Matteo Aquila - Authormatteo.firstname.lastname@example.org
My Andersson - Illustratormy.email@example.com
When I was a child, I thought coffee had magic powers. Now that I am a student, I really wish it did.
Growing up, I always attributed a mystical aura to the hot dark drink; it was a forbidden beverage for me (since, you know, giving caffeine to little screaming chaos harbingers is luckily something we decided to avoid as a society), and it represented the mysterious adult world. With age, coffee started to get slowly introduced into my diet, first as an alternative to cocoa in milk and then as a drink in its own right. Maybe it was there and then, in front of the first coffee shot of my own, that I discovered one of the basic truths of the universe: life is bitter. You may think I am just recycling an overused figure of speech here, but now imagine Little Me, a teenager somewhere in Northern Italy, raised by parents who to this day still don’t put any sugar in their espressos (deranged people), getting introduced to the darkest, shortest coffee. Children reject bitterness, that’s what biology tells us, ask our colleagues at KI.
Choosing to get dark coffee only, for a whole lifetime, is just one of the many diverse statements that I slowly began to categorise as “coffee culture”. Of course, as it is true for all the most popular things, everyone tends to have a different opinion on them; coffee, being the second most consumed beverage in the world, is not an exception. It is truly a never-ending discovery trip through tastes, textures, mugs, and machines.
My personal journey with coffee has been a bumpy one: as I said, it was not love at first sight. However, as I got older and my caffeine sensitivity grew in inverse proportion to my available energy, I have started to appreciate its effects despite its flavour. I am going to say something controversial out loud though: it still bugs me that I have to drink coffee and suffer just to… stay awake. How people accept this as an indisputable fact still feels like madness.
Coming to Sweden hasn’t helped me to find any answers to my doubts: cultural shock just added to it. In Italy our standard coffee is called "espresso", a word which literally means “express, fast, quick”; as in, you just drink it as a shot and go about your day. Here, instead, fika is an investment. First and foremost, in time: the coffee is long and really hot, fikabröd is usually heavy loaded with butter and therefore physically stops you from binge-eating, lest a quick obstruction of your arteries. Interesting yet light conversation is also essential. And then, there’s money; good coffee is expensive, there’s no denying it. Even though there are more pocket-emptying addictions, coffee's impact on your budget is probably something you want to consider.
I must be honest though; this is just based on my personal impressions. As we’re talking about judging the return on an investment and as a member of a technical university, you know this is something I cannot accept. It’s time to do some useless research! Join me in this exploration of coffee culture, coffee impact and, most likely, coffee weirdness as I venture asking for opinions to the most relaxed, absolutely-not-coffee-dependent category I know: university students.
I started with the basic strategy for getting opinions: share a questionnaire. Writing it was a challenge by itself; how do you sound funny without offending the caffeine-fuelled egos of this kind of audience? Luckily, my friends did not show any signs of wanting to beat me when I implied they weren’t sleeping enough. Maybe that’s because they proved me to be wrong! A good 65% of people interviewed reportedly sleep for at least 7 hours per night, the generally recommended minimum for university students! Good for you, keeping that healthy schedule despite assignments and general university chaos. And to those who are short on dreaming-hours: console yourself by knowing that research in Taiwan found that university students drinking tea are more likely to sleep less and worse than coffee drinking ones! So, at least the fault for your missing sleep is not to be given to your choice in hot beverages.
Another question I was super curious to hear about was: how many “coffee moments” do you have per day? I recently increased my own daily mug count to a staggering two, unheard of before I arrived in Sweden. Maybe it’s the Scandinavian air, or maybe it’s standard KTH evolution. Statistics seem to suggest that to arrive at my final form (Person with Master®️) I may have to increase that to at least three, since that’s the most popular option throughout my population sample. I’m in awe of incredible answers reaching to astonishing numbers of five or six (!!!) espresso shots per day. This is such a Swedish answer that I couldn’t fake it if I tried. The rest of Europe seems to be more moderate in their caffeine consumption: average number of emptied coffee mugs seems to be around two according to some papers, confirming the results of our own inquiry (that’s what I call professionalism!).
And now, since we were talking about investments, comes the hard part: budget. First thing first, I was surprised by the amount of free coffee that university students can find, apparently without even trying that much. We’re attracted to it like trees in the desert. Anyhow, our research suggests that the average student spends about 40 SEK per day in fika, sometimes with food and sometimes on coffee alone. Making some brief calculations and assuming that one consumes the same amount of coffee every day of the week, that would amount to 1200 SEK per month. Is it way too much? Is it surprisingly low? Let’s make a few comparisons: the same monetary value is attributed to two months of public transport in Stockholm, or a warm parka for windy days, or 10 months of Netflix, or 10 buffet lunches inside KTH. Some of these things may be more vital than others, but how do they compare to coffee? Would a life without coffee be better or worse?
For the first few days it may be much much worse: caffeine addiction is real! And it gives withdrawal symptoms! Sure, it’s rare, but now I have developed a new fear. Ignoring collateral symptoms though, it looks like the positive effects of coffee are also very real; at least that’s the conclusion I’m coming to after talking with loads of people about the topic in the past few weeks and after reading the answers to the questionnaire. However, I have to admit that said effects are not exactly what I expected.
I drink coffee with one single goal: to help me study better. After many hours of mad and most desperate studies, a cup of coffee gives me renewed energy to continue until needed and improves my ability to focus by keeping me alert and active. Therefore my personal idea, based only on my experience, was that coffee had some sort of impact on my focus, my mental readiness and in general my capability to perform better. When talking to others though, the truth on expectations on coffee seems to be quite different: students drink coffee because it makes their days happier. How? The act itself of drinking coffee apparently has the biggest impact! Using it as a routine to briefly escape from the harshness of the real adult world, as an excuse to chat with friends and colleagues, as a reminder to breathe and relax for even just a moment, the quick sip of an espresso; all of those are cited most often as the actual reasons for getting coffee. And that’s despite some of the physiological effects of caffeine on human bodies: shakiness, nervousness and general anxiety. These effects are not unknown to those I interviewed, and they recognise that coffee is a direct cause of those reactions. Nevertheless, they all keep coming back to the ritual of coffee, because its main consequence is providing happiness and nothing beats that.
I know, what a bore. Coffee is good because… it makes you happy? Not even fairy tales have endings this stereotypical! If we take a new look at our original question though, things get interesting… Is coffee a good investment? Let’s break it down.
Is coffee good for your wallet? The answer is simply no; buying coffee in shops every day may seem like a small innocuous expense at first but quickly adds up in the long term. Of course, drinking homemade coffee at home helps to really cut the cost down, but usually the time of need is outside, while working; carrying a coffee maker in your backpack is not a comfortable experience.
Is fika worthy of your time? I’d say yes! When done with friends and colleagues it really helps to bond and sometimes can even get productive, like it or not. And if you’re alone, people seem to enjoy that as relaxing me-time, something that frenetic college life can often deprive us of.
Does coffee help with studying? By account of what people told me: not really. Students don’t often feel the positive effect of caffeine when in need of focus and attention: they use it just as an escamotage to stay awake, therefore kinda “cheating” on the real problem, which is need for more time and sometimes sleep. Furthermore, caffeine can have physical effects that actually get in the way of successful work.
However, is coffee good for your happiness? The verdict is overwhelmingly positive! An alternative title for this article may as well be: “People want coffee for the vibez”. The beverage is linked to warmth, relaxation, friendship and for this reason can become a true turning point in your day. While writing this article I realised that comparing “espresso” to fika is a very bad way to approach this point; I’ve come to the conclusion that the actual Italian sister of fika is actually “aperitivo”. Going out for an “aperitivo” means meeting with friends before dinner to have drinks and snacks together, catch up with each other and generally have a good time. Does that sound familiar? It has its pain points too: usually it’s alcohol based (Aperol Spritz, anyone?) with consequent health concerns, often expensive, always long and time consuming. But it’s a social ritual and it gives quite the happiness boost. During COVID lockdowns, people were so desperate to get that experience back that they had aperitivo with friends on videocall!
To conclude: is fika a good investment? You do you. Just keep in mind that it’s not “just coffee”: a whole world hides behind it and asking people about how they feel about it can actually be a very effective conversation starter.