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Five Lies You’ve Been Told About Coffee

Does Starbucks deliberately misspell your name? And can you really make coffee from shit? Let’s find out the truth.

The world is full of lies, and it’s hard to get through life without taking a few on board. Luckily, we’re here to sort the fact from the fiction, and find the plankton of truth in the ocean of bullshit. This week: Coffee! Why does McDonald’s make it so goddamned hot? And will shoving it up your ass cure cancer? Let’s grind down some common coffee myths and legends.

Lie #1: “Hey, This Coffee Really Has a Kick to It!”

Is it coffee? Or is it something a little stronger? Earlier this year, Italian authorities found 130 grams of cocaine hidden inside coffee beans. The coffee was in a package addressed to a name that customs officials recognized: Santino D’Antonio.

Santino D’Antonio is, of course, the baddie in John Wick: Chapter Two, played by Riccardo Scamarcio. He’s the Italian guy with the curly hair who John Wick ends up shooting in the head in the Continental Hotel. One of the customs officers was clearly a Keanu Reeves enthusiast — who isn’t? — and suspected something was amiss.

Coffee has been used by smugglers quite a lot, with varying degrees of success — while the strong smell of coffee overpowers pretty much any other odor for humans, sniffer dogs can get through it and find what it’s hiding. In the 1990s, coffee shipments from Colombia were regularly used to get coke to the U.S., with Jose Cardenas, president of Colombia’s Federation of Coffee Growers, lamenting after one bust, “We have worked hard to keep cocaine from tarnishing the image of our coffee. This is a very unfortunate event.”

It’s not all bad news for the Italians who were eagerly awaiting Santino D’Antonio’s delivery, though: They can still get messed up using coffee. Italians prefer a small but potent espresso to the kind of coffee Americans drink, which they term secchi di caffè, or “buckets of coffee.” One popular way of serving espresso is with a shot of sambuca. This is known as caffè corretto, or “corrected coffee,” and is particularly popular with older people as a morning pick-me-up — surprising, really, given that it’s pretty much a classier version of a vodka and Red Bull. Breakfast drinking is going through a bit of a reappraisal at the moment (millions of people working from home’ll do that), so a resurgence in caffè corretto’s popularity seems fairly inevitable. 

Five or six boozy espressos with breakfast, and who needs drugs?

Lie #2: “Starbucks Always Spells Your Name Wrong!”

Not if you’re in the CIA. There’s a branch of Starbucks in Langley, the CIA headquarters, where for security reasons no names are written down. Initially it operated like any other branch, but as a food services operator told the Washington Post, “giving any name at all was making people — you know, the undercover agents — feel very uncomfortable. It just didn’t work for this location.”

Every so often there is a rumor that other Starbucks deliberately spell people’s names wrong so as to get more social media traction — people Instagramming their misspelled cups in delight, and so on. That would be an extraordinarily odd policy for a corporate giant like Starbucks to adopt. If you stood up in a meeting with the bosses and said, “You know what our USP should be? Illiteracy!” they’d politely ask you to get your things, leave and never return.

There are so, so many more plausible reasons that a barista might get your name wrong. Coffee shops are loud, with music, chatter and people banging all kinds of shit about. A shift is long, and getting people’s names right is only one element of the job. Plus, it’s the element it’s most acceptable to half-ass — if you get the order wrong, fuck up the money or just make a really bad coffee, there’ll be much more fallout than writing “Greg” instead of “Craig.” And, you know, maybe you have a stupid-ass name. If you’re called Oaklyn, Kashton or Paisleigh, you can’t reasonably get outraged if a stranger in a loud store struggles to nail it. 

Lie #3: “This Coffee Smells Like Shit!”

It is shit. Or, it is if you’re drinking kopi luwak, one of the most expensive coffees in the world. It’s made from coffee beans that have been eaten, partly digested and shitted out by civets — vaguely polecat-like tropical mammals. 

It’s, apparently, delicious — you can pay $80 a cup for this crap! However, what started as a lucrative byproduct of wild civets feasting on beans has become an industry, leading to civets being kept in inhumane, tiny cages and force-fed an unbalanced, all-coffee diet. A paper in the journal Animal Welfare looked at the conditions the creatures were kept in on Indonesian civet farms, and it made for a bleak read. 

It kind of sucks to be a civet, to be honest. Sure, you’re cute as a button, but if you dodge being kept in a tiny cage and farmed for your shit, you might have your musk glands scraped out in order to make perfume (the original formula for Chanel No. 5 included civet musk), or be sold for meat. And the original SARS outbreak in 2003 — the one that seems kind of cute in hindsight — got from bats to humans via civets eaten as meat

So either way, their existence is pretty shitty.

Lie #4: How Did the Hipster Burn His Mouth? He Drank His Coffee Before It Was Cool!

It’s a funny joke, because a man is hurt! He thought the drink would bring him happiness, but it didn’t! He is sad now! Ha ha ha! The thing is, the joke suggests that everyone who isn’t the stupid hipster waits to drink their coffee cool, because they want a cool drink. But they don’t want a cool drink. They want a hot drink. 

People like hot drinks, but don’t enjoy being burned. It’s a real conundrum. As a paper published in the journal Burns puts it, “Hot beverages must be served at a temperature that is high enough to provide a satisfactory sensation to the consumer.” The issue is finding the balance between “limiting the potential scald burn hazard and maintaining an acceptable perception of adequate product warmth.”

Coffee brews best when made with water just below boiling, around 205 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s way, way too hot to drink — even at 190 degrees, a coffee will burn human flesh to the extent that skin grafts are necessary. That same Burns paper concluded that most people preferred their coffee served between 125 and 155 degrees, a temperature that still feels satisfyingly hot but isn’t going to send anyone to the emergency room. Luckily, the coffee-making process provides several opportunities for it to cool — the time it’s given to steep, being poured into a cooler cup, the addition of things like milk and so on.

But not necessarily if you’re churning out industrial quantities of the stuff. There was a famous lawsuit in the 1990s, Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants, in which a 79-year-old woman sued McDonald’s because the coffee she had bought, and spilled, was too hot. Thanks to some very good PR by the chain, it was widely seen as a ridiculous suit — a sign of how crazily litigious the U.S. had become, and how everyone was desperate to sue themselves rich. People thought the litigant was driving at the time of the spill, which she wasn’t, and that she was unharmed and just out to make a buck, which also wasn’t true — she required skin grafts for third-degree burns and was permanently disfigured by the incident, plus only took it to a lawsuit after McDonald’s offered her what she saw as an insulting $800 sum.

McDonald’s were selling their coffee at completely bonkers temperatures — an undrinkably hot 190 degrees, close to boiling point and guaranteed to burn any human flesh it came into contact with (but also guaranteed to keep it fresh in the store longer, a money-saving move). They still do, just with a cardboard sleeve for the cup and a bit of a lip on the lid.

So perhaps the hipster in the joke didn’t expect his coffee to be so volcanically fucking hot. Maybe he normally makes coffee at home at sensible temperatures and was just late and wanted a cheap drink, and doesn’t go to McDonald’s much so wasn’t ready for a completely destroyed mouth. The man is hurt, leave him alone.

Lie #5: Coffee Enemas Cure Cancer

No, they don’t. They fucking, fucking, fucking, fucking, fucking, fucking don’t. There are various “alternative therapies,” like Gerson Therapy, Kelley Therapy and the Gonzalez regimen, which claim to be able to treat cancer through a combination of a strictly controlled diet and frequent enemas. This is a dangerous lie, not only offering false hope to seriously ill people, but putting them at risk.

The treatment was developed in the 1920s by Max Gerson, who claimed he used it to cure 50 people of cancer. His claim was investigated by the National Cancer Institute, which found no evidence at all that it worked. Gerson’s theory was that cancer was a disease of the whole body rather than localized to where it showed up, and that it could be cured metabolically. He claimed that a vegetable-heavy, low-sodium diet and regular coffee enemas would increase the body’s production of bile, which would in turn lead to more efficient ridding of “toxins.” It’s nonsense. 

Building on Gerson’s work — which was, again, nonsense — William Kelley’s “non-specific metabolic therapy” added the element of prayer. Bullitt star Steve McQueen was one of Kelley’s clients, and when he was being treated in Mexico, the press falsely reported he was in remission. Kelley became famous. McQueen died from the cancer Kelley didn’t cure him of. The Gonzalez regimen is a slightly more high-tech one involving chemical hair analysis, but otherwise basically the same: Veg in the mouth, coffee in the ass, cancer unaffected, dead.

The Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center phrases it simply: “Metabolic therapies do not treat or cure cancer.” However, too many people are still drawn to them. Perhaps out of a wish to take control over their illness, they’re convinced to forgo medical treatment in favor of buying a branded enema bucket (Gwyneth Paltrow’s company Goop briefly sold $135 coffee enema kits) or checking themselves into expensive treatment facilities. The late health educator William T. Jarvis, a long-standing critic of alternative therapies, wrote of a 24-year-old with testicular cancer given a 90 percent chance of survival with medical treatment. He opted for the “natural” treatment of the Gerson regime, and died at 26. Writer Jessica Ainscough, known as “the wellness warrior,” turned down conventional treatment in favor of the Gerson regime, and died at 30. 

People following these therapies also end up dying before their cancer can kill them. Side effects include bowel perforations, seizures, diarrhea, water intoxication, electrolyte imbalance and sepsis. According to The Gerson Primer, a book distributed to patients staying at the Gerson Society’s facility in Tijuana, the “detoxification” process may cause flu-like feelings, loss of appetite, perspiration with strong odor, weakness, dizziness, cold sores, fever blisters, swollen joints, high fever, intestinal cramping, diarrhea and vomiting.

The people pushing these therapies are at best misguided, and at worst exploiting the vulnerabilities of the seriously ill. If you’re one of these people, you can take your coffee enemas and shove them up your — hang on, no, don’t shove them up anyone’s anything.