This week on AiP, I'm featuring a three-part series on coffee. Today's post investigates how coffee came to be such an integral part of everyday life. Look for additional posts on Wednesday and Friday for followup discussions.
The idea of the morning person aside, morning commuters seem to fall into one of two categories: the Caffeinated and the Un-caffeinated [Edit 8/12: This category refers to people who intend to consume coffee, not those who do not drink coffee at all.] And they're easily recognizable as such. The Caffeinated are bright-eyed and engaged with the day's events already—they're reading their morning papers, or checking email, or reading for pleasure. They're sometimes armed with travel mugs or Ventis from their coffee shop of choice. They rattle the ice in the clear plastic beverage cups from mobile vendors on summer days. They walk a little faster in the early hours having long left last night behind. This is not the case for the Un-Caffeinated. This group sleeps through the AM commute both on the commuter trains and the subway.They're bleary eyed. Materials they intended to review lie unattended in their laps while they linger in the previous night. They walk more slowly up the stairs and are more irritable when you hurry them along—or hurry by them. They stroll, they trudge, they linger.
The line that runs out the door of the Starbucks across from my job never seems to shrink. Are the ranks of the Caffeinated growing? Will we soon be overrun by manufactured "morning people"? As the would-be Caffeinated stumble toward their favorite dispensaries, they have little sense of how they have been drawn to coffee-drinking. The categories of Caffeinated and Un-caffeinated are introduced in this discussion for ethnographic purposes. Though they exist in my mind, they may seem familiar to you because we're taught to look for these traits in connection with coffee. So though I may have taken some liberties in simplifying them, these identities and associations have been honed by the coffee industry over the last thirty years. The culture of coffee has been carefully cultivated to ensure maximum reach. [Line at Starbucks for morning coffee.]
Anthropologist William Roseberry (1996) reports that coffee drinkers would have been hard pressed to find specialty coffee in the United States in the 1970s—most of the coffee in the groceries came in cans, "the roasts were light and bland," and the decaf versions were terrible (764). There was little exciting about coffee, and in fact, coffee drinking had been on a decline:
The second postwar development involved the long-term decline in consumption beginning in the 1960s. Through the 1950s, consumption was essentially flat, with minor fluctuations. From 1962, one can chart a consistent decline. In that year, 74.7 percent of the adult population was calculated to be coffee drinkers; by 1988 only 50 percent drank coffee. Even those who drank coffee were drinking less. In 1962, average coffee consumption was 3.12 cups per day; by 1980 it had dipped to 2.02 cups and by 1991 had dropped to 1.75 (Roseberry 1996: 765).
Waning consumer interest was compounded by frost in Brazil in 1975, which drove the price of the beans higher. Consumer groups called for a boycott—they would not pay more for bland coffee. The market grew even smaller at the onset of the 1980s when coffee growers and retailers realized that the current 20-29 year old generation had little interest in coffee, which they associated with their parents and grandparents. This group preferred "soft drinks". So-called "coffeemen" didn't know what to make of them.
For the coffee industry to survive, it needed a new marketing strategy. Kenneth Roman, Jr., the president of Ogilvy and Mather, one of the PR firms that supported Maxwell House, made a suggestion: emphasize quality, value, and image by creating segmented products to increase appeal (Roseberry 1996: 765). The consumer was changing according to Roman, and coffee-players needed to pay attention:
We are entering the 'me' generation. The crucial questions 'me' oriented customers will ask, of all types of products, are: "What's in it for me? Is the product 'me'? Is it consistent with my lifestyle? Does it fill a need? Do I like how it tastes? What will it cost me? Is it necessary? Can I afford it? Is it convenient to prepare? How will it affect my health?" (1996: 765).
Coffees are a naturally diverse product; their value is derived from where they are grown, size and texture of the bean, and how they are processed and roasted. Once traded, they can be blended with coffees from other places to produce complex aromas and tastes that mark each brand as distinctive. But pricing to the roasters is based primarily on where the coffees are grown. Prior to the re-branding of coffee, this aspect of price was largely invisible to the ordinary consumer. The roasters managed a mix that offset these pricing differentials to produce coffee of the lowest common denominator (Roseberry 1996: 766). Place was not important to the consumer at this time.
To emphasize value, quality, and image as Roman had suggested, the consumer needed to be made more aware about what made coffee worth the price. And so the specialty coffee was born. The vision was a type of coffee to appeal to every person, including flavored coffees for the "soft drink generation." Coffee for the aficionados, the penny-counters, those on-the-go, and certainly the senior community who were already strong supporters. Coffee was meant to permeate every aspect of life, and thanks to the response of growers and retailers it did. Smaller roasters marketing individual brands found a niche, and consumers complaining about paying $3/lb for tasteless coffee were more than willing to purchase specialty coffees for the additional dollar or two more in cost.
The movement toward specialty coffees was taken up by small roasters. While bigger brands followed, the size of smaller brands initially helped them establish credibility with the specialty coffee crowd—they weren't seen as mass producers, they were viewed as having a closer relationship to the coffees they were trying to sell, and as such could produce a more flavorful coffee experience. Individual blends were not free from corruption however: "'Peter's Blend' or 'House Blend' says nothing about where the coffee comes from, allowing the roaster or retailer near flexibility, but so again does the sale of 'Mocha style' or 'Blue Mountain style'" (Roseberry 1996: 769). Many roasters dressed up less impressive and flavorful coffees with fancy names. Still, other small roasters were able to establish a brand through their blend of coffee, and the more aggressive of these entrepreneurs, such as Starbucks were able to expand nationally (Roseberry 1996: 771).
Coffees became more personal, more accessible. The group that the market feared it had lost, the 20 - 29 year olds, had been netted. People began to drink coffee because it meant something to them: a flavor for everyone, a style for every lifestyle—we have methodically been taught to socialize over coffee, to look for a boost in productivity from this drink. We're identified by the brand that we drink, by the coffee houses we frequent, and by the process by which the beans are grown and harvested. We tout words such as "Free-Trade" and organic. Roman was right—it is all about 'me.' But as Roseberry concludes, these connections have been carefully structured by the market:
That is to say, my newfound freedom to choose and the taste and discrimination I cultivate, have been shaped by traders and marketers responding to a long-term decline in sales with a move toward market segmentation along class and generational lines ... This is not, of course, to say we enter the market as mere automatons; clearly, we have and exercise choices, and we (apparently) have more things to choose from than we once did. But we exercise those choices in a world of structured relationships, and part of what those relationships structure (or shape) is both the arena and the process of choice itself (1996: 771).
Coffees offer us a way to look at our relationship to the larger world and see that sometimes our choices are not really our own, to think about how brands and larger market forces can help create what appear to be stable icons in our lives. The 'me' that we have come to emphasize may be less personal than we realize.
In preparation for the coming posts, tell me what you're drinking, when you started drinking coffee, or why you don't. How does coffee make you feel? Do you remember your parents or grandparents drinking coffee? How has that influenced your opinion of the drink?
Roseberry, W. (1996). The Rise of Yuppie Coffees and the Reimagination of Class in the United States American Anthropologist, 98 (4), 762-775 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1996.98.4.02a00070