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The Culture of Coffee Drinkers

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Ed. Note: It’s “Food Day” on the SciAm guest blog, and bloggers around the network have also been sharing their thoughts on our relationship with modern foods. A year ago, AiP ran a series on coffee. It took on a life of its own, and spurred several follow-up discussions, which you can read here. In honor of “Food Day,” I’ve resurrected and edited the original series that started it all. So go brew yourself a cup of java and settle in for a look at the role coffee plays in our lives.

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Are You a Morning Person?

The idea of the morning person aside, morning commuters seem to fall into one of two categories: the Caffeinated and the Un-caffeinated—the latter category being those who intend to consume coffee, but haven’t quite gotten their morning java yet. 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.

Only Grown Ups Drink 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.

The “Me” Generation

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).

The Office Brew

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.

Chances are you have a coffeemaker in your workplace. It may just produce instant coffee, but it still produces a cup of caffeine when you need it. What about at home? And how far away are the nearest coffee houses—even if they are major chains? We’re surrounded by coffee and caffeine. Why? We live in a society that demands productivity during certain hours&38212;and if you live in a large urban center like New York City, there is a demand for productivity at all hours. We have standardized labor production so that we don’t necessarily work when it’s best for us (unless you’re a freelancer, and can work during hours that make sense to you), and coffee not only gets the day started (even if that day is actually a night shift), it gets us through the day.

Our time is managed; it is not our own. Psychologists Ryan, Hatfield, and Hofstetter (2002) report that while 75% of adults over the age of 65 consider themselves morning people, only 10% of those under age 65 feel that they can be categorized in this way. These subjective ratings for peak productivity times also correspond with data from objective measures of cognitive functions, including analytical thought and judgment, memory, and the ability to suppress irrelevant information (e.g., wandering thoughts) (68). That is, individuals over the age of 65 seem to perform better on tests of memory and concentration in the morning, while individuals under the age of 65 seem to perform better on these types of tests in the afternoon. This may be in part related to shifting sleep patterns over the course of the individual’s lifetime and our accommodation of routines, but this phenomenon is not well understood. Ryan et. al. propose:

It is likely that cognitive dysfunction at nonoptimal times of day is related to a general decrease in physiological arousal or alertness, because self-reported time-of-day preferences correspond to cyclical fluctuations in physiological measures, including body temperature, skin conductance, and heart rate. If time-of-day- effects are simply due to fluctuations in physiological energy, then one might expect that the performance of older adults during the afternoon might be facilitated by substances that increase arousal (2002: 68). [Emphasis mine.]

Enter coffee, stage right. Caffeine is perhaps the most widely used stimulant in our general population. It helps us get through those non-optimal periods for productivity when we compelled to be productive anyway. Caffeine makes us feel alert and attentive. It is a highly lipid soluble, so it tends to cross from the bloodstream into the brain quickly and we feel its effects relatively quickly. In animals, caffeine has shown that it reaches peak accumulations in the brain within minutes of ingestion (Ryan et. al. 2002: 68). And it hangs around in the brain, stimulating the regions that control sleep, mood, and concentration, slowly dissipating over three to four hours (68)—which is plenty of time for you to get through your morning inbox, survive the staff meeting, return a few calls, and then get ready for lunch. (Though as Peter Lipson correctly reminded me, regular coffee drinkers do not get the same boost from the caffeine in coffee as do those who are not regular imbibers. Lipson recommends this paper, and points out that for regular coffee drinkers, the caffeine mitigates withdrawal symptoms, which we incorrectly associate with a stimulating boost.)

The office coffee machine serves two purposes: it’s a convenience for you, the coffee drinker, but it’s also a productivity booster for employers who want employees to get down to work when they arrive (instead, perhaps, reading blogs about anthropology and coffee). Rocky Sexton (2001) talks about the ways that alcohol consumption allows Mardi Gras revelers to act out as their masked characters:

Intoxication, or the appearance of intoxication, which may involve minimal alcohol consumption, confers a degree of immunity for the foolish conduct that defines Mardi Gras … Drunkenness in this context is thus better viewed as a culturally constructed form of ritualized inebriation although there is the potential for actual over-consumption to the point of physical impairment (2001: 28).

Alcohol consumption is very much a part of the Mardi Gras experience. Not only does it lower inhibitions, it also serves as a way to bind the community of revelers together. After all, if they’re all doing it, then it’s normalized for the context and helps revelers behave as they are expected to behave in this setting. Perhaps we can apply his term “ritualized inebriation” to coffee consumption as well. We consume coffee as a means of performing the tasks we need to complete in the setting of the workplace. And if we all do it, then it normalizes the behavior and helps us believe that we are achieving optimal levels of productivity. It also becomes a crutch throughout the day as we reach for our afternoon lattes to plow through the second half of the day—believe me, the line at the Starbucks near my job is equally as long in the afternoon as it is in the morning. We use it to ward off boredom and fatigue. The next time you travel take a look at the number of folks drinking coffee or caffeinated beverages. Perhaps there is a sense that carrying coffee or having it nearby confers the idea of productivity also. So not only are we drinking it to get us through the day’s activities, but we have it with us to seem like we’re busy and productive during times when we’re not actually working—it could almost be classified as a status symbol.

Coffee: It’s Personal

Over the years, coffee drinking seems to have moved farther away from the social activity that it initially appears to be. While people still frequent coffee houses for leisure activities, it’s far more likely to see a variety of folks working on laptops or reading, or doing some other form of productive work at coffee houses. The number who are there solely for social purposes seems very small. I’m not advocating you give up your morning cup of coffee—as with all my other posts here, my goal is really to make you think about the things that we accept as a part of our daily lives and consider our relationship to them.

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.

 

Cited:

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

Ryan L, Hatfield C, & Hofstetter M (2002). Caffeine reduces time-of-day effects on memory performance in older adults. Psychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society / APS, 13 (1), 68-71 PMID: 11892781

Sexton, R. (2001). Ritualized Inebriation, Violence, and Social Control in Cajun Mardi Gras Anthropological Quarterly, 74 (1), 28-38 DOI: 10.1353/anq.2001.0010

 

Image credits: Creative Commons/K DCosta/Creative Commons, Peter Abramsen/Creative Commons, Simon Law

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Want more java? A Trail of Coffee Bean traces the history of the bean, from its origins to fair trade. You may also be interested in:

 

 

Krystal D'Costa About the Author: Krystal D'Costa is an anthropologist working in digital media in New York City. You can follow AiP on Facebook. Follow on Twitter @krystaldcosta.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. nijabird 3:20 pm 08/11/2011

    “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.”

    I think you meant we *use* words such as “*Fair*-Trade”… “tout” means an attempt to sell something and “Free-Trade,” is, well, entirely different from what people usually talk about when it comes to coffee.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Metridia 9:21 pm 08/11/2011

    This is sort of a top-down approach. However, I don’t think it’s that informative to a) look at coffee in isolation, since it grew in parallel with the general popularization of ‘gourmet’ and ‘organic, and as other premium foods, like wine, also grew in popularity; and b) the specialty-coffee movement may have had its corporate standard-bearers that penetrated non-urban markets, but it grew out of the greater emphasis on artisanal or organic foods and products that itself was imported from Europe or developed out of the back-to-land movement, which created the independent coffeehouse culture in the Northwest and in cities like Boston and New York.
    Like most marketing, the guy claiming to have identified the ‘me’ generation ( as if that hadn’t been mooted since the early 1980s) is just reifying the conventional wisdom of the targeted market. Honestly, it’s not like Maxwell House or even Starbucks when it was still regional invented gourmet coffee by knocking heads with some marketers. They just took some starter culture from specific locations and inoculated a public that was already interested in things gourmet with a particular strain of gourmet.

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  3. 3. Coffee Blogger 11:57 pm 06/10/2013

    Although people staring at their laptops in coffee shops may APPEAR to be isolated and less social, maybe they’re using social media or e-mail to communicate with other people in a less conspicuous way.

    Link to this

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