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Wednesday, April 14, 2004  

Confession: Portrait of an addict

I drink.

Almost daily from my home supply. More days than not away from home. Usually during the day, but sometimes after dark. I drink alone and I drink with others. My nose isn't red. I've never had delirium tremens. My liver is fine.

I drink coffee. My pattern is a couple cups of the hard stuff, with cream and artificial sweetener, when I arise. Then, later, a tall latte or short cup of the house brew at Starbucks. If I feel tired, I make the latte a double. My limit is a double latte and a couple cups of brew per day. When night clubbing, I sometimes drink Irish coffees. Seems harmless. But, according to yesterday's The Wall Street Journal, I may have a drinking problem.

It isn't just the long lines and high prices that are outsized at Starbucks and other specialty coffeehouses. There's also the caffeine.

In pursuit of a bolder taste, coffeehouses typically brew their blends much stronger than a trusty cup of Folgers. But a powerful side effect is unusually high levels of caffeine, according to a national test of ready-made coffee run by a laboratory for The Wall Street Journal. House blends at Starbucks Corp., Gloria Jean's and other gourmet coffee chains have an average 56 percent more caffeine than samples tested at 7-Eleven stores and 29 percent more than at Dunkin' Donuts nationwide.

One of the strongest happens to be the most successful: The Starbucks house blend had 223 milligrams of caffeine on average per 16-ounce "grande," or medium, cup size. Starbucks says that on average, its array of coffee drinks contains even more — 320 milligrams in a medium cup. That's nearly double the caffeine in Folgers, the leading grocery-store brand.

The reporter observes that the extraordinary success of Starbucks and other specialty coffee house chains may owe some of its vigor to the fact the product makes customers "physically dependent," i.e., is addictive.

Researchers say that those of us who drink (coffee) have the same rejection characteristics as other 'habituated' persons. If we try to give the java up, we suffer headaches, drowsiness and inability to concentrate. They believe we crave that cup when we get up because we are in or about to go into withdrawal.

Other observations complete the portrait of an addict.

Gourmet coffeehouses have extraordinary customer loyalty. About 12 percent of coffeehouse patrons nationwide visit four or more times a week, according to Mintel International Group, a market-research firm. Starbucks says that its typical heavy user shows up 18 times a month. What makes these numbers more impressive is that coffee, of course, can easily be brewed at home. And 67 percent of regular coffeehouse customers recently surveyed by Mintel agreed that gourmet takeout coffee is too expensive.

I do go to Starbucks several times a week, but I want to believe part of the lure is WiFi. Yes, I'm wireless at home. But, lounging at a neighborhood coffee house lets me read and write without domestic distractions, and, talk with friends as well as browse the Web. Really.

The research sheds light on why, if it is convenient, I prefer a trip to Starbucks for a cup of theirs to brewing my own. I could also save at least a fiver each week by skipping a couple lattes at Starbucks.

I don't have any plans to quit. Though continual, my coffee habit does not compare to those of the heavy-hitters described in the article. I haven't experienced any noticeable side effects. Of most significance, I believe I've earned the right to good coffee. I began my working life at newspapers. The coffee we drank, whether during reasonable hours or while working news or copy at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m., was a burnt tasting, sludgy substance that barely deserved the name. I've paid my dues.

I drink.

5:15 PM