American University junior Hillary Tolson follows a strict routine: two cups of coffee every day, always a regular and a latte. And she’ll only get them from two places: Einstein Bros. Bagels on campus or a nearby Starbucks. Surely there’s a science to her choosiness.
“The cups look nice,” she says. “At Davenport (Lounge on campus) they have that plain white Styrofoam. You don’t want that. ”
Young adults like Tolson form the fastest-growing segment of coffee drinkers in the country as they come for the caffeine and stay for the cool factor, or vice versa. Coffee consumption in the 18- to 24-year-old age group is expanding like none other, jumping by more than 18 percent in 2005, according to a National Coffee Association survey.
This trend is clear on the American campus in Washington, where students now can choose coffee from eight locations – nine when fair-trade-only Pura Vida opens in January, along with four Starbucks stores within walking distance.
Coffee has made a resurgence overall in the last decade after struggling for much of the latter half of the 20th century.
Its comeback came in the 1990s when a new generation of coffeehouses, with their inviting couches and diverse menus, sprung up across the country. Like they were London and Vienna of the 17th century, coffeehouses reign once again as social hot spots.
They also answer the needs of college students. As they find new work loads and social demands, they want ways to stay awake and places to hang out.
That’s obvious at American. Students can connect to the Internet or curl up on the L-shaped couch at the sleek-looking Megabytes Cafe. At the student-run Davenport Lounge in the School of International Service building, people play chess amidst bookshelves lined with old copies of National Geographic and the latest issues of The Economist. There’s even a new coffee place in the library basement ,”The Mud Box,” where they can indulge in macchiatos, croissants and reserve readings.
Students recognize what they’re latching on to: If it’s from the right place, coffee can be cool.
“When I have coffee, I want to enjoy it,” says junior Cyril Ngoua, holding a macchiato at Megabytes Cafe. “McDonald’s, 7-Eleven ,don’t touch that stuff, man.”
So students are looking for a quality cup of coffee in an appealing package. The NCA’s report backs this up. The most popular choices among the college-age crowd are specialty concoctions, such as iced and espresso drinks.
But for Tolson, it’s more than just what’s in her cup, emblazoned with the green mermaid stamp of Starbucks approval, of course. Who cares about the beverage when there’s the ambiance of the coffeehouse?
“Oh my God, the music,” she says of the Starbucks experience. “That’s a whole part of being here. I feel so sophisticated. It’s that jazzy music.”
Sophisticated, yes, but bourgeois, maybe not. After all, coffeehouses have long been centers of dissent and revolution. They were banned in 16th century Mecca, England’s Charles II issued a proclamation against them a hundred years later, and in the 1960s, the U.S Army campaigned against coffeehouses for supposedly fomenting anti-Vietnam War activities.
Controversy, coffeehouses and college seem to go hand in hand. The Davenport Lounge is especially fit for the role. The dimly lit corner in the same building where classes discuss the European Union and the Iraq insurgency seems designed to provoke thought. There’s literature on current affairs, Oregon Chai (“It’s Vegantastic!!!” reads a handmade sign) and big sofas, which are always occupied with people sipping fair-trade brews.
“This is just an open forum where people come to discuss politics and classes,” says senior Corinne St. Angelo, who has worked at Davenport for three years. “There are couches and magazines. We get students and professors here.”
But the same drink that spread waves of fear among European monarchs is now spreading concern among scientists because of caffeine’s impact on health.
Coffee doesn’t have to be bad, but it does have to be consumed responsibly, says American psychology professor Laura Juliano. She coauthored a study on caffeine dependence and found that all it takes to get hooked on the stuff is 100 milligrams a day – the amount contained in a regular cup of coffee.
“If you rarely use caffeine, it can be quite a remarkable drug,” Juliano said. “Say if you didn’t get enough sleep or you had a long drive _ that’s when it does its best work. It becomes a problem when you use it all the time. You’ll be worse off than if you never had it all.”
Juliano is familiar with students coming to her morning lectures with coffee in hand. But the most she can do is gives words of caution.
“I’m not going to pass judgment,” she said. “I’ve probably got a cup in class sometimes.”