Monday, July 26, 2010

Manufacturing The Coffee Culture

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. 

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?

Photo by KDCosta.

ResearchBlogging.orgRoseberry, 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


  1. Damn, I can't wait for break so I can read all this!

  2. Hope you managed to get that break :)

  3. I hate coffee.I hate coffee candy. I hate coffee ice cream. I am, however, fond of caffeine, which, at first, helped me deal with my insomnia and now probably contributes to it. Tea is my drink.

    But that's not the point of this comment. I was very struck by your line: "Will we soon be overrun by manufactured "morning people"?" The thing is, we already are! Many people who have insomnia wouldn't have insomnia if they were able to go to sleep and wake up when they/their bodies wanted to.

    When I freelance, or when I have an extended period of time off, I immediately become a night person. I sleep much better. And if I do wake up in the middle of the night, I can read or work or just be, without that alarm-clock deadline looming over me. It's a whole different experience.

    Our society makes teens go to school early when every cell in their body is screaming, LET ME SLEEP. We set up communities where people who have to be at work at 9 a.m. have to get up at 6 a.m.--or earlier--to be on time. And the powers-that-be at most companies don't want flextime. It's all about control, if you ask me. Just like dress codes.

  4. Thanks for drawing attention to the ways in which our routines are configured to the clock, Wendy. This is a huge topic and one that you can tell I'm interested in—it forms the basis for a lot of my work in time. I think there are some interesting tie-ins with coffee, and by extension, caffeine that are worth exploring. I hope you'll stop by on Friday—that post may be of particular interest to you.

  5. I grew up in a very warm climate, so the thought of drinking hot drinks *on purpose* never entered my mind. My Mom used to make us iced coffee with instant Sanka, mile and Sweet & Low. It wasn't until I went to Europe in 1997 that I really started to appreciate and drink coffee. To start, the coffee served on Air France flights is delicious! And then of course in Italy, you cannot find a bad cappuccino. Nor in Paris, a bad cafe au lait. I actually adore the taste of coffee, or what I consider good coffee. If it's bitter bottom of the pot garbage, or instant, I won't go near it. I give Starbucks credit for convincing people to spend $4 on a cup of coffee, but I find Starbucks coffee to be mediocre. But I will indulge in $10 a pound Jamaican Blue Mountain blend or a good quality French Roast and make it myself, rahter than waste $4 for a Starbucks drink. Mine is better.

  6. I also grew up in a warm climate. However, old colonial habits die hard, and while we didn't favor coffee, tea was a staple for breakfast and sometimes late in the evenings. I drank tea well into my teens and then stopped, and picked it up again in grad school. It wasn't until I started my present job that I became a coffee drinker—so much so that nearly gave myself an ulcer and had to swear it off for a few months. I survived, and I managed to hold it at bay. Until Starbucks began to offer a coupon deal that let you get a discounted afternoon coffee. Let's just put it this way: I needed to stop. So now I'm back on tea. Decaf tea. And my coworkers keep an eye on me to make sure I'm not cheating.

    My name is Krystal, and I've been free of coffee for seven days now. :)

    I agree that Starbucks isn't the real deal. In the olden days when I drank coffee, I had the chance to sample some seriously spectacular blends. It was fantastic. Starbucks' appeal is in part that they are fast and they're everywhere!

    Here's hoping I get to sample an actual cappuccino!

  7. I am currently drinking Monkey Joe Roasting Co. Ethiopia Sidamo. They were at the farmers market here locally. I thought it was odd to have a coffee roasting company out at the farmers market but I gave them a shot. It a deep dark flavor.

    My love for coffee is as pure as coffee itself from the roaster. My conviction stays pure to this day. I am a purist with a taste for black and unblemished coffee. The moment something gets added it isn’t coffee in my mind. It destroys the taste of the coffee and all of the work everyone, before that slip, did to keep it pure.

    My grandparents and my father influenced me to drink coffee. I loved the aroma it made throughout the house. I loved the zoo of characters that was in the shelf awaiting for me to pick as my next mug. Throughout middle school and high school I would have my cup of coffee in the morning, but I never took it to school as a fashion statement. I never found the interest to go and linger at a coffee shop. My father and I spend those years perfecting our coffee tastes. We went to a local coffee house who roaster their own beans on site. We got the same coffee (french roast). We weighted the coffee beans. We ground our beans. Once the coffee was brewed, we assess the taste and flavor of that coffee. The next morning, we weighted the coffee again plus or minus from the assessment of the previous day. My father and I did this in two week increments for several years until we found what we considered the perfect cup. We have stuck to a formula we created during that time and have used it since.

    My consumption of coffee has stayed 1 to 2 cups. As much as I love coffee and a snob about it; it’s important coffee doesn’t control your behavior or your mood. I never had “caffein headaches” or withdraws.

    I enjoy the ritual making my coffee in the morning. Its like someone trying to quite smoking. They can’t because it gives them something to do: the ritual of doing it is enough of a mental stimuli to keep the addiction. I enjoy getting my own coffee for a cost benefit for me to make it oppose to going to a local coffee house everyday. I don’t have to wait in line with a dozen other undeceive people when all I want is a pure simple cup of coffee. I make a bold statement saying in my house I make the best coffee in the city.

    That is the reflection of me. Pure, simple, and decisive throughout the process to give the full character of the coffee I drink

    Thank you for this three part post about coffee!

  8. As someone who spends a lot of time tasting coffee and thinking about it, this article has a few insights and a few assumptions that are iffy. I think the main insight is tangential, to approach the naive marketing practice of small entrepreneurs who would, by their own definition, are simple craftspeople, as market-formers nonetheless. The fact that, in coffee, small "authentic" businesses have been at the vanguard of specialty business, with older companies breaking in with new product lines that imitate small brands, does not mean some revolutionary "from the ground up" way of building business/culture. It's not that radical at all. A couple issues with your intro; the observational comment about caffeinated bushy-tailed people vs. dreary uncaffeinated ones seems to not understand the mechanism of caffeine very well, especially the huge variety of physical tolerances out there, and how inured people can be to it. Second, historical consumption should be looked at in milligrams of caffeine, not volumes, since coffee was brewed extremely weak according to 1950s recipes. But the articles approach to "making coffee special" by emphasizing origins, by making a great variety of coffees available by putting small differences to the forefront, is an interesting way that coffee (and many other nonessential products) has reinvigorated interest and consumption. Of course, as one in the coffee business, I believe coffee from different places are significantly unique and deserve such differentiation, provided the mechanism to do that is transparent and based on real, empirical difference (ie. not done in bad faith). Call me naive.

  9. I don't drink coffee. I'm one of the only people I know who doesn't like the drink. I never have, and I don't expect to pick it up anytime soon.

    On that note, I don't agree with your depiction of the "Un-Caffeinated." I rarely feel sluggish in the morning or sleep through my commute to work. If anything, it has been my personal experience and observation that it is those who typically drink coffee but didn't on occasion that are slower moving or irritable.

    I have spoken to coffee drinking friends about their reliance on the drink and many of them have commented that they drink it less to get a 'perk' by the caffeine, and more because they have grown to like the taste or they want to avoid the headache that will result from them not having a cup.

    I am not contesting that coffee is a stimulus. I am suggesting though that like any drug, the body of coffee drinkers likely becomes immune to its affects, or even dependent on it to a certain extent (headache withdrawal).

    That's all. Just my two cents on the subject.

  10. Krystal says: My name is Krystal, and I've been free of coffee for seven days now. I am so sorry for your loss! :-)

    esimms says: I am a purist with a taste for black and unblemished coffee. The moment something gets added it isn’t coffee in my mind. It destroys the taste of the coffee and all of the work everyone, before that slip, did to keep it pure.

    I couldn't agree more! I, too, prefer strong, rich, black coffee. No contaminants.

    I've been drinking black coffee since my Army days. I started drinking coffee to stay awake and warm on guard duty and I used to use lots of sugar. But once, when I was on a week long posting in Honduras, we ran out of sugar. So I started taking it black. I never went back to sugar.

    But I love everything about coffee: the warmth, the flavor, the aroma -and the social camaraderie you can get standing around, sharing a cup of joe and conversation.

    But I'm not a fanatic or anything. I mean, it's not like I named my blog after a hot cup of joe... that would be crazy!

    Great post! I wish I'd done it! To finish answering the questions, I remember my Dad drinking coffee when I was a boy. He put milk and sugar in his. My Mom never like coffee, and I never had any interest in trying it until I was in the service. I've gone with out coffee on occasion (and quite by accident!), and don't recall ever getting the "headaches."

    -cfeagans (

  11. @esimms - What a WONDERFUL story! Thanks so much for sharing.

    @Thompson - Thanks for sharing an "insider's" perspective! Mine is certainly only one view on the subject, and as this was a blog post, it leaves a lot of room for discussion. Regarding your criticism of the introduction, perhaps I would have been better served differentiating b/t the already caffeinated and those who expect to grab some coffee before starting their day.

    @Adam - Hey, I really didn't mean to step on non-caffeinated folks. As I said to Thompson above, I may have been netter served with a slightly different division. I am a non-caffeinated person now and after I got through the withdrawal period (which was damn hard), I'm now back to my normal productive self. So no, you definitely don't need it, but it certainly lives up to its stimulating promises.

    @C - I am SO, SO glad you made it over here! And I thank you kindly for your sympathies. I am managing :)

    You say, "But I love everything about coffee: the warmth, the flavor, the aroma -and the social camaraderie you can get standing around, sharing a cup of joe and conversation."

    This to me is the essence of coffee-the community it can inspire as people sit down and share with each other. Part of my post was just wondering how far away we've come from that with our drive to have morning coffee.

    And I'm definitely a cream and sugar girl :)

    Thanks all!!

  12. This is a good concept for an article and I'm looking forward to future installments. However, you handled the soft drink market impacts relatively light here and overemphasized the uniqueness of blends at the time, which were incredibly crude and ineffectual by today's standards.

    To attract a new generation of coffee drinkers (call them "coffee achievers" from the ridiculous NCA ads of the 80s), they formulated coffees with flavorings to better emulate soft drinks: mocha, hazelnut, etc. Flavored coffees largely died off and were replaced with steamed milk as coffee's most important "flavoring".

    It had the added bonus that America's supersized culture, in the pursuit of ever-bigger portions (the 44-oz Big Gulp, etc.), you could not make a 44-oz coffee beverage (due to physical caffeine limits) but you could make a 44-oz milk beverage with some coffee in it.

    These two elements propelled the revival of the retail coffee trade more than any microroaster or blend branding.

  13. Growing up, coffee had two aspects for me:
    On the one hand, it was a symbol of adulthood. Children were not allowed to partake of the aromatic beverage. Of course, if you deny a child something...
    On the other hand, I observed my father's zombie-like trudge to the coffee maker, his monosyllabic grunts until he was on his second cup, and knew I did not want to be dependent on any substance to wake up.

    However, my adulthood introduction in the world of coffee came somewhat in reverse. In the last decade, as my career has taken off and my life has grown busier, I found myself attracted to the atmosphere and *concept* of the coffee shop: a relaxing social setting in which one can engage with friends, quietly read or write, or simply take some much needed time off, free of distraction. And, well, such places tend to have pleasant foods and beverages. Since I was there, it only seemed reasonable, not to mention somewhat mandatory, to purchase something.
    Unfortunately - or not, depending on perspective - I am unable to consume overly much caffeine. It has increased, but was long limited to a mere cup of coffee on any given week. With such limits, I felt that I ought to have the best coffee I could. And so, I started paying attention. How was the coffee roasted? How was it brewed? What kind of beans? Where did they come from?
    I've since pursued many of the different means of making coffee, from chemex makers and moka pots to ibrikki and jhabana. I've come to the conclusion that there is truly no "perfect cup" because there is truly such a variety of coffee, and different times call for different coffees. But I harbor a love for the beverage, the ritual, and the study of the subject.

    Personally, I'm curious about the rise of Starbucks. Most coffee afficionados will casually deride the quality of SB coffee, and for I think good reason. However, I recall that until Starbucks hit the scene, "coffee culture" was dying, and independent coffee shops were slowly dying off. I may not like SB coffee, but they certainly brought back the notion that coffee meant more than using canned coffee from the grocery store, and I can't complain about that.

  14. @ Swag: Yes, I did only treat the soft drink scene in a cursory manner here. I actually have plans to talk about soft drinks in a different way—so definitely stay tuned :) I've gotten a few remarks about the crudeness of the blends at this period and I am glad for this added information because it certainly adds a new element to this post. And it may be something to investigate further. I'm curious about your comment about flavored coffees dying off—as far as I can remember (and perhaps this makes me a novice when it comes to coffee drinking) there have always been a hazelnut version or a french vanilla version—or at least a flavored creamer to add an "exciting" twist to the coffee. I understand that purists may scoff at the idea of flavored coffees and creamers (or creamers in general), but I feel these have been a aprt of the landscape for some time. And many of the coffee shops offer flavors, don't they? Certainly the chains have "seasonal" blends and other drinks. SO is it your opinion that these options died out and made a resurgence or that they have remained popular with a certain sect of coffee drinkers (i.e., those that might be labeled as "less serious")?

  15. @ hasufin: The proliferation of SBs is a question on my mind too. Can we attribute it to good marketing? Good financing? Aggressive consumer tactics? I think that most coffee drinkers, and not just aficionados, recognize SB as a chain brand that makes coffee appear more accessible despite, as Roseberry and many of you point out, that good coffee is readily available from a variety of source. But perhaps this identity has been crafted in such a way that not anyone WANTS to be an connoisseur. Does the identity of —to use Roseberry's word—a "coffee yuppie" have a negative image? I’m just thinking out loud here, and this just a question as are others in this forum.

    Your story is fantastic. I like the associations of socialness with coffee because this is what coffee is tied to in its earliest history. But I don’t know how much socialness still happen there—so many folks are working and looking to be by themselves that maybe the dynamic has changed? It’s definitely a fascinating thing to consider.

  16. Great posts. I work for a small roasting company in Vermont called Mocha Joe's and decided to share with with all our friends. I'm wondering though if we are starting to move beyond fair trade and the "me" generation to coffee drinkers who want a direct connection to the farms who produce their product. I for one am very happy that quality coffee tastes so much better than the folgers and maxwell house that my parents used to drink. It's a whole different experience trying coffee's from small roasting companies across America.

  17. Free trade and Fair trade are not the same thing. Enjoyed the article overall. :)

  18. @Mocha: "I'm wondering though if we are starting to move beyond fair trade and the "me" generation to coffee drinkers who want a direct connection to the farms who produce their product." Have you seen signs of such a shift? Just curious.

    "I for one am very happy that quality coffee tastes so much better than the folgers and maxwell house that my parents used to drink."
    Interesting - does coffee become a better experience because it seems to have been improved since your parents' time?

  19. Intresting stuff. I love the concept. def not how i've conceived of my coffee before. Until about 2 years ago I pretty much hated coffee and my line would be about it that I like my coffee to taste as little like coffee as possible and would dump cream and sugar (sweet & low actually) into my coffee when I would try it.

    Then I started a job that was near a bakery that had great coffee and great pastries and it became a delightful way to start my morning. My whole attitude would change after the first sip and bite. Since then my appreciation for the drink has grown though I still put ample cream and sugar in and have learned that I don't really like any of the flavored coffees but a good dark or mild roast suits me fine.

  20. @Grant:

    "I like my coffee to taste as little like coffee as possible and would dump cream and sugar (sweet & low actually) into my coffee when I would try it."

    I used to tell people I take my milk with a little coffee in it :)

    "Then I started a job that was near a bakery that had great coffee and great pastries and it became a delightful way to start my morning. My whole attitude would change after the first sip and bite."

    Bingo. I didn't start drinking coffee until I started working at my present job. The vendor downstairs makes great coffee as I learned on one very frigid coffee. Honestly, it could very well just be Folgers, but he knows adds just enough sugar and milk to keep me happy.

  21. love coffee. Drink about 600ml a day (even having labyrinthitis). My parents and grandparents drank too much coffee.

  22. Dig the article! It's eye-opening to realize that 20-29 year old people didn't take part in drinking coffee till quite recently, but I wouldn't have either given the selection. My first exposure to coffee was at my first job in the breakroom. It was the most disgusting crap I ever tasted. There was no getting used to it. Over time, if I felt I needed to explore it for caffeine purposes, I'd just add tons of sugar. It wasn't till a friend exposed me to different roasts that I found a coffee that was palatable. Now days, I'm very particular about coffee when I have it (about 2 times a week, I just like the flavor and warmth...the coziness).

    Given the questions you asked, I didn't really start drinking coffee till my senior year of high school, and I don't remember my grandmother drinking any but my dad was (and still is) dependent on it! I never really understood his consumption because I am what you call "a morning person" who is alert the moment I wake up! Coffee just tastes great to me, so I'll have it if I think I deserve a good half hour to reeeeellaaax, especially in the winter.