Katy Guest: A tall skinny latte to go, then we'll crack world peace

It is one of life's most enraging paradoxes that the most stressful ritual of the day, purchasing the morning coffee, has to happen before one has had the morning coffee.

Just the merest sip of a small fresh latte might fortify the consumer to stand in a queuing system that was designed by a (non-British) minion of Satan and then grovel for caffeine from a three-headed Cerberus whose job it is to keep it from us at all costs as some sort of sick joke. Unfortunately, we have to grovel for it in a pre-caffeinated state.

Now, researchers at the University of Bristol have made matters worse, by showing scientifically that the morning coffee high is actually a figment of the imagination: 379 volunteers who valiantly forsook coffee for 16 hours were made no more alert by a caffeine pill than they were by a placebo, they revealed – the buggers. "Coffee doesn't give you a hit" was the headline. But buried at the end was what every heavy caffeine user secretly knows: the first coffee of the day is only a hit in that it temporarily relieves the effects of caffeine withdrawal. In this, coffee is much like cigarettes to a smoker, alcohol to an alcoholic, or heroin to a user. Hardcore coffee drinkers are just the same as any other addicts.

There can be no other explanation for the pathetic scenes that can be witnessed in coffee chains around the world on any weekday morning. Otherwise frugal individuals hand over real paper money for a lukewarm cup of bitter brown stuff that often tastes like sawdust and causes indigestion. All forms of humiliation are endured and expected.

At Upper Crust outlets on station concourses they like to tease the customer by slowly suggesting an upgrade – a muffin, a tasty sandwich, one of their delicious cakes – as the train inexorably approaches the platform and the customer pleads ever more desperately for her coffee fix. Marks & Spencer recently offered a latte for £1, until its tragic customers realised that they'd rather spend £1.95 in the efficient Pret A Manger over the road.

In this office there is a Byzantine double-queuing system, with coffee-retrieval rules so complex that they can only be understood by anyone with a degree in pure mathematics and have been known to make grown newspapermen weep.

If it were made this difficult for tea drinkers to buy a cuppa, they'd just wander off for a tin of pop instead. Only the tragic coffee addict is hopelessly entrapped enough to play the game.

I know coffee drinkers who concoct the most transparent excuses to get them near to their chosen drug. One otherwise active relative can't go shopping without needing "a little sit down" (in a coffee shop) every half an hour – much like the smoker who has to get out and "stretch the legs" (and the lungs) on long car journeys. Some of these people have the pre-coffee detoxification tremors worse than any alcoholic's.

Curiously, though, many of these people can also go whole weekends without coffee and not even think about it. And in this, the Bristol scientists are certainly right: the coffee hit is a construction of the mind. The morning commute makes a person need a coffee. The sight of all those other commuters manically sucking up their coffees makes a person need a coffee. And the torment of the coffee queue particularly makes a person need a coffee.

Caffeine, like any addiction, is a self-fulfilling prophecy, surrounded by rituals more complicated than even the addict understands. Just don't try to tell them that before they've had their morning coffee.

Comments