Will java now come with jolt warning?

Attention thrill-seeking, shot-chugging espresso junkies: the Starbucks caffeine police are issuing speeding tickets.

Or at least a warning, as Marshall Adams found out at the North Huntingdon Starbucks drive-through a week ago Sunday.

"I drove up to the booth to redeem a free large caramel macchiato with eight shots of espresso so I could share it with my wife," Mr. Adams said. "The barista then told me she was required to warn customers who order drinks with more than six shots, and she wasn't kidding."

Recent controversy has been foaming around the health risks of caffeine energy supplements -- the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is investigating reports of 13 deaths possibly linked to the supplements -- and in a letter to the FDA on March 19, a group of medical professionals expressed doubts that high-caffeine energy drinks were safe for young people, based on scientific evidence.

So, has Starbucks -- which is widely credited with hooking Americans on cappuccino, lattes and other strong, European-style coffee drinks -- decided that the public needs to be warned about the risks of ordering more than six shots of espresso?

This is a company that takes positions on all sorts of issues of the day, priding itself on its transparency -- its website will tell you how Starbucks stands on the Affordable Care Act, climate change, recycling, farmer support, and youth leadership and diversity. Its CEO, Howard Schultz, has come out in favor of gay marriage.

But the risks of too much caffeine? The company never responded to requests for comment.

Still, "eight shots of caffeine is a lot," said Ric Rhinehart, executive director of the Specialty Coffee Association of America -- whose members include Starbucks.

Three cups of coffee a day, with caffeine levels between 100 and 250 milligrams each, are considered perfectly safe for most people, he said. But "eight shots is nearly 1,000 milligrams of caffeine, and you're starting to get into a range where if you bolted that down you could end up feeling pretty sick".

"You can't legislate stupid," he continued. "If someone is dumb enough to chug half a dozen energy drinks, we can't stop that. We can't outlaw people stepping in front of buses, either."

Caffeine increases levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that activates pleasure centers in certain parts of the brain -- much like heroin -- making you feel alert.

Sam Patti, owner of La Prima Espresso Co. in the Strip District, said he'd never had anyone come in ordering eight shots in a cup.

"I have heard of people ordering five shots of espresso," he said. "This is America. People want more of everything these days."

And the market is responding: a coffee roaster in upstate New York has created "Death Wish Coffee," with 520 milligrams of caffeine per cup, compared with the average 260 milligrams in a 12-ounce cup of Starbucks coffee.

An espresso roast actually has less caffeine in it than regular coffee, Mr. Patti said.

Caffeine is an oil, and when the roast is dark, the caffeine is extruded -- which is why espresso beans look oily. It's entirely possible, he speculated, that Starbucks, known for its dark roasts, has less caffeine in its espresso.

Specialty coffee chains tend to use arabica beans, which are more expensive, richer tasting and with half the amount of caffeine as cheaper robusta beans, used in supermarket and institutional coffee.

At The Coffee Tree Roasters, which just opened its sixth store in the region, in Pleasant Hills, 8 ounces of ground coffee are brewed per gallon of water vs. about 2.75 ounces per gallon for institutional coffee.

Customers seeking extra espresso might ask for "a shot in the dark," in barista parlance, "but I don't think I've ever heard of anyone asking for eight shots," said Coffee Tree co-owner Bill Swoope Jr.

What if someone did ask?

"We probably wouldn't say anything, although I certainly wouldn't serve it to a 10-year-old," he said.

On second thought, "I've actually done more than that in a tasting," Mr. Swoope recalled. When doing a large "cupping" -- sampling different roasts of coffee to purchase -- "I spit out the coffee, but since caffeine is absorbed in your mucus membranes, I really get the jitters."

Crazy Mocha Coffee Co. owner Ken Zeff doesn't drink coffee -- "I've never tasted it in my life," he says -- but he said his local coffee chain has had some people coming in asking for six extra shots. "We even thought about selling a coffee with extra shots called the 'Al Capone: Sure to Kill You.' "

And one time he was recalibrating an espresso machine when a young, thrill-seeking barista took a cup with 16 shots in it and, on a dare, drank it. "He got really sick. He was young. What can I say?"

But at 21st Street Coffee, where trained baristas carefully craft pour-overs with high-end, expensive Intelligentsia beans, any customer asking for an extra shot is given a brief tutorial first.

"We are not the caffeine police, but we do try to downsell our coffee," said Luke Shaffer, who owns 21st Street Coffee with wife Alexis. "We are very proud of our coffee and think a small cup will deliver a strong coffee flavor, priced right for what they're getting."

Still, following their daughter's birth, Mr. Shaffer says he gained a new appreciation for coffee's stimulative powers when she was an infant, waking up every two hours.

"Caffeine is wonderful," he said.

Mackenzie Carpenter: mcarpenter@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1949; on Twitter @MackenziePG.


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