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Did Honoré de Balzac really drink 50 cups of coffee per day?

Have you ever wondered, during the course of a busy workday, whether you can justify drinking one more coffee? Have you ever fought the urge to visit Starbucks for a third or fourth time this week? Have you ever teetered on the brink of jittery caffeine withdrawal, praying for a banal Zoom meeting to end so you can brew another cup? Well, have no fear, fellow coffee connoisseurs. Some of the brightest minds of all-time have grappled with similar concerns, so we are not alone in our torment.

The extraordinary tale of Honoré de Balzac is particularly enthralling in this regard. A writer, novelist, critic and playwright, Balzac was a titan of 1800s France, encouraging nascent realism to bloom in European literature. A scion of Parisian intellect, Balzac wrote 85 novels during his career, while many other projects were left unfinished. He had to write in such volumes to fund a deeply extravagant lifestyle, as debt collectors and creditors pounded at his door. As such, Balzac worked herculean hours to produce a steady income, and coffee – made from the pulverised beans of Bourbon, Martinique and Mocha – fuelled his manic dalliances through the night.

In fact, Balzac drank so much coffee that it eventually killed him, according to some reports. There was no off switch for Balzac and java, apparently. He never encountered those aforementioned questions of moderation and acquiesced to common sense. Rather, he just brewed another cup. Or, when the effects started to wane late in the day, he simply ate coffee grounds for efficiency. So just remember that next time you feel bad for rerouting via a Costa drive-thru. Balzac never said no to coffee, and we can learn a thing or two from his approach.

What was Balzac’s daily routine? Inside the caffeinated writing schedule of a reckless genius

Balzac lived in Paris, the setting for much of his work, although he also wrote in chateaus around the country, harbouring creative boltholes that have since been transformed into museums. Though he wrote about them a lot, Balzac did not typically frequent the famed Parisian coffeehouses and salons. Instead, he preferred solitude, even while maintaining a tight cohort of associates like Victor Hugo, Frédéric Chopin and Théophile Gautier. Such maestros of the intelligentsia usually visited Balzac at home, rather than in public, but coffee was a constant companion regardless of the setting.

Every day, indeed, Balzac ate a light meal around 5pm then slept until midnight or 1am. Once awake, he slipped into a luxurious robe, prepared a modest breakfast and instantly began draining black coffees. Duly buzzed, Balzac wrote every morning from 1am until 8am, sitting at a basic wooden desk. Following a quick nap, he then resumed work until the aforementioned evening meal, starting the entire cycle anew.

A man of prodigious work ethic, Balzac claimed to have written for 48 hours in one stretch, stoked only by coffee and minuscule power naps. There was a recklessness and eccentricity to this stark raving genius, and interest in his unconventional techniques soon reached critical mass.

A fast writer, Balzac crafted novels at an exceptional pace, churning out bold and complicated ideas to keep his creditors at bay. He was also fiercely self-critical, obsessively splashing ink across his pages and scattering notes all over his prose. Even while his books where being published, Balzac tried to make amendments, much to the chagrin – and economic frustration – of various publishers. Editors often admonished Balzac for the mess he created on the page, with some even attributing the carnage to incurable coffee jitters.

Such meticulousness drove Balzac to despair, while the relentless routine wearied his soul. Aided and abetted by coffee, the great writer drove himself to the brink of nervous exhaustion, experiencing states akin to depression and anxiety. “The days melt in my hands like ice in the sun,” Balzac once wrote. “I’m not living, I’m wearing myself out in a horrible fashion – but whether I die of work or something else, it’s all the same. I’m driven by the terrible demon of work, seeking words out of the silence, ideas out of the night.”

As a prolific writer with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), I find this sentiment eminently relatable. Palpable, even. Writing has always been my outlet from psychological pain, escapism woven into every keyboard, but the inexorable surge of ideas – the merciless need to write – can easily destroy mental equilibrium. I also happen to love black coffee and quiet introspection, so Balzac was definitely my kind of guy. Even if the robe jars slightly with my style.

How coffee, fuel for the intelligentsia, helped Balzac’s creative process

Such was Balzac’s love of coffee, he wrote a detailed homage to the drink – evocatively titled The Pleasures and Pains of Coffee – in the 1830s. A grandiose extract from said essay shows the extent to which Balzac considered coffee an absolute necessity of his creative inspiration:

“Coffee falls into the stomach. Ideas quick-march into motion like battalions of a grand army to its legendary fighting ground, and the battle rages. Memories charge in, bright flags on high; the cavalry of metaphor deploys with a magnificent gallop; the artillery of logic rushes up with clattering wagons and cartridges; on imagination's orders, sharpshooters sight and fire; forms and shapes and characters rear up; the paper is spread with ink – for the nightly labour begins and ends with torrents of this black water, as a battle opens and concludes with black powder."

This motif – coffee as fuel for the intelligentsia, as a fulcrum of revolution – is fairly hackneyed, of course. In the 1600s, for instance, a catholic ban on coffee  theretofore branded ‘the devil’s drink’ – was lifted by Pope Clement, who tried the beverage and found it inspiring. Likewise, during the Boston Tea Party of 1773, coffee became the residue of American insurrection when activists destroyed a shipment of tea – synonymous with British hegemony – in protest at oppressive tax irregularities. Similarly, in the 1780s, key revolutionaries met in the aforementioned Parisian coffeehouses to ferment ideas, eventually fashioning a blueprint for rebellion.

Throughout history, coffee has titillated kings and queens, writers and artists, composers and comedians, politicians, pianists, poets and presidents. Benjamin Franklin was the original coffeeshop loiterer, hosting meetings in Boston and Philadelphia cafés. Ludwig van Beethoven required 60 beans in each cup of coffee. Søren Kierkegaard, meanwhile, filled his cup with sugar, dissolved black coffee into it and gulped the produce down in one chug. Elsewhere, Theodore Roosevelt drank a gallon of coffee per day, while Marcel Proust drank two bowls of coffee with two croissants – and that was it, his entire daily sustenance. Johann Sebastian Bach even wrote an opera about coffee obsession, such was his lust for the dark stuff. Balzac was in august company as a coffee aficionado, then, lending an academic patina to java that survives to this day.

“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 which have been crushed with gradually increasing force and infused with hot water,” wrote Balzac. “For another week, by decreasing the amount of water in the upper receptacle, by pulverising the coffee even more finely, and by infusing with cold water, you can continue to obtain the same cerebral power.

“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. One can continue working this way for several more days. I recommended this way of drinking coffee to a friend of mine, who absolutely wanted to finish a job promised for the next day: he thought he’d been poisoned and took to his bed, which he guarded like a married man.

"Among certain weak natures, coffee produces only a kind of harmless congestion of the mind; instead of feeling animated, these people feel drowsy, and they say that coffee makes them sleep. Such individuals may have the legs of serfs and the stomachs of ostriches, but they are badly equipped for the work of thought.”

Thus, by approximation, we can deduce that coffee was to 1800s writers what Quaaludes were to 1980s Wall Street brokers, or what Adderall is to millennial students – a convenient elixir of focus and performance. I, personally, have derived tremendous creative spark from coffee, enjoying its bewitching mystique. It has certainly catalysed some of my works and ponderings, acting as a reliable companion on cold and rainy days, as life batters at the windows. I know when to stop, however. I know when to put down the grinder and turn off the Nespresso machine. Balzac did not have such a switch, and herculean consumption eventually led to his downfall.

Did Balzac really drink 50 cups of coffee per day? Is that even physically possible?

Nowadays, the internet abounds with Balzacian tales of coffee benders and espresso marathons, but tangible evidence of Honoré’s exploits is hard to find. Balzac never specified the amount of coffee he drank per day, leaving the topic open to ravenous conjecture. Moreover, inherent ambiguities colour the Balzac coffee fable. We do not know the size of cup Balzac used, for instance, nor if he was aided by assistants in preparing such vast quantities of coffee. In modernity, it is too easy to craft a rumour and have it spread like wildfire, so we may never truly know how much coffee Balzac really drank.

Nevertheless, a brilliant meta-analysis by Freddie Moore of The Airship Daily provides the most meticulous approximation available online. “The average adult would need to consume 10 grams of caffeine in four to six hours to reach a fatal dosage,” writes Moore, citing The Journal of Caffeine Research. “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, 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.” 

Moore also ponders the differences between tasse à café mugs, popular in Paris at the time, and demitasse cups, more commonly known as espresso receptacles. Balzac’s ardour for Turkish coffee hints at demitasse being his preferred size, with 50 such cups equating to 150 ounces of coffee – less than 10 Starbucks grande drinks, which is not so impressive after all. Of course, this does not account for the caffeine content of each drink, but there is reason to believe that Balzac’s coffee consumption was a little more normal than commonly conferred.

“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,” explained VS Prichett in his definitive Balzac biography. “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.”

If we divide those 50,000 cups by 12,000 – roughly the number of days Balzac lived as an adult – we reach an average of four or five cups per day, a decidedly ordinary quota. In all likelihood, given the pervasive hoopla, the daily figure was probably more than that, but it is unlikely to have reached 50. Purely from a practical standpoint, Balzac wrote too much to spend all that time grinding, brewing and drinking coffee. A secretary may well have helped in this endeavour, but even then, the much-bandied total seems highly unrealistic.

Did Balzac really die of coffee poisoning? Exploring the realities of caffeine addiction and dependency

Regardless of exact quantities, Balzac certainly drank a lot of coffee, and hearsay holds that he eventually died of caffeine poisoning. In actuality, though, Balzac succumbed to gangrene associated with congestive heart failure in 1850, aged 51. Coffee may have played a role in his demise, riddling his stomach with disease, but Balzac was also an overweight, nocturnal workaholic who suffered severe swelling, ventricular hypertrophy and respiratory problems, contributing to a generally gloomy disposition. Honoré was not a healthy guy, in other words, and his various excesses finally took their toll.

Nevertheless, medical dogma is a little undecided on whether coffee addiction and caffeine poisoning are even real conditions. “Caffeine use is classified as a dependence, not an addiction,” according to Wikipedia. “For a drug to be considered addictive, it must activate the brain’s reward circuit. Caffeine, like addictive drugs, enhances dopamine signalling in the brain, but not enough to activate the brain’s reward circuit like addictive substances such as cocaine, morphine and nicotine.” Moreover, some studies have even found that drinking a certain amount of black coffee can reduce the risk of heart failure, so who really knows?

As deduced from his writings, coffee certainly made Balzac delirious, and it even brought him pain on many occasions. He suffered delusional fits towards the end of his life, and he wrote of reaching points where he knew that, if he continued drinking coffee in a given session, it would have killed him. In the broad scheme of things, then, coffee likely contributed to Balzac’s dénouement, and it undoubtedly exacerbated his discomfort. Whether it actually killed him, though, is another debate entirely, and we do not have enough evidence to make accurate conclusions.

What is the legacy of Honoré de Balzac? And what can we learn from his jittery life?

While his death may inspire debate, we can still learn a lot from Balzac’s life – and more pertinently, from his vice. Despite inspiring elite writers and thinkers such as Charles Dickens and Karl Marx, Balzac is now better known for his chaotic moors than for La Comédie humaine, his magnus opus. Indeed, Balzac has morphed into a contemporary internet legend – a meme, a cautionary tale, a dark footnote in the abyss – that fails to appreciate his true genius.

Somewhere beneath the rumour, conjecture and embellishment, there was a fantastic writer who produced seminal works in prodigious volumes. As such, Balzac himself would likely be miffed at the hoopla engulfing his consumption habits. Ultimately, Balzac was a guy who really liked coffee and appreciated its effects on his creative inclination. Deducing anything more than that from his life involves voluntary leaps of faith, synthesis, triangulation and jumping to conclusions.

If informed of the bizarre interest in his caffeine intake, Balzac would probably have put down his pen, sat back in his chair, smiled wryly above a small cup and knocked back its dreamy contents. Coffee, after all, is what you make it – literally and figuratively. Balzac made a lot of it, without question, but perhaps not as much as lore would have us believe.

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