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There’s coffee in that nebulae: Beverages and the Star Trek captains who love them

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Jul 6, 2020

Star Trek: The Next Generation was a different show from its predecessor. Few knew this better than Star Trek's most dedicated fans. After crowding around their televisions to watch the 1987 premiere, fans quickly took notice of the changes in the set design, cinematography, even the Enterprise itself — but perhaps the most jarring change came in the form of one Jean-Luc Picard.

At that point, Star Trek fans had grown accustomed to William Shatner’s Captain Kirk, a character reminiscent of the swashbuckling merchant princes described in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels. But Patrick Stewart’s depiction of a Starfleet captain was no merchant prince. Instead, Jean-Luc Picard was reserved, thoughtful, quite literally a student of history and, above all else, a diplomat.

It took a while, but fans eventually warmed not only to Captain Picard but to the showrunners’ decision to give each new captain their own unique personality. For a franchise covering a myriad of stories across a number of shows, this is important. Each new series brings with it completely different characters and crew dynamics. It’s difficult to imagine something more detrimental to their character development than the presence of a captain that fits only a single mold. One of the more subtle depictions of this is in each captain’s preferred choice of beverage.

In fact, having a signature beverage seems to be the common denominator among all of the great Starfleet captains. Despite access to a catalog of beverages as varied as space is vast, we rarely see Starfleet captains deviate from their favorite drink.

Perhaps great individuals — those beloved captains so well established we simply refer to them by a single name: Kirk, Picard, Janeway — are simply inclined to stick to their established routines. Or, maybe, showrunners meant for the signature beverages to serve as pathological shorthands so as to better understand these larger-than-life characters.

Ambassador V’lar: Have you tried iced tea?

Sub-commander T’pol: I don’t care for it.

Ambassador V’lar: Captain Archer, certainly, does. It’s flavored with passion fruit, an appropriate ingredient for him. Don’t you think?

Throw a rock at any of Star Trek: Enterprise’s episodes and you are likely to hit one in which Captain Archer (Scott Bakula) is drinking his favorite: sweetened iced tea.

As Ambassador V’Lar remarked, it’s a drink that speaks to the captain’s personality, in several ways. Often enjoyed with traditional Southern fare, iced tea can be considered comfort food in and of itself. One would imagine comfort food might be held at a premium by the first starship captain and humanity’s most far-flung explorer, at the time.

Sweet tea is both a taste of home and emblematic of Captain Archer’s lack of experience with other cultures. Out of all the prominent captains, he is the one least likely to reach for something not brewed here on Earth. It’s a quirk Captain Kirk doesn’t seem to share. 

“Romulan ale! Why, Bones, you know this is illegal.” 
-Captain James T. Kirk

Kirk is, perhaps, the only captain whose name is not so much synonymous with a particular beverage as with a particular beverage’s legal status. Whether it be Saurian Brandy or the dreaded Romulan Ale, Captain Kirk prefers drinks that would scandalize his fellow officers and put him at odds with Federation rules.

Given Kirk’s status as the pioneer of “cowboy diplomacy,” his preference for illegal beverages makes sense. It perfectly represents a career spent bending Federation rules instead of stubbornly upholding them.

“Tea, Earl Grey, hot!”
-Captain Jean-Luc Picard

Perhaps the most iconic replicator order in the series, Earl Grey tea oozes sophistication while avoiding the trappings of classism, a perfect reflection of Captain Picard’s personality and sensibilities.  

And the manner in which Picard enjoys his favorite beverage underscores its status as a diplomat’s beverage. Throughout The Next Generation’s entire run, Picard is rarely seen partaking in the drink unless in the presence of another. It’s as if he knows the impression he exudes by choosing to drink something so dignified. This might give the impression his preference for the beverage is a sort of affectation, but you can’t deny Earl Grey is quintessentially Picard.

“I love raktajino.”
-Captain Benjamin Sisko 

Whatever Deep Space Nine engineers put in the water clearly had the unintended effect of widespread Raktajino addiction. Captain Benjamin Sisko, as played by Avery Brooks, was one of several characters with an extreme preference for the drink, also known as Klingon coffee. Major Kira had at least a couple cups per day, Chief O’Brien liked his sweet, and Jake drank his with a minty froth, but few could match Captain Sisko’s devotion to the drink. Just ask his second-in-command, who was deeply disturbed seeing him go a morning without in the Season 2 episode “Second Sight.”

Described as superior to and significantly stronger than human coffee, Raktajino is one of the few delicacies from Klingon cuisine humans find palatable. Captain Sisko’s love for the beverage speaks to his openness to other cultures, an important personality trait for anyone managing an interstellar hub like Deep Space Nine.

In fact, Captain Sisko’s cultural receptivity manifests itself throughout the series, whether it be cooking and enjoying a meal of Ferengi worms ("Blaze of Glory") or his willingness to serve as an alien race’s spiritual icon ("Emissary"). Sisko’s preference for alien coffee only underscores his status as perhaps the most culturally tolerant of Starfleet’s captains.

“Listen to me carefully, because I’m only going to say this once. Coffee, black.”
-Captain KATHRYN Janeway

Whereas Captain Sisko preferred it Klingon-style, Kate Mulgrew's Captain Kathryn Janeway likes her coffee black without any frills, a reflection of her no-nonsense style of command. It’s a command style that was likely born out of necessity, given that she and her crew were stranded and without the help of Federation resources. Is it any wonder her affection for coffee turned into full-blown addiction as the series progressed?

But why coffee specifically? If it’s a pick-me-up she needed, wouldn’t she have been better served with Raktajino, which is a much stronger beverage?  As captain, Janeway, more than anyone, had to maintain an implacable demeanor. Perhaps coffee came to symbolize her yearning for home or, at the very least, her yearning for something familiar. It just so happened coffee could provide her just that while giving her the boost she needs to get her crew home in one piece. Coffee is a pragmatist’s drink, and Janeway, at her core, is a pragmatist.

“A warrior’s drink.”
-Worf

Honorable mention goes to Worf (Michael Dorn). While technically not depicted as a captain, on-screen, background information from the newest series, Star Trek: Picard, shows that the son of Mogh did in fact take over the captain’s chair upon Picard’s promotion to admiral.

So why not take a moment to consider Worf’s love for prune juice and how it’s emblematic of the character’s self-confidence?

Worf is a Klingon who, for much of his life, was alienated from Klingon life due to his culture’s, quite frankly, absurd political machinations. Despite his outcast status, and physical marginalization from Klingon life, Worf managed to rise to the rank of Chancellor only to immediately relinquish the title for the good of the empire that once shunned him. Worf has always known he is a special Klingon, and the one time he allowed himself to indulge in this knowledge is when he proclaimed prune juice to be “a warrior’s drink.”

Why did he say that? Prune juice is not part of Klingon culture, and yet the first time he tastes it he proclaims it a drink for warriors. Does Worf know of a great warrior race who drank prune juice before battle? Not likely. He called prune juice a warrior’s drink specifically because he finds it tasty.

This implies that anything he enjoys is elevated to warrior’s status simply by virtue of his liking it. Only one ensconced in their own mythology would think this way.

Attention to detail is the cornerstone of good television. It shows that creators are not only confident their work will inspire fans to dive deeper than what is presented on screen. If a show is good, fans will search out little details, like a captain's beverage choice, to add to the mythology. It gives fans the chance to play a role, albeit a small one, in the creation of their favorite shows and makes these stories as much theirs as the creators’.

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