By Peter Mackie
Coffee culture is a word that is tossed around a lot. But, what really is coffee culture and where do hipsters, flat whites and vanilla spiced lattes fit in?
A quick Wiki search defines Coffee Culture as a “set of traditions and social behaviours that surround the consumption of coffee, particularly as a social lubrication”. I wanted to find out a bit more about the culture surrounding coffee and so thought I would do a bit more research. It’s important to begin where the first coffees were consumed to understand how this beverage became an important part of social gatherings.
Coffee’s history and origin is inextricably linked with that of colonialism. Mark Pendergrast notes in his book Uncommon Grounds: The History Of Coffee And How It Transformed The World that during the 1700s European colonial powers discovered the profitability of coffee. A Triangular Trade was established, where European Imperialists imported slaves from Africa to labour in coffee plantations in Asia, Americas and the Caribbean.
The birth place of coffee can be traced to Northern Ethiopia. From there it was traded through the Middle East, Asia and Europe before being taken to the Americas by European colonisers. However, Ethiopia’s trade in coffee didn’t become significant until the 19th Century and has become a major part their economy. Its estimated that 15 million Ethiopians are employed by the coffee industry and the coffee trade makes up 70% of their export earnings. Between 1974 to 1991 Ethiopia was governed by a Marxist dictatorship which required farms to sell directly to the government at a low price. Since that government’s fall in 1991 however things have opened up and since the election of Abey Ahmed in 2018 in particular there have been many changes which have allowed a more direct coffee trade and a traceable one too. Previously when all coffee went through the centralised exchange traceability was impossible. Coffee culture thrives in Ethiopia where half of all the coffee produced by the country is consumed domestically. The traditional coffee ceremony as an important part of the social culture as is the rise of successful Ethiopian coffee chains.
Early coffee houses
The earliest coffee houses in Europe (possibly anywhere?) are believed to date back to16th Century Turkey. These houses in Western Europe and Eastern Mediterranean nations not only provided social hubs but also functioned as meeting points for artistic and intellectual minds.
Closer to home, in the late 17th Century coffee houses in London become popular meeting places for merchants as well as artists, writers, socialites and politicians. Patrons were from the upper and upper middle social classes - financial institutions such as Lloyds began as coffee houses where merchants met to invest in trade ventures. Coffee was also spreading among the masses as a domestic beverage, roasted from home.
In the mid 19th Century coffee’s ‘First wave’ arguably began in San Francisco led by Pioneer Steam Coffee and Spice Mills. This was the first time coffee had been mass roasted and this commercialisation began to move the culture away from that of domestic roasting. Improvements in packaging and marketing grew the mass market in North America throughout the first half of the 20th Century. It is believed that the Americano itself was born during war time when the US soldiers where deployed in Italy. By diluting the espresso shots with boiling water they could enjoy a coffee drink which approximated the filter brews they knew at home.
Italians! I would be lying if I said I completely understood the social complexity of Italian coffee and the culture surrounding it. Italian coffee is a dark roast. We owe them for words like cappuccino, latte and macchiato. The words “una pausa" (a pause) is the formality of a coffee break. This involves a three gulp maximum espresso consumption whilst discussing business or politics. Possibly, this is what drives Italian productivity as it is not unheard of that an average espresso drinking Italian will drink between seven or eight espressos daily.
After the second world war innovations led to Instant Coffee. Instant coffee lasted longer by using vacuum packaging and sales sky rocketed through cultural marketing. People increasingly lost touch with what freshly roasted coffee could be and the process of roasting coffee.
Freshly roasted coffee was ‘rediscovered’ in Western culture (specifically in North America) in something commonly termed the second wave. It was during this time that the idea of the coffee chain grew. In 1966 Peet’s Coffee was established in Berkley, California. Starbucks was founded in 1971 in Seattle, modelled on the early success of Peet’s and in fact all three of the Starbucks founders had been trained in roasting coffee by Peet. As Starbucks grew so did the popularity of coffee shop culture. A positive customer experience was front and centre of this model alongside the ideas of fresh roasting and information about the country of origin of the coffees.
The second wave established the idea of going out for coffee (previously in the US certainly, coffee was a drink you made at home, or something generic that was part of a meal in a diner or restaurant). It was not something you went out for specifically on its own. The coffee chains also made walking around holding a take away coffee a trendy thing. And finally, importantly, it pushed up the price that people were willing to pay for a cup of joe.
The speciality coffee third wave was born out of the second wave and arguably could not have happened without it. After Starbucks become a global franchise worth almost twenty billion US dollars, new coffee shops in Chicago and Portland began reinventing the craft of coffee. Check out ‘God in a Cup’ for a fascinating account of these early third wave pioneers.
The new third wave roasters focussed on higher quality Arabic beans instead of the cheaper less flavoursome Robusta, they emphasised the way coffee was traded and the stories of where and how it was produced. They acknowledged the exploitative and colonial nature of the coffee trade and began to explore new models, rethinking the journey of coffee from farm to cup. Direct trade was sought between producers and roasters and a rise was seen in the popularity of single origin coffee where the producer was showcased. People began to explore different brewing methods to enjoy their fancy new beans and latte art began to look like actual art!
Coffee Culture trends
Coffee changes (like everything else) to keep up with social demands, the economy and trends. A perfect example of this is the flat white. One story goes that the flat white was invented in 1989 by a Mr Mclnnes who worked in a Wellington coffee shop. However, this is been widely rejected by Australians who have argued they are the ones behind the caffeinated beauty! Nevertheless, the flat white is now a global coffee phenomenon.
In a reversal from when the second wave was setting the trend, we have over the past decade seen the second wave chains trying to emulate the culture of the third wave cafes. Their shops often try to copy the industrial aesthetic (brick wallpaper ??) and their menus also follow. The flat white was added to the Starbucks menu in 2015 and now masses order it without knowing the basic foundation of a flat white. Smaller than a Latte, the Flat White consists of one-third espresso, two-thirds milk. The milk is steamed, not frothed, to leave a silky smooth top. Mr Mclnnes flat white is now a global coffee shop favourite and I have drank a silly amount of them!
The Coffee Brand
I believe the latest wave in coffee culture is one in which aesthetics is an even bigger driver than the coffee itself. A coffee shop’s Instagram-abilty can determine its success and its reach in our rapidly evolving online world. You could argue that coffee culture now is not driven only by taste or trade model but instead by branding, merchandise and a customer tribe. A successful coffee shop or roaster has to build a brand to bring customers back and attract new ones in a now saturated market. How do you differentiate between coffee businesses who all offer ethically sourced freshly roasted beans, flat whites and artisan pastries?
You have to look at what else the customer is receiving from the experience. Possibly it’s the background music of Tash Sultan, FKJ or a French `hiphop artist that nobody has heard of’. Maybe the place is famous for beautiful and edgily disdainful baristas covered in tattoos. Whatever the ‘vibe’ is, you need to find your match, your tribe. And businesses need to be clear about who they are and who belongs to their tribe. Merch is key here with ‘members’ repping their chosen brand, not necessarily by walking around with their cup but by wearing their hoodie. Instagram has no doubt fuelled this finding of tribe and this focus on aesthetics. One hundred and thirty five million posts have used the hashtag coffee. The coffee “flex” is something that is driving sales and social coffee drinking norms.
As I write this I ponder how the beautiful design of a take away coffee cup which flashed past me on an Instagram story just now makes me want to try Blue Bottles $16 cup of coffee from Yemen. I’m excited to watch how coffee, coffee drinking and coffee shops will develop in the future
New Zealand Story - https://www.nzstory.govt.nz/stories/who-invented-the-flat-white/
Coffee Hunter - https://www.coffeehunter.com/coffee-country/ethiopia/