Coffee is culture.
Think of how often people ask others to “go for coffee” to catch up. Or how many people around the globe need that first cup of joe to begin their day. According to the National Coffee Association, 63 percent of American adults drank coffee every day in 2019; it’s also the most consumed beverage outside of water. That makes it easy to bond over.
But what is coffee culture, then? Put simply, it’s connection and, increasingly, identity. It’s how you take your coffee in the morning—sugar, cream, or black—but also who you drink it with, at what time, where, and for how long.
Evolution of Coffee Culture in America
Coffee hasn’t always been the cultural mainstay it is today.
Coffee culture history in the U.S. goes as such: It rose to prominence as a drink in the post-war period in the U.S., largely as an adult beverage. It was more consumed then than it has ever been, at that time, with nearly three-quarters of American adults drinking coffee—typically a light-roast brew from a can—every day.
But then new generations aged into adulthood, soft drinks became trendy, and a coffee shortage in the 1970s changed the game. By the time coffee supply and prices rebounded, coffee marketing—recognizing its new competition—pivoted to be about specialty drinks. The idea: tailor to new audiences that asked more questions about what it means to be a drinker of one coffee versus another. The “specialty coffee” boom sprang from this, ushering in flavored coffees, single-origin coffees, and a culture of coffee houses.
While the numbers didn’t rebound until well into the 1990s, the brown beverage began gaining momentum. Starting in Seattle, the coffee house began to take off—especially near college campuses—and spread from city to city, town to town. Coffee culture became a social one, with shops one-upping each other by doubling as either a community center, a performance space, or an art gallery. Coffee shops even became prevalent on TV shows like Friends.
That culture persists today—a coffee evolution with contemporary twists. You’ll find as many people huddled around a table talking about their social lives as you will those camped out with a laptop and a cup of coffee to finish work or do reading in-shop. Today, there are more than 8,000 Starbucks coffee shops around the U.S., making up nearly a third of the company’s worldwide presence.
The evolution of coffee culture is that it has grown increasingly enamored with cold and pre-packaged coffee drinks. According to the National Coffee Association’s 2018 report, most Americans have heard of cold brew and more than a third drink it—an impressively fast shift toward recognition and consumption in just a few years. Most coffee drinkers younger than 40 drink cold brew.
Meanwhile, those who report that they’ve consumed “gourmet” coffee in the past day lands at 61 percent—meaning today’s culture cares about the coffee they’re drinking, and not just that they’re drinking it.
But the history of coffee culture in America owes a lot to coffee shop culture elsewhere.
The First Coffee Shops
While it could be argued the first coffee shop involved the collection of Sufis in Yemen who engaged in conversation and spiritual ritual over coffee, the first coffee shop, as many think of it, still operates in Paris, France.
Café Le Procope, built in 1686, was frequented by some of the world’s great thinkers: Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin, to name a few. The opening of the café—which had previously been a bath house—transformed coffee culture from an exotic novelty found at a restaurant, to an everyday luxury and meeting ground that attracted artists, musicians, writers, and critics. That attraction was attributed to a theater’s close proximity to the café.
Consider it the beginning of when coffee culture around the world truly changed.
From there, in the 18th century, coffee shops spread to Venice and Rome, and in the 19th century, Vienna. It was not until 1927, in Greenwich Village, that New York City—and thus, the U.S.—saw the opening of its first coffee shop, Caffe Reggio. It’s also the shop that introduced Americans to the espresso machine—by way of Italy—and, thus, the cappuccino.
Social Impact of Coffee
What’s remarkable about coffee culture in the past 20 years in the U.S.—and worldwide, really—is that it has become associated with an identity. A preferred blend from a favorite coffee shop, an espresso drink, a style of iced coffee, a country of origin—it all adds up to some degree of social value and can be as identity-shaping as what shirt you put on in the morning.
This is, of course, in addition to two fundamentals: coffee boosts productivity and lifts the mood—enough to make socializing a byproduct of it. That’s true for “watercooler moments” at the office and with strangers at a table next to you at the local coffee shop.
Today, it’s also true that coffee has become a slightly less social drink, and more of an enjoyable fuel for work. The number of laptops in a café often matches the number of coffee cups; if someone happens to bond with us over our coffee choice, then, well, that’s just the cream poured on top.
Coffee even has a significant role in the modern workplace. Breaks are centered around coffee machines with employees choosing between their favorite flavor of coffee pods.