Many artists have turned to coffee as their drug of choice, including Voltaire, Bach and Beethoven, but the crown for literary-coffee-binging apparently belongs to Honoré de Balzac. The early 19th century French author wrote about his addiction in “The Pleasure and Pains of Coffee,” which may have inspired the rumor that he drank 50 cups of coffee a day, though the essay contains no such figure.
The 50-cups-a-day claim made its way onto the Internet long before Open Culture’s recent blog post or even Flavorwire’s 2011 list of author addictions. You can find it in a brief article in Lapham’s Quarterly from 2010 and on The History Channel’s “This Day in History” for March 19 (though the publication year isn’t noted). These venues might have ultimately sourced the number from a self-published book called Storied Words: The Writer's Vocabulary and Its Origins by Jeff Jeske, which proffered the 50-cup figure back in 2004. But when I contacted Jeske over email, he wasn’t able to point me in the direction of his source.
I looked through Balzac biographies and continued to scavenge Google Books for a primary source, but the fun fact only brewed an online game of telephone. Some claim that he drank “something like” 50 cups a day, “up to” 50 cups a day, “at least” 50 cups a day. None of them seem certain. I found one webpage that estimated 40 cups a days and another said 20 to 40 cups. My web search ended in the strange, dark world of Yahoo! Answers, where one person actually asked if Balzac drank 300 cups of coffee a day. I was no closer to the truth, but I knew one thing: I could use a cup of coffee.
How Large was Each Cup of Coffee That Balzac Drank?
The classic tasse à café (pictured above) came into fashion in the early cafes of 18th century Paris and typically held four or five ounces of coffee — roughly one-third of the 12-ounce cups that Americans today consider “small.” But judging from Balzac’s coffee-making instructions in “The Pleasures and Pains of Coffee,” when he was drinking coffee at its strongest, he was likely drinking from a demitasse (pictured below), the way people typically serve espresso and turkish coffee:
For a while — for a week or two at most — you can obtain the right amount of stimulation with one, then two cups of coffee brewed from beans that have been crushed with gradually increasing force and infused with hot water.
For another week, by decreasing the amount of water used, by pulverizing the coffee even more finely, and by infusing the grounds with cold water, you can continue to obtain the same cerebral power.
Clearly, Balzac liked his coffee as strong as possible, with very little water (when he wasn’t eating the crushed grounds straight). A demitasse is only two or three ounces — one-fourth the size of small American coffees. So if the famous writer was indeed consuming 50 cups of coffee a day, those cups would be equivalent, volume-wise, to only 12 to 13 small American cups of coffee, though that says nothing of their caffeine concentration.
Is It Physically Possible to Drink 50 Cups of Coffee a Day?
The average adult would need to consume 10 grams of caffeine in four to six hours to reach a fatal dosage, according to Jack James, editor in chief of The Journal of Caffeine Research, and the FDA cites a five-ounce cup of coffee as having 60 to 150 milligrams of caffeine. So if Balzac made his coffee as strong as the highest end of the FDA range, he could, in theory, drink 66 cups without fatally overdosing — and that’s not even considering any caffeine tolerance that could develop over time.
Of course, scientists don’t always agree with each other. After conducting two separate case studies, the journal Forensic Science International found that the average fatal caffeine overdose only required an excess of five grams — so Balzac could have overdosed on roughly 33 cups if the drank them in succession.
How Fast Did Balzac Drink Coffee?
It’s likely that Balzac did push himself to physically harmful levels of coffee consumption. In “The Pleasure and Pains of Coffee,” he warns coffee-drinkers of the beverage’s near-fatal potential by relating his own experience:
… you will fall into horrible sweats, suffer feebleness of the nerves, and undergo episodes of severe drowsiness. I don't know what would happen if you kept at it then: a sensible nature counseled me to stop at this point, seeing that immediate death was not otherwise my fate.
And Balzac certainly did like to pound cups of coffee as quickly as possible. In that same essay, he details how to drink coffee when your tolerance has increased:
When you have produced the finest grind with the least water possible, you double the dose by drinking two cups at a time; particularly vigorous constitutions can tolerate three cups. In this manner one can continue working for several more days.
But what else was he to do? Balzac was a hard worker with an unforgiving writing schedule. He describes his own daily routine as such:
I go to bed at six or seven in the evening, like the chickens; I’m waked at one o’clock in the morning, and I work until eight; at eight I sleep again for an hour and a half; then I take a little something, a cup of black coffee, and go back into my harness until four. I receive guests, I take a bath, and I go out, and after dinner I go to bed. I’ll have to lead this life for some months, not to let myself be snowed under by my debts.
Balzac doesn’t cite drinking coffee during his first writing shift, but makes a point to reference it as an essential part of his second shift, from 9:30 A.M. to 4 P.M. (Mind you, he only mentions drinking “a” cup of coffee.) If he drank 50 cups within that second working period, he would have had to consume a cup of coffee every eight minutes for six-and-a-half hours. If he drank half his 50-cup share during each shift, he’d still have to down a cup of coffee every 16 minutes. Even if he drank them three at at time (which he recommends only for those of “particularly vigorous constitutions”), he would still have to take a coffee break every 48 minutes!
So What’s the Deal? Did Balzac Drink 50 Cups of Coffee a Day or Not?
Unfortunately, this all remains conjecture. The closest I’ve come to a reputably sourced figure on Balzac’s coffee consumption has been V. S. Pritchett’s biography, Balzac, which does not confirm the 50-cups-a-day legend, but does estimate a startling lifelong coffee-drinking figure:
He wrote hour after hour and when he flagged and his head seemed to burst, he went to his coffee pot and brewed the strongest coffee he could find, made from the beans of Bourbon, Martinique and Mocha. He was resorting to a slow course of coffee poisoning and it has been estimated that in his life he drank 50,000 cups of it.
Pritchett passed away in 1997, so there’s no way to ask him if he believed the 50-cups-a-day myth was true. Instead, I tried to estimate exactly how many cups of coffee Balzac would have had to consume per day from the age of 20 (roughly the time of his literary beginnings) to hit Pritchett’s 50,000-cup mark. Multiplying 31 years (the total number of years Balzac would have been drinking coffee) by 365 days, then dividing by 50,000 (the total number of cups Pritchett estimates him to have drank during his lifetime), you get roughly four to five cups a day — a figure notably similar to how much Balzac describes one of his characters drinking in his story “Venetian Nights.”
When I asked Ricardo Cortés, author of The Secret History of Coffee, Coca & Cola, whether he believed Balzac drank 50 cups a day, he told me:
Sure, why not? Caffeine doesn't affect me physically, so I'm not sure how to envision the feelings such consumption might create. But I'll bet there are rare cats out there who simply run on the fuel of alkaloids.
However, Graham Robb, who wrote a 1996 biography of Balzac, seemed doubtful:
The number of cups is incalculable since Balzac often had a pot simmering away (contrary to current advice) while he was writing, which was most of the time. And since he wrote like a machine, it's unlikely that he wasted much time pouring and drinking. At one point, though, when he was suffering stomach cramps, he claimed to be drinking only three cups of black coffee a day. This might be taken as the minimum.
So in the end, who knows? According to this book, Voltaire also drank 50 cups of coffee a day. Or 40. Or 50. (Yahoo! Answers is debating 4,000, I’m sure.) Either way, Balzac might not have been the only writer of his time with such a strong taste and stomach for coffee — and he certainly wasn’t the last one either.
How to Make Coffee like Balzac
Things You’ll Need:
A blend of Bourbon, Typica and Mocha coffee beans (or, to make things easier, whole Arabica beans)
A coffee grinder
- Grind the coffee extra fine, until it has a consistency similar to cocoa powder.
Combine the coffee grounds with cold water in your cezve/ibrik, using 2.5 grams of coffee per one ounce of water.
Use a fork to whisk the mixture the way you would beat an egg.
Place the cezve/ibrik pot on low heat and slowly bring it to a boil.
Do not leave it unattended! Stick by your pot, spooning out the froth with a small spoon as it starts to boil.
Wait until the froth reaches the top of your pot, just before it boils over, and remove it from the heat.
Pour into demitasse cups and enjoy.
Freddie Moore is a Brooklyn-based writer. Her full name is Winifred, and her writing has appeared in unFold, The Paris Review Daily and The Huffington Post. As a former cheesemonger, she’s a big-time foodie who knows her cheese.
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