Spurred by questions from readers, I've expanded the coffee series to include two additional posts on this caffeinated drink that will run this week. If this is your first visit to AiP, you can review our coffee discussions here. This post will consider the question that readers have raised: how can we explain the popularity of instant coffee in coffee producing countries? As a follow-up, on Thursday we will look at the future of Peruvian coffee among native Peruvian coffee drinkers. Be sure to stop by as we try to tie up these loose ends and put anthropology into practice!
During one of our last discussions on coffee, we were left trying to understand Nescafe's role in coffee drinkers' identity in Peru and other coffee producing nations. Reader Joe Quick did some legwork and reported back with some stats from the Nescafe website (which invites users to look at coffee in a different way):
Coffee ranks in the top three most consumed beverages globally, alongside tea and water. Over 800 billion cups are enjoyed every year, and this number is growing at an annual rate of 1.5%. That’s an increase of 12 billions cups per year!
Globally, NESCAFÉ is consumed at a rate of more than 4,000 cups every second!
Joe helpfully calculated that these numbers mean Nescafe makes up approximately 15% of coffee consumed globally. The question that we are left with is: why does Nescafe seem to be popular among coffee producing countries that theoretically have access to their own supply of coffee beans? Anthropologist Kevin Birth offered some suggestions that cover the expenses associated with grinding and brewing beans, but today we'll look a bit more closely at the relationship between local consumption and consumer identity.
To help us understand coffee, we're going to look at sausages. Soviet sausages actually, and their resurgence following the establishment of Lithuania as an independent state by popular vote and the dismantling of the Soviet Union. Anthropologist Neringa Klumbyte (2010) describes the "Soviet period" in Eastern Europe as a time that was regarded locally and globally as an era of oppression and want, when culture and growth were stifled (23). It was a black stain of the former republics, and newly formed governments and their citizens actively engaged in removing all traces of Soviet control. They scoured the nation and changed street names, laws, and history. They all agreed: The Soviet past was a dark time that they needed to distance themselves from—and yet a curious thing happened: "Soviet sausages" appeared on dinner tables in 1998, fully advertised as a "Soviet" product and overwhelmed the market despite its associations with this period in history that so many people were trying to forget.
The emergence of Soviet sausages was met with opposition from the media and politicians because the product—and its marketing accoutrements—invoked the memory of a Soviet past that ran counter to the image of the past that the state actually encouraged its citizens to remember. Officials argued that these meats were a "threat to independence and democracy" and labeled fans of Soviet sausages as suffering from a sort of Stockholm syndrome in "longing for the 'torturer' and the Soviet state" (Klumbyte 2010: 24). A member of parliament declared:
"They do not understand or remember that they weren't free ... That their lives were limited, controlled, and threatened" (Klumbyte 2010: 24).
These official reprimands fell on deaf ears, however—Lithuanian consumers agreed that Soviet sausages were the tastiest option on the market. And consumer demand allowed Soviet sausages and their meanings to infiltrate the market and popular memory.
|Modern Soviet sausages. |
The history of sausage in relation to the Soviet Union—and by extension, Lithuania—is one of industry. Klumbyte tells readers that sausages of the Soviet era (1970s and 1980s) were viewed symbols of modernity thanks to the efforts of Anastas Mikoyan, the Communist Party leader in charge of provisioning (25). He introduced German-style frankfurters and marketed them to the bourgeois as symbols of pleasure and well-being (26). They were the mass produced food for the urban customer. Mass produced foods in the Soviet Union were connected to social and economic shifts for the better. It was meant to be an accessible food, made to consistent quality measures for all:
The industrialized food was also a form of colonization (and self-colonization because people purchased sausages voluntarily); it helped to link the empire together, creating common forms of daily life among people with previous distinct culinary traditions (Klumbyte 2010: 26).
Sausages were thus a symbol of Soviet strength, showing that the Union was capable of producing food for its people. But the truth was sausages were a luxury—a "goodness" that could only be accessed by those with the means to purchase the processed meats. And not many could. Until that is, Soviet sausages reappeared on the market in the post Soviet era.
When Soviet sausages began appearing in post-Soviet Lithuania, people recalled the memory of sausages as being wholesome, luxurious, and natural (lacking meat substitutes). The truth, as Klumbyte tells readers, is that Moscow demanded the republics economize meat, and substitutes were regularly used in sausage production in all but the most premium of brands (29). Furthermore, modern Soviet sausages weren't reflective of original Soviet sausages because the technologies and recipes for making sausages had changed. However, none of this seemed to matter to consumers who associated sausages with familiarity rather than authenticity—that is, it is not that consumers believed that they were eating authentic Soviet sausages, but were connecting to the memories of the Soviet era as evoked by Soviet sausages. Klumbyte writes:
Familiarity implies continuity with the past and the intimate biographical link of a subject to an object. Familiarity, like authenticity, is a form of cultural discrimination. However, unlike authenticity, it does not guarantee the homogeneity of the objects under consideration. Despite not being exact replicas, "Soviet" sausages are related to sausages of the Soviet period because they remind consumers of the Soviet-era sausages" (2010: 29-30).
The post-Soviet "Soviet sausage" is an imagined product. It is the meeting of the memory of the Soviet-era as well as an understanding of modernity, which presented some stark realities:
Pensioners, the unemployed, or the underemployed, from both the villages and the city of Kaunas, tended to speak positively about the availability and quality of food in the late Soviet period. In the their minds, the shortages of the Soviet era were insignificant compared to the current shortage of money, which leads to experiences of subjective hunger and suppression of desires ... [One woman] remembered the Soviet past as the "better one" and recalled a happier social and individual life, when she had things to put on the table at parties—seldom given today—or when she got the beloved [hunter sausages] "from under the counter" (using connections). The "better times" were times with full tables and fill stomachs. At present, emptier tables and stomachs are a daily reminder of a changed social position in postsocialist society" (Klumbyte 2010: 31).
This means that the reality of Soviet sausages was not one experienced by the general members of the republics, yet it is this reality that is invoked by marketers (luxury, plenty, accessibility, goodness, naturalness, etc). The post-Soviet Lithuanian consumers seized this memory as a means of countering the strangeness of the newly minted Lithuania. They compared this memory of "industrial" Lithuania with "modern" Lithuania in terms of the sausages that were being produced, and were able to articulate the change that was occurring in the types of sausages that were available. For example, Soviet salami did not exist in the Soviet era. Salami is a "well-mixed" sausage—the fats are well blended, which is not a preference among members of the former republics; it is a western sausage. Therefore consumption of Soviet salami marks a sympathy with western ideas and tastes (Klumbyte 2010: 30). But it is also a comment on the change that has occurred in the political and economic state of the nation and the quality of available food products.
By recognizing Soviet sausages, Lithuanians were able to claim a piece of themselves as they navigated the boundaries of what it meant to be Lithuanian in the eyes of a non-Soviet global community. It is important to stress that Soviet sausages were not a return to Soviet times as politicians and the media feared, but a chance for Lithuanians to author their identity.
Let's head back to Peru now, because there are elements to the story of Soviet sausages that may help us understand the popularity of instant coffee. Soviet sausages invoked a national identity—they reminded people of a shared past that was collectively imagined (aided by marketing strategies) as a time of industry—when both the nation and the people were healthy. Lithuanians owned the memory of Soviet sausages, were able to deploy it as needed. However, can we say that Peruvians own coffee so that it can be deployed to shape national identity in similar ways? Historically, this has not been the relationship that Peru has had with its coffee. Remember that coffee cultivation gets to South America in 1700s. And at this point, coffee is already deeply intertwined with capitalism, in terms of production, trade, and consumption. So although Peru has the right conditions to grow coffee, its coffee has not been connected to Peruvian identity, but cultivated for performance on a global stage. The product has been minimally connected to the Peruvian people.
A report from the USDA earlier this year supports this theory even while drawing attention to the unique flavors of Peruvian coffee. It states that Peruvian coffee is handpicked and sun-dried which makes it popular in high-end markets. Still, domestic consumption remains low: "Per capita consumption is 500 grams, which is one of the lowest in the region (Brazil’s per capita consumption is 4 kilograms per year)." Though consumption habits are changing slowly as more cafes open and coffee gains a mainstream popularity, instant coffee still comprises approximately 75% of consumption!
The reason for this, as growers and Peruvian officials note ruefully, is that Peruvian coffee has been developed specifically for foreign markets, which allows foreign brands to hold a position of importance in the absence of a domestic presence. Brands, such as Nescafe, may have infiltrated the market and spread under the reputation of industrialism and modernity.
What do I mean? In Lithuania the process of sausage production represented an industrial process: sausages were manufactured in factories, and they were marketed as modern foods. There were certain associations that fit with sausage consumption that Lithuanians drew upon in crafting a new national identity. Let's take a look at a Nescafe commercial targeted at a South American audience:
Nescafe is able to fill the niche required to craft an industrial, modern identity for a nation that is emerging on the global stage. It identifies many of the traits of coffee drinkers that Americans associate with coffee culture: the perkiness, the means of getting your day going, the sluggishness otherwise. The sleepy man in the video walks through his morning in a daze, narrowly escaping any number of potential disasters—his eyes are "closed" because he has yet to have his coffee. Coffee drinking is being presented as a key ingredient in the culture of productivity. Nescafe offers an efficient and fairly inexpensive means of attaining this productivity.
Let's leave Peru for a moment and head to Hong Kong, where anthropologist Josephine Smart (2004) explores cognac consumption. She notes the marketing and rise in popularity of the drink in conjunction with Western associations:
The Hong Kong Chinese have always looked to the West for symbols of modernity (Cheng, 2001; Mathews, 2001) like the Caribbean people took to refined sugar as a symbol of "the modern and industrial" during the 19th century (Mintz, 1985: 193). Cognac was embraced as a symbol of distinction within a growing and evolving repertoire of material and cultural consumption in affluent Hong Kong society. Subsequently, cognac consumption becomes a part of an Hong Kong lifestyle that provides a model of Chinese modernity for Chinese in other societies (Friedman, 1994).
Here again is the appropriation of a product by a national consumer base to help craft an image—and the product is welcomed precisely because it offers the opportunity to craft that image. Smart cautions however, that the product is not simply accepted as is. For a foreign product to successfully enter a market, it must identify "compatible sites of cultural praxis" ((2004: 221). That is, the product cannot expect to be unchanged; it must lend itself to the use of the target audience. It is for this reason Soviet sausages were able to re-establish themselves as a brand, and Nescafe was able to infiltrate a market that could theoretically have accessed a domestic brand. Peruvian coffee lacked the authority to be used domestically for the purposes of establishing the nation and the people as participants in an industrial, modern state.
|Peruvian coffee house.|
Credit: Living in Peru
This may not always be the case, however. Recent initiatives, such as declaring the fourth Friday of August "Peru's Coffee Day" is meant to help change the awareness of and connection to Peruvian coffee, but only time will tell how successful this will be. In the meantime, foreign brands such Starbucks (that has actually increased export demands for Peruvian coffee) have a hold on the consumer, and if they shift their practices to match Peruvian food culture, there is a real danger to the fledgling coffee houses that have sprung up in urban areas. Interestingly, it seems that the very thing that established foreign coffee in Peru may help the popularity of native coffees. In an article on the state of coffee houses in Peru, a local cafe owner notes that their main consumers are "professionals over 30 who know their products as a result of knowing their brand from trips abroad." The cafe operates on a model similar to that found abroad, by offering sandwiches, sweets, and salads—so Peruvian coffee is presented to native drinkers in the same manner in which it may be consumed by foreign markets. This imparts some of the reputation of Peruvian coffee on the native drinker, so that they may turn to Peruvian coffee for the same reasons that they are drinking Nescafe or Starbucks. As one marketer says of Starbucks consumers in Peru:
“They do not pay 10 soles for the coffee itself, but for the snobbery that a global brand represents.”
All of this of course, overlooks the role of the actual growers who appear to be completely bypassed in the export of coffee. However, as we shall see next time, they may be integral to the cultural shift that would give Peruvian coffee domestic importance.
As always, Readers, your comments and thoughts are welcome—particularly if you have Peruvian coffee experience, we would love to hear from you!
Thanks to Joe Quick for sharing the Klumbyte article.
Smart, Josephine (2004). Globalization and Modernity: A Case Study of Cognac Consumption in Hong Kong Anthropologica, 42 (2), 219-229