Was Balzac’s Coffee Consumption Really That Impressive?

drawing of balzac in giant cup of coffee

A few months back, my friend Anna sent us a print of a quote/paraphrasing from Honoré de Balzac’s essay “The Pleasure and Pains of Coffee”:

balzac coffee quote print

Honestly, I might not have ever said that I was in the market for visual reminders of how wonderful coffee is. I am one of those people whose coffee consumption habits often toe the line between “enthusiastic” and “problematic.”

hand drawn chart enthusiastic vs problematic

But the print is really nice to have hanging on the cabinet above our coffee grinder, and the 5-pound bag of coffee beans that we manage to go through every month, with one person who drinks *one* strong 10-ounce pourover every day, and the other person being … me.

5 pound bag of black coffee

Balzac, you could argue, is the patron saint of coffee-drinking writers, and his habits have become legend. He worked 12- to 15-hour days, writing from midnight into the morning, sleeping in the evenings. The amount of writing he produced in his 51 years of life can be quantified: his masterpiece, La Comédie humaine, consists of 91 novels, stories, and essays, and he died before finishing the remaining 46 volumes he had planned.

The quantity of coffee he drank, however, is not as easy to nail down. Look around the internet and you’ll find dozens of references to his drinking “50 cups of coffee per day,” or more conservative references to “20 to 40 cups per day.” His literary output, especially considering it was all handwritten, is absolutely insane, evidence of a person obsessed with one thing, and who dedicated almost all their waking hours (incidentally, usually from midnight to 8 or 9 a.m.) to their craft. And then of course, died young, no doubt partly because of that obsession.

The “50 cups a day” number, however, hasn’t ever really been corroborated. Writer Freddie Moore thoroughly investigated the claim in 2014 and found that it was something of an internet legend, often repeated, but somehow evading an actual source. Moore even tackles the question “wouldn’t he have overdosed on caffeine?” (Answer: No. Or, “possibly.”)

drawing of 50 coffee cups

So from a caffeine standpoint, he would likely have been OK. Moore also addresses the fact that Balzac probably wasn’t drinking what is often considered a “cup of coffee,” (6-12 ounces), but something more like espresso, or Turkish coffee. Which would amount to a lot of caffeine, but fewer trips to the restroom interrupting his writing.

Because 50 cups of coffee, even if we’re talking the lower end of what constitutes a “cup,” 6 ounces, is still 300 ounces of coffee, or 2.34 gallons of coffee.

hand-drawn one-gallon jugs of coffee

Making that much coffee alone would have taken a chunk out of Balzac’s day, not to mention the number of times he’d have to pee.

So maybe he didn’t drink 50 cups of coffee a day. But what about this number: Balzac drank 50,000 cups of coffee in his lifetime.

“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.”
—from Balzac, by V.S. Pritchett

“He wrote until dawn, sustained by numerous cups of coffee (it is estimated that during his lifetime he drank some 50,000 cups).”
—from The Literary 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Novelists, Playwrights, and Poets of All Time, by Daniel S. Burt

“Balzac’s spirit for living needed no other vice than gluttony, women, and the 50,000 cups of coffee that killed him in the end.”
—from This I Believe: An A to Z of a Life by Carlos Fuentes

“Balzac, who drank some 50,000 cups in his lifetime and insisted on making his own special brew, is said to have ground his coffee fresh for each cup from a grinder nailed to his desk.”
—Moira Hodgson, “Convivial Coffee,” The New York Times, Oct. 25, 1981

50,000 cups of coffee in a lifetime—is that a lot? Say you started drinking coffee at age 18, and like Balzac, you died at age 51, and you drank 50,000 cups of coffee in your lifetime. That’s:

handwritten math on notebook page

Which doesn’t seem like that big of a deal. However: a few mentions of the 50,000 number say that Balzac drank that much coffee during the writing of La Comédie Humaine, which took 20 years.

“During his creation of his masterpiece La Comédie Humaine (The Human Comedy, 1827-47), according to his records, he drank exactly 50,000 cups of special blend coffee: bourbon-martinique-moka.”
—from Coffee, The Revolutionary Drink for Pleasure and Health, Roseane M. Santos, MSc, PhD and Darcy R. Lima, MD, PhD

Which is a bit more impressive.

hand-drawn math on notebook page

Which doesn’t sound like that much if you’re looking at a standard coffee maker carafe nowadays:

drawing of coffee maker carafe

But as previously discussed, Balzac’s “cups” were likely extremely strong, more like espresso or Turkish coffee, which are on the far end of a spectrum of brew strength from the stuff most people make in contemporary coffee makers.

So maybe we should consider how much coffee he was consuming by weight of the actual grounds, not after water had been added to it.

7 turkish coffee cups

Most Turkish coffee recipes call for 7 or 8 grams per cup, so on the low end (7g), we could assume Balzac was consuming 47.95 grams of coffee per day for 20 years.

That’s 17,501.75 grams per year. Or 17.5 kilograms per year.

drawing of 17.5 1-kg kettlebells

Or 38.58 pounds per year. Which seems like a lot of coffee, because it is a lot of coffee. But is it a superhuman amount of coffee?

During the pandemic, when we never leave the house and have been the sole drinkers of all coffee made in our house, my wife and I consistently go through just over 5 pounds of coffee per month, which is 60 pounds per year, or 30 pounds per person. (or 13.6 kg per person). That’s if we split it 50/50, which we do not.

In the U.S., where the average person consumes just under 5 kg of coffee per year, our coffee drinking is exceptional. In Finland, where the average resident consumes 12 kg of coffee per year, we’d be slightly above average. Balzac would impress the average Finlander, but probably not cause anyone to say, “HOLY FUCKING SHIT THAT’S AN INCREDIBLE AMOUNT OF COFFEE.”

In a very unscientific survey, I asked a couple friends who love coffee about their consumption habits, and got answers like “I drink 4-6 cups a day,” or “I drink 3 big cups of coffee a day,” and this much more specific answer from Anna:

text message screenshot

This is obviously a lot of math to do just to say “50,000 cups in a lifetime? Not that impressive.” For sure, it’s a lot of coffee, and no doubt in 19th-century France it was probably quite impressive, especially considering Balzac was hand-grinding it and making it himself, not just pushing a couple buttons on a coffee maker.

But as far as being superhuman? Few people have actually even read the entire 91-volume La Comédie Humaine, let alone written something of that scope. By hand. That’s superhero-level stuff.

OK, 50,000 cups of coffee is still a lot. But, I would argue, much more attainable than we’ve made it out to be. Not that I am trying. Or that any of my friends are.

My new book, I Hate Running and You Can Too, is available now.

—Brendan

I Hate Running and You Can Too book by Brendan Leonard

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