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.