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The coffee addiction

Today coffee is something more than a drink — fancier, tastier, pricier. It's a magic elixir that satisfies our collective craving and our addiction to caffeine. By CNBC's Scott Wapner.

There was a time in America when coffee was just a drink. Today, it's something more. It's fancier, tastier, pricier — a magic elixir that satisfies our collective craving and our national addiction to caffeine.

If there’s any doubt that America has become a coffee nation, the proof can be found at the U.S. Barista Championship, where connoisseurs battle for a $5,000 cash prize and a shot at making it to the world championship. Top honors are given for the best cup o’ joe in the country. Coffee slinging was once a job. Today, it’s a calling.

“We’re going to give people what they want,” said Joshua Boyt, 29, a barista and the owner of Metronome outside Seattle. “That’s what coffee is about. It’s an experience.”

“Barista” is Italian for bartender, and just like making a perfect martini, there’s a lot of skill required of these ambassadors of coffee.

“We’ve been inspired by a product,” said Boyt. “We’ve been inspired by the world’s production of this amazing thing. And honestly we’ve just been taken away by this river of passion.”

Just as passionate about coffee is Melissa Owens, 29, one-time cover girl for Barista Magazine – a publication that’s considered the bible for coffee enthusiasts. Owens was a pre-med student before finding her life’s work. And she’s the first to admit her devotion to coffee might be a bit extreme, right down to her tattoos.

“I have latte art tattoos,” she said. “I just caught the bug and became obsessed. Everything has to do with coffee, or it came from coffee in my life.”

Coffee is certainly a national obsession. Americans drink over 400 million cups of it each day. Though coffeehouses are the fastest growing part of the restaurant industry, some 86 percent of Americans still get their morning fix at home from top supermarket sellers like Maxwell house and Folgers.

Whether store-bought or Starbucks, the secret to coffee is in the roasting, according to electrical engineer Marty Curtis.

“Coffee roasting is an art,” he said. “If you make the roaster run to where it’s easy for the person roasting it to manipulate the air flow in the burners, they can do a much better job on the coffee.”

Building and fixing coffee roasters has made Curtis a wealthy man. He has traveled the world perfecting his art.

“I like to build Harleys; I was building choppers back in the 80s,” he said. “Then I thought, well why not do that to a roaster? And so I started hot-rodding roasters.”

In a caffeinated cup of coffee, green coffee beans are roasted for 12 minutes or so. The longer they’re roasted, the stronger the taste. For decaf, the green coffee beans are soaked in a substance that extracts the caffeine. Once removed, the extra caffeine is sold to pharmaceutical companies or soda and energy drink makers for use in their products.

Taste is important, but it’s the caffeine that keeps us coming back, according to journalist Stephen Braun, the author of “Buzz: The Science and Lore of Alcohol and Caffeine.” He says caffeine’s physical effect fuels the entire coffee industry.

“It’s a perfectly legitimate business,” he said. “But if they didn’t have a drug in their product they wouldn’t have a business. It’s stimulating and also, mildly habit forming. Therefore you are highly motivated to keep drinking coffee in this case. So, it’s a great business to be in.”

Caffeine is a classified drug, and like any drug it triggers a reaction that varies from person to person. While some people swallow 10 cups a day, others get by on just one – or none.

The truth is we only think we need coffee, according to Dr. Peter Martin, professor of psychiatry and pharmacology at Vanderbilt University’s School of Medicine.

“One of the important distinctions between drinking coffee and an addiction is not having balance in your life,” he said.

Martin has spent the last 15 years studying the effects of caffeine. Some of his funding has come from coffee companies like Nestle and Starbucks.

“The medical consensus points towards the caffeine fix as less of an addiction and more of a physical dependence, with its own set of withdrawal symptoms including migraines and mood alterations,” he said.

“If you drink coffee regularly and then one day not drink coffee then you might develop a headache or you might really want that cup of coffee,” he added. “But you're not going to rob a bank or kill your wife to get that cup of coffee.”

Martin notes that caffeine has one very important physical effect: it combats the natural urged to sleep. Some chemicals in the brain help maintain wakefulness, while others cause drowsiness. One of them – adenosine -- makes you feel tired. Caffeine blocks the adenosine from doing its job, so you feel more alert and awake.

While a jolt of java overrides the body’s natural response, Martin says this is not a habit that needs breaking.

“I was taught in medical school that coffee was bad for your health,” he said. “But when I started looking at the literature, one of the things that was so interesting was that not only is coffee not harmful to health, it may actually be beneficial.”

A Harvard School of Public Health study found that long-term, moderate coffee drinking could help prevent the onset of such illnesses as Type II diabetes and Parkinson's.

That could be good news for the millions of people for whom life without coffee would be unbearable.

CNBC’s “The Coffee Addiction” airs Thursday Sept. 29 at 9 p.m., 10 p.m., 12 a.m. and 1 a.m. Eastern Time on CNBC. It will be rebroadcast Oct. 6 at 8 p.m., Oct. 9 at 1 a.m. and Oct. 20 at 8 p.m.