It is a chilly, overcast afternoon on campus, and students can feel themselves hitting a mid-afternoon slump. The day is the kind that makes the very bricks in the buildings seem worn down. To counter their exhaustion, students, on reflex alone, head for their holy land and the most worthy source of caffeine near the main campus.
But which place fits this description?
Is it the Daily Grind, with its 1990s punk-rock aesthetic? Is it the Starbucks served at the Element Cafe in the Integrated Science Center, with its highly Instagrammable cups? Maybe Wawa, which is always readily available, or Swemromas, which covers the full spectrum from black coffee to coffee milkshakes? Or, perhaps the dining halls, though they have been shown to elicit Vine-worthy reactions of disgust.
There are a host of factors that play into what makes a coffee provider the best. But first, one must consider the most important component of all.
CAFFEINE AND COOL BEANS
Every coffee drinker knows that coffee contains caffeine, and caffeine provides energy. But how does the process occur? According to chemistry professor Lisa Landino, the answer is chemistry.
The body produces a chemical called adenosine using a molecule that looks like caffeine.
“Adenosine and caffeine resemble each other enough that, if you consume caffeine, it will bind to something called the adenosine receptor, so adenosine can’t bind,” Landino said.
Despite their similar shape, the two compounds have opposite effects. Where the reception of adenosine causes sleepiness, the reception of caffeine wakes one up. The more coffee consumed, the more caffeine in the body’s system, the less adenosine received and the more energetic one feels.
“That has a lot to do with keeping these receptors blocked,” Landino said.
The caffeine per drip-brewed cup of coffee — roughly 100 milligrams — does not vary much, despite many public theories about what influences caffeine content. Though hundreds of different roasts on a scale from light to dark exist, in actuality, there’s not much of a difference in the caffeine content of each choice.
“Like anything, there’s going to be a variation in the amount of caffeine in different coffees, but I don’t know if the roasting is to blame,” Landino said.
The thing that affects the content of that coveted chemical is not the roasting, but the beans.
There are two variations of beans commonly used to make coffee: Arabica and Robusta. Arabica beans are higher quality, but they are also more expensive, while Robusta is cheaper and has more caffeine, but is generally acknowledged to taste worse. The vast majority of American coffee shops use all, or mostly, Arabica beans in their blends for this reason.
So what do different roasts do? According to general manager of the Daily Grind Scott Owen, roasting is most of what changes the taste of the coffee. Dunkin’ Donuts, for example, has a light, “unobtrusive” roast, whereas the ever-popular Starbucks is very dark, and therefore more bitter.
According to Landino, differences in how the same cup of coffee affects people often come down to genetics and the speed at which the liver processes caffeine, both of which influence how long caffeine is in a person’s system.
With this knowledge, one can evaluate the coffee shops near the College of William and Mary using the distance one needs to walk to get the coffee, the price per size, the variety of roasts available and the coffee’s taste.
NEAR, FAR, WHEREVER YOU ARE
One of the simplest factors that plays into where students get their coffee is the distance they have to walk to obtain it. For students like Raul La Guardia ’20, the convenience of the coffee’s location is the largest draw to a specific place.
“[Wawa is] right on the way from where I live,” La Guardia said. “I live in Ho House, so it’s really easy to just walk down here and get a cup on the way to class.”
As students are spread out across the entirety of Old and New Campus, this category is subjective. However, one can get a rough idea of convenience based on how far each coffee shop is from a central point, such as the Sadler Center.
One of the fastest walks is the one to the Daily Grind, which only takes one minute and 30 seconds from Sadler. This timeliness is followed, in sequence, by the walk to the Starbucks in the ISC (three and a half minutes), to Wawa (four minutes), and to Swemromas (five minutes).
However, dining halls are strategically placed around campus, and coffee is usually the closest when one is inside a dining hall. At a walking time of zero minutes from Sadler, the coffee at Center Court in Sadler is the easiest to obtain by this metric.
Though prices vary a bit, the importance is less in how much the coffee costs, and more in how students can pay.
For Alex Hayes ’19, who noted that it was mostly price that helped him decide where to get his coffee, Sadler’s 12 oz. coffee is a great deal.
“It’s free — or, well, with a meal swipe,” Hayes said of why he decided to get coffee from Sadler.
However, Hayes said that when Wawa had one-dollar coffee it was his favorite place to get the drink.
At Wawa, the price is determined by size, and the cheapest option available is a 12 oz. cup, clocking in at $1.29 before tax. The largest size cup is only slightly more expensive, at $1.65 for 24 oz. of coffee. Wawa also often has deals that lower the price, from its recent “Any size for $1” promotion, to free coffee until kickoff on the day of the Super Bowl. The coffee station includes a small serve-yourself area with different creamers, dairy options, types of sugars and flavorings at no extra cost.
For La Guardia, the deciding factor in figuring out where to get coffee is somewhere in between taste and price.
“If I can just get something for maybe a couple bucks, that’s pretty good,” La Guardia said.
At Swemromas, a small 12 oz. cup of black coffee costs $1.80 before tax, while the largest cup is $2.25 before tax. However, unlike Wawa, the Swemromas location accepts Dining Dollars, and frequent visitors can get a punch card that gives them a free drink for every 10 drinks they buy.
Meanwhile, the Starbucks from the Element Cafe in the ISC provides a small (or tall) 12 oz. cup of regular coffee that costs $1.95 before tax, and a large (or venti) 20 oz. that costs $2.45. Like Swemromas, the Element Cafe accepts Dining Dollars.
Finally, at the Daily Grind, one 12 oz. cup of plain coffee costs $2, not including tax or tip, while a 16 oz. cup costs $2.50. The store does not accept Dining Dollars, but it does have a station to give customers a few more ways to add flavor to their coffee, if they so desire. For customers like Astrea Howard ’18, this is a great deal.
“Personally, I think Daily Grind coffee is better than Aromas,” Howard said. “But I also don’t have a meal plan, so for me it doesn’t make sense to buy Aromas coffee, because I have to pay real money for it either way.”
Based on price alone, Sadler’s acceptance of prepaid meal swipes is hard to beat — especially when you consider the food that is also available. However, if one doesn’t want to use an entire meal swipe for only a beverage, then the cheapest prices are at Wawa.
But how many non-decaf options do students have when they choose to spend their money?
The dining halls use fair-trade Aspretto coffee beans for their coffee. Aspretto provides light roast, dark roast, flavored and specialty coffees. Sadler usually limits the available options to one light, one dark and one flavored roast coffee, in addition to the drinks from the serve-yourself machines.
Swemromas also provides three roasts for its standard coffee price. They range from the medium House Blend coffee to the dark Magnus Blend. For students who want specialty drinks, there are many available, including espresso-based lattes and the famous Aromaccino. For Cameron Poland ’20, the shop’s products, along with its atmosphere, make it a good place to sit and chat with friends during free time.
“I like how they have a good variety of coffee,” Poland said.
The Daily Grind, though it has a fair number of specialty espressos, only has one roast available at any given time. The shop focuses on obtaining a fresh, high-quality medium-dark roast from local roaster Williamsburg Coffee and Tea, according to Grind manager Owen.
“[They’re] about six miles away from here, so we roast our beans locally,” Owen said. “Normally I’ll order on a Monday, and [they will] roast it Monday and I’ll pick it up Tuesday. So it’s very fresh.”
Wawa, conversely, has a whopping seven roasts available, ranging from mild to bold. Beyond its drip coffees, Wawa provides a decent number of specialty coffee drinks for a slightly higher price, though not as many as Swemromas or the Element Cafe. All things considered, Wawa’s variety covers the greatest scope.
But which shop has the best coffee?
Generally, the dining hall’s coffee falls flat. Hayes gave Sadler’s coffee a one on a scale from one to five. Meanwhile, La Guardia reasoned that better coffee is worth spending money over a meal swipe, giving Wawa coffee a “solid four.”
“I mean, the dining hall coffee is pretty bad [in my opinion],” La Guardia said.
Beyond that point of agreement, answers tended to vary. Poland and Sellars agreed that the taste determines where they get coffee, and both rated Swemromas a four on a scale from one to five, saying it is their favorite on campus.
Palmer Foran ’20 rated Starbucks at four on the one to five scale.
“[Swemromas] coffee isn’t strong enough, it’s really weak,” Foran said. “Starbucks is a lot stronger.”
Howard stated that her favorite coffee place on campus is the Grind and rated it a five.
“I definitely like the quality, and the price is about the same [as Swemromas],” Howard said.
Despite individual favorites, students consistently agreed that good-tasting coffee is available at Swemromas.
So which campus coffee place is most worth it?
For those who value price above all else, the free coffee in the dining hall is hard to beat. It is also fairly convenient when students are in the middle of campus and need a pick-me-up, though the Daily Grind’s location is on par with Sadler’s.
If the deciding factor is taste alone, then the popular options vary between the Daily Grind, Starbucks and Swemromas. The Daily Grind epitomizes freshness, while Starbucks has the bitter kick that the coffee-addicted so desire.
If a wide variety of different coffee is what matters, Wawa and Swemromas are both great options, depending on whether one wants a specialty coffee or something more basic. At little more than one dollar per cup and with seven basic drip-brew options to build on, Wawa is ideal for those living on Old Campus. Alternatively, Swemromas is closer to those on New Campus and has the added benefit of accepting Dining Dollars for great-tasting specialty drinks.
After narrowing it down to Swemromas and Wawa, the choice is all a matter of taste.