January 24, 2021
The most expensive coffee I am aware of is kopi luwak, also known as civet coffee. Prices for the authentic, natural bean are typically about $1300/kg, and are often sold as brewed cups of coffee for around $80. Kopi luwak is known for its lack of bitterness, despite being fairly high in caffeine content, making it possible to brew for much longer, creating a final drink rich and complex without being overly bitter.
How are civet coffee beans produced, and what makes them cost so much? The secret lies with the raccoon-like Asian palm civet (paradoxurus hermaphroditus), the namesake of this ‘precious’ bean. Wild palm civets are able to hunt for the best quality coffee cherries. During digestion, the “shell” of the coffee cherry is removed by the civet’s intestine, the inner coffee beans ferment, and bitterness is largely removed. The civet then poops out the coffee beans whole, which natives collect and clean, then roast to create the final product.
Hopefully at this point, you are saying to yourself, what the fuck? But it’s worse than you might even be thinking — not only is consuming poop coffee pretty gross as a concept, it is dangerous as well. Civets are known to transfer bat coronaviruses to humans (source). While our current covid-19 pandemic isn’t being linked to civets or civet coffee, the dangers and insanity around the practice certainly feel closer to home.1
To answer why people would even drink civet coffee in the first place, I think it’s perhaps more valuable to ask a simpler question — why are humans so obsessed with coffee, even to the extent that it is worthwhile to extract coffee from literal shit?
The earliest recorded stories accounting for coffee usage aren’t wildly different from the story of civet coffee, in that human coffee consumption is inextricably linked to animal coffee consumption. Moroccan and Ethiopian legends around coffee usage from more than 1000 years ago focus on humans observing animals who consumed coffee, and noting that the animals seemingly experienced great rushes of energy. By witnessing the effects of caffeine on animals, these coffee pioneers decided to try the same plants that the animals selected for themselves (although not via the animal’s poop). Beyond discovery, once coffee bean trade grew rapidly, it became documented in other contexts, such as the Sufis in Yemen using the drink to aid concentration and alertness during nighttime prayer ceremonies.
I digress — my point here is simple, people love coffee because we love caffeine. We want a good, energetic high.
Coffee holds a strange place in our society as the least ‘druggy’ drug I can think of. Consumption of the drink is historically and currently focused around absorbing caffeine into the blood stream. While flavor adjustments (such as those done by civets) are considered valuable, ultimately it is an after-thought. While some people opt for decaf, or decaffeinated, coffee, this is the exception, not the rule. Coffee can be found anywhere: Starbucks alone has 14,624 locations in the US, not to even include smaller coffee shops. Home use is also staggering, with Keurig currently estimated to have a market cap of ~$40B (although to be fair, this value includes other acquired products like Dr. Pepper).2
Despite our clear societal addiction to caffeine, there’s no 12-step program to get off of it. There’s no age restriction for purchase or consumption. Unlike drugs such as marijuana or many psychedelics, where lethal overdose seems to be unattainably high, less than 10g of pure caffeine would kill most people (based on LD50, assumed 70kg human). Some people even die at doses far less than a gram (example).
(To further my point — here’s a study in 2012 recording that over 6000 people died from caffeine in 2011, over a third of which came from energy drink consumption. In contrast, sources that are trying their best to debunk the myth that you cannot die from weed still can only find about 20 deaths or less a year caused by marijuana without other substances also at play. To tangent even deeper… isn’t it wild that many people who get too high on weed think they are going to die, but that actually almost never happens, whereas there are more than 100x more deaths from caffeine and you’d never see it coming??!)
Caffeine that we consume isn’t always even well-sourced; reporters like Murray Carpenter who visit factories in China that Coca-Cola uses for their drinks describe the facilities as “rundown industrial park[s].” Every time you crack open a can of cola, you are probably consuming unregulated drugs made in a sketchy lab overseas (perhaps just like real cocaine!)
For a bit less than a year, I was on antidepressants. These were definitively drugs; I had to get a prescription to pick them up from the drug store. During this time, I would struggle whenever my psychologist or psychiatrist would ask me how the drugs were going — the truth is, I could never tell for certain if it was working. At first, I implicitly and irrationally saw this as a failing of my own. It made me sad. It is easy to feel like you personally are a lost cause when even the prescribed medicine isn’t helping.
More recently, I’ve had a perspective shift. My fluoxetine was perhaps the least perceptible “drug” I’ve ever used. Even after increasing the dose by 6x over the course of my treatment, it proved weaker than aspirin, weaker than tiger balm, weaker than alcohol, weaker than many ‘illicit’ substances, and certainly weaker than caffeine.
Stretching the common definition of what a ‘drug’ is even further, I would argue that my antidepressants had less impact than lactose with my lactose intolerance. It had less effect than a huge meal full of carbs that gives you a “food coma.” If I came into the experience believing that my SSRIs were a party drug, I would have told you that I got a dud. People try to get fake prescriptions to get their hands on substances like marijuana or Adderall, but I cannot fathom someone doing the same for an antidepressant.3
More modern studies may support my personal experience. I’ll let the experts speak for themselves: “Although the early antidepressant trials which included severely ill and hospitalized patients showed substantial drug-placebo differences, these robust differences have not held up in the trials of the past couple of decades.” In other words, antidepressants are increasingly being shown to be as ineffective as taking a pill designed to do nothing at all.
This isn’t to say that antidepressants won’t work for you. Maybe you can also have copious amounts of dairy without farting and stomach grumbles; I only have experience with my own body, and yours probably works differently. However, society demonstrates that we near universally feel the impact of caffeine. Coffee is a ‘good’ drug, and it is reliably effective, to the point that many consume it daily and are addicted. “I can’t start my day without coffee” is a semi-popular sentiment that would be received much differently if ‘coffee’ was swapped with ‘meth’ or ‘LSD.’
To some extent, I think the word ‘drug’ is just an empty term. Deciding what is or is not a drug is more or less just a branding exercise. A cup of “organic tea” will help you focus because it contains caffeine and L-theanine. It’s a cocktail of a psychoactive stimulant and a specific amino acid enantiomer,4 yet somehow that evokes a very different emotion from Uncle Iroh pouring you a cup of jasmine tea.
The double identity of drugs — both as a pejorative and as a neutral substance — can easily be seen when observing active gym goers. People who exercise enough to take nutrition seriously run their diet like a minor chemistry project. It’s a game of planning macronutrients, deciding where to match your expectations for your body (biological) with your expectation for your nutritional (chemical) intake. If needed, you might supplement your diet with chemical isolates, such as protein powder. As far as synthesis goes, many protein powders are derived from whey protein, which is something I have extracted myself as a novice chef in a basic kitchen from plain cow’s milk I buy at Costco for $4. Yet whether this whey protein is in an isolated form, or simply left in the milk, the results of these “supplemental drugs” are the same. The biceps can speak for themselves.
Blurring the lines here is helpful. Life has drugs. Chemicals are in everything, and the way they impact you is unavoidable. To treat the idea as taboo is to potentially be missing out on how to live your best life.
I think youth gives us the false impression that minor chemical changes don’t matter. The most common anecdote I hear comes from anyone who can compare drinking alcohol in college to drinking post-college. Hangovers get worse with age — our bodies seem more in-tune with the minutia, less invincible to every compound thrown our way. The older the person I speak with, the more likely I find that they have a story about how small changes in their diet, sleep, or other inherently biochemical processes have had a positive outsized impact on their life.
Some of the symptoms that Mayo Clinic lists for depression include tiredness, lack of energy, slowed thinking, and trouble concentrating. As if a perfect mirror, Mayo Clinic’s entry for caffeine claims that it is “used as an alertness aid to help you keep awake when you experience drowsiness or unusual tiredness or weakness.” While coffee obviously can’t cure depression, that isn’t really the point. Most people suffering from psychological issues can’t afford to care about the underlying source. If you had, let’s say, cancer, any sane person would recommend removing the cancer, not just treating the symptoms. But depression, mania, and similar issues have no cure. You may have to live with the possibility that this will never go away, that the best you can do is try to alleviate the symptoms and continue on with life from there. There is nothing to remove — your mind is you.
Coffee, despite not solving all symptoms of depression, always works and has a minimal side effect profile. It is a small change to life, but maybe one that matters.
So that leaves the other half of depression’s symptoms: sadness, emptiness, feelings of worthlessness, and the like.
One study ran a survey of psychedelic users, and summarizes that “these experiences were rated as among the most personally meaningful and spiritually significant lifetime experiences, with moderate to strong persisting positive changes in life satisfaction, purpose, and meaning attributed to these experiences.” Another chemistry paper highlights from their research that “acute psychedelic effects are related to decreases in depression/anxiety.”
Conceptually, half the ‘cure’ is out there. It’s just ‘illegal.’
Well, mostly illegal. For the narcs reading this, I’ll have you know — I live near Oakland, where magic mushrooms have been decriminalized, so psychedelics are a legally viable option. I’ve actually heard some funny anecdotes about how the cops will now actually point you to where the mushrooms are being sold if you ask them.
Hamilton’s Pharmacopoeia is a fantastic docuseries, where Hamilton Morris “explores the history, chemistry and societal impacts of some of the world’s most unique drugs.” To summarize one of the show’s broader themes: drugs are present across time, region, and religion, and frequently play an important part of life. Substances like crack and quaaludes have been used as political tools to undermine communities; mushrooms like Amanita muscaria have shaped major religions; it is exceedingly likely that psychoactive compounds played some role in our cognitive evolution, and without them, we may possibly not have tools such as language (some hypothesize we’re just stoned apes).
If drugs play such a role in shaping our own experiences in our bodies as well as our societies at large, it would be complicit to ignore them. Perhaps instead of categorically vilifying or mystifying the idea of what drugs are or what they include, it would be better to come to an acceptance that life inherently involves drugs and chemistry. I’ve come to peace with the fact that part of setting myself up for success for the day might involve measuring out my milligrams of caffeine (and whatever else I decide to try). The remainder of my life will involve some dedication to what I put in my body, how it makes me feel, and finding the most beautiful ways to experience life in spite of feeling depressed.
Now, the real question is: which drugs should I take?
The high heats from roasting should in theory make it safe for end consumption, but those doing the collecting and roasting could be patient zero for another covid wave.↩︎
Which, ironically, also has caffeine in it↩︎
I have met some people that actually do use antidepressants for recreational use by crushing and snorting them, but in my experience that is exceeding rarely.↩︎
Which I’m noting specifically since L-theanine is organically present in tea, but lots of pills or energy drinks will contain both L and D enantiomers↩︎