Getting the most caffeine for your bean
In February 2016, highly caffeinated coffee hit the national stage when Death Wish Coffee Company—a small, independent business based in Saratoga Springs, New York, that claims to make “the world’s strongest coffee”—won a 30-second Super Bowl TV spot paid for by Intuit QuickBooks. In the ad, a boatful of Vikings rows on a river of coffee into a man’s mouth, demonstrating how “fiercely caffeinated” this coffee could be. And sales of the coffee skyrocketed.
But Death Wish Coffee isn’t the only highly caffeinated success story of the year. Around the world, different variations of extremely caffeinated coffee, with at least twice the caffeine content of a regular cup, have been popping up at cafes, artisanal roasters, and grocery stores. The buzziest was probably Asskicker coffee at Vicious Coffee in Adelaide, Australia, which is so strong it comes with a warning.
Once you start looking for really, really strong coffee, it’s easy to spot, especially since devotees of these highly caffeinated coffees are all over social media, posting selfies with their caffeinated beverages, almost as a badge of honor to show how hardcore they are. Chief among them is Steven Frith, who runs an Instagram account with the username dwccbiggestfan—as in, Death Wish Coffee Company’s biggest fan. And that’s no exaggeration. In an email to Extra Crispy, Frith raved about the brand’s coffee, which has over twice the caffeine content per fluid ounce than coffee from Starbucks and more than four times the amount of caffeine in Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, according to a study from the Huffington Post. “Not only is this the strongest coffee in the world, in my opinion it’s the best tasting, too. The roast is very dark, bold, rich, and like coffee heaven in your mouth.”
Frith first found out about Death Wish Coffee online, in a search born of frustration with a certain Seattle-based coffee chain. “My wife and I got tired of paying for overpriced coffee and poor customer service,” he explained. “I looked up strong coffee, and that is where I found DWCC.” For Frith, drinking high-caffeine coffee is a practical decision. “I am always on the go and always working,” he wrote.
Walter Jimison, a brand ambassador for Bomb Coffee and nutritionist, drinks the Illinois-based company’s so-called “super caffeinated” coffee for similar reasons. He was first introduced to the coffee, which has twice as much caffeine as a regular cup of coffee, at a fit-expo in Anaheim, California, and has since really fallen for the way it makes him feel. “I love the coffee because it gives me more energy than the traditional cup of coffee,” he said in an email. “I work, go to school, and have my own meal prep business, so I'm up and running 19 hours a day, and I need a coffee that can keep up with me.”
That ability to keep up with a fast-paced lifestyle is part of Bomb Coffee’s selling point. The company is owned by veterans who drew inspiration from their military service. According to co-founder Robert Principato, “When enduring long shifts in the military, it was hard to find a coffee that was able to provide the energy needed to push through the daily grind.” He continued, “Entering back into the civilian world, we wanted to do something we were passionate about: coffee.”
There’s a sense that folks who drink these coffees are hacking their lives, getting the biggest boost of caffeine for the least amount of effort. Living your best life is a big part of Bomb Coffee’s mission. “We believe hard work pays off,” their website screams in all-caps text. “We believe coffee is a way of life.” And it makes sense that folks would want to hack their caffeine intake. There’s something that feels efficient about achieving the same buzz with one cup of super-charged coffee that you would’ve reached after three or four regular cups.
There’s also a sense that you’re hacking your health as you drink this stuff. Since coffee alone is natural with no added sugar, it’s perceived to be healthier than other high-caffeine alternatives like powders or energy drinks. Death Wish Coffee alludes to the health aspect in its product description: “Kick bad habits with something just as strong but 100% natural.” The same holds true with Bomb Coffee. As Principato explained, “Energy drinks help provide more energy but at the cost of poor taste and unnatural ingredients.” Bomb Coffee, with its super-high caffeine content, is meant to be a substitute.
Here’s the thing with caffeine, though. The more you consume, the more you consume, no matter the form. And even though there’s some debate in scientific literature if caffeine is physically addictive in the same way alcohol or cocaine are, there’s no denying the potentially adverse effects of caffeine on the human body. As Lori Chong, a registered dietitian at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, explained to Extra Crispy just this week, “This is definitely one of those substances in which we can say ‘the dose makes the poison.’ Caffeine overdose can be fatal. And unfortunately because of individual tolerance levels, no one can say for sure at what dose you will feel adverse effects.”
If you’re not careful, caffeine can literally kill you, even if it's from coffee beans and not in a synthetic powder. But that rush is part of the appeal, too. One of these brands is literally called Death Wish, after all. And as Frith explained, “I like a coffee with a high caffeine content, because I love the rush, I feel alert, I can get all my work done quicker, and it helps me to stay bigger.”
If you’re really in love with coffee, even the highly caffeinated kind, there’s no such thing as an overdose. “There have been a few times that I drank my coffee a little too quick and was wired,” wrote Frith, “but I never drank too much.”