Java junkies

The Baltimore Sun

"They should put a surgeon general's warning on coffee," I once said in jest. But it's not a joke.

Whether you're a writer like me, a businessman, a sales rep, a news anchor, an airline pilot, a cop, an orthopedic surgeon, a tax attorney, a pop star or the girl who gets propelled 20 feet in the air by a dolphin at SeaWorld - whoever you are, you're probably a member of the Coffee Club. And if you're not, you will be soon, because when Dunkin' Donuts first coined its motto, "America runs on Dunkin," it wasn't far off the mark.

America runs on coffee - or, if you've got enough bean savoir-faire, maybe a double-shot cinnamon dolce latte with sugar-free syrup (hold the cream). Whatever your preference, there's a healthy (or maybe unhealthy) chance you're among the 57 percent of American adults who consume java daily. In fact, Starbucks is determined to make sure you are.

If you're one of those people who would sell a kidney for a tall chai latte, you were probably horrified when, back in February, Starbucks shut its doors for 3 1/2 long, decaffeinated hours. The reason behind the company's inhumane shutdown? To prepare baristas nationwide for a coffee crusade called "Espresso Excellence."

With stock prices falling and the recent downshift of the economy resulting in the dwindling patronage of the Coffee Club, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz's new brew smells funny, and it isn't the sweet aroma of a caf? au lait. It's one of the cornerstones of economics that an investment should not be made unless the marginal benefit exceeds the marginal cost. How, then, is Starbucks going to profit by giving customers a free shot of espresso? Naturally curious, I asked a local Delray Beach, Fla., barista how the new system worked - over a steamy cup of Joe, of course. Here's the breakdown:

Starbucks espresso machines only make espresso shots in multiples of two - enough caffeine and artificial sweeteners to keep a circus elephant wired. So even if you only want one shot, they give you two for the price of one; if you're in for a long day and you're looking for that industrial-strength triple shot, you'll get four at the price of three. So far, the customer is the victor. Or so it seems.

Sadly, caffeine is an addiction, and Howard Schultz - himself a high-ranking member in the Coffee Club - knows it. Not unlike alcohol, cigarettes, cocaine or any psychoactive drug, caffeine gets you hooked, and it's totally legal. Chronic caffeine consumption can result in terrible migraines and cause mood swings. It's also quite costly, even if you're getting a free shot. And the coffee bean behemoth Starbucks is more than happy to facilitate your addiction, even encourage it. With each "extra shot" you're given, you're increasing your brain's dependency on the drink, and you'll find you need a more frequent fix. You'll be shelling out less cash but a lot more often.

There may be a Starbucks on every corner, but at least there are a few sanctuaries from the java juggernaut - such as church, right? Not so fast; you can now praise Jesus while sipping on your mint mocha chip frappuccino. At least that's the case in Pembroke, N.H., where Starbucks has opened a kiosk in Grace Capital Church.

The senior pastor of the church, the Rev. Peter Bonnano, spoke in favor of commercialism within the parish: "Starbucks has done what churches should have done a long time ago, and that's to become more people-friendly. It's not so much the coffee as the environment the coffee and the coffee bar create - a relaxed, relational and fun place. We hope to create an environment that we believe is more biblical than [conventionally] religious." Hmm, did God create Starbucks on the seventh day so he could relax with a caffe misto?

It seems everywhere you look these days, there's temptation for Coffee Club members. McDonald's has recently begun to outfit its restaurants with McCaf?, a clearly competitive bid to wage war against Starbucks (but for us, yet another place to grab a deli sandwich and a macchiato). In Tokyo, more than 1,200 caffeine-dependent Japanese waited outside the newly opened McCaf? in Yebisu Garden Place to get their fix.

One thing to remember is that you're not the only one whose hands get shaky if you haven't had a drink of coffee in the past hour. In fact, if you type in "Starbucks addiction" on Google, the first 10 pages of links are rife with laments and blogs about the affliction. (I didn't go on past Page 10 because that would require I go make a fresh pot.)

When does it end? How many quadruple shots of "Espresso Excellence" do we consume before we realize it's got to stop? The rest of the world views America as a nation of strung-out, on-the-go speed freaks. And they're right. Millions of us can't even start the day until we've had at least three tall cups. When are we going to tell Starbucks, McDonald's and Dunkin' Donuts that America doesn't run on coffee, and that we want these companies to act more responsibly - if not for the sake of ethics, then for public health?

Are the wi-fi access, the free newspapers, the $10 Miles Davis Greatest Hits CDs next to the cash register really that irresistible? Maybe they are. But we've got to resist, before our veins start literally flowing with java. We could start drinking Pom, hydrate more nutritionally with protein shakes, or - God forbid - fruit juice.

But, well, maybe that just isn't your cup of tea.

Ethan Lewis studies politics and English literature at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. His e-mail is

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad