a sensible nature counseled me to stop at this point, seeing that immediate death was not otherwise my fate. To be restored one must begin with recipes made with milk, and a diet of chicken and other white meats; finally the tension on the harp strings eases, and one returns to the relaxed, meandering, simple-minded and cryptogamous life of the retired bourgeoisie.

The state coffee puts one in when it is drunk on an empty stomach under these magisterial conditions produce’s a kind of animation that looks like anger: one’s voice rises, one’s gestures suggest unhealthy impatience; one wants everything to proceed with the speed of ideas; one becomes brusque, ill-tempered about nothing. One actually becomes that fickle character, The Poet, condemned by grocers and their like. One assumes that everyone is equally lucid. A man of spirit must therefore avoid going out in public. I discovered this singular state through a series of accidents which made me lose, without any effort, the ecstasy I had been feeling. Some friends, with whom I had gone out to the country, witnessed me arguing about everything, haranguing with monumental bad faith. The following day I recognized my wrongdoing and we searched the cause. My friends were wise men of the first rank and we found the problem soon enough: coffee wanted its victim.

The truth I set down here is subject only to the tiny variations we find among individuals; it is otherwise in complete harmony with the experience of a number of coffee’s devotees, among them the celebrated Rossini, a man who has studied the laws of taste, a hero worthy of Brillat-Savarin.

OBSERVATION: Among certain weak natures, coffee produces only a kind of harmless congestion of the mind; instead of feeling animated, these people feel drowsy, and they say that coffee makes them sleep. Such individuals may have the legs of serfs and the stomachs of ostriches, but they are badly equipped for the work of thought. Two young travelers, Combes and Tamisier, found the Abyssinians almost universally impotent; the two travelers did not hesitate to regard the misuse of coffee, which the Abyssinians abuse to the last degree, as the cause of this disgrace. If these remarks make it to England, the English government is hereby petitioned to settle this question by experimenting on the first condemned soul at hand, provided that soul is neither female nor too elderly.

Tea also contains tannin, but since tea has narcotic qualities, it does not otherwise affect the mind; it stirs the plexus only while its narcotic substances are absorbed rapidly in the intestine. The manner of preparing tea, moreover, is absolute. I am not sure at what point the quantity of water that the tea drinkers pour into their stomachs should be computed in its effects. If the experience of the English is typical, heavy tea-drinking will produce English moral philosophy, a tendency toward a pale complexion, hypocrisy and backbiting. This much is certain: tea-drinking will not spoil a woman any less morally than physically. Where women drink tea, romance is depraved on its principle; the women are pale, sickly, talkative, boring, and preachy. In certain powerful constitutions, strong tea taken in large doses induces an irritation which overturns the treasures of melancholy; it produces dreams, but less powerful dreams than those of opium, for tea’s Phantasmagoria passes in a fog. The ideas are sweet, affable, bland. Your state is not the very deep sleep which distinguishes a noble constitution suffering from fatigue, but an inexpressible drowsiness, rather, which summons up only the daydreams of the morning. An excess of coffee, like that of tea, produces an extensive drying out of the skin, which becomes scorched. Coffee also often induces sweating and makes one violently thirsty. Among those who abuse the bean, saliva becomes as thick and as dry as paper on the tongue.