While the pandemic has changed many American buying habits, one thing that hasn’t changed over the past year is coffee consumption. Ask committed coffee drinkers if they have maintained their caffeine habit during the pandemic, and the answer will likely be the same: “I can’t live without my morning coffee.”
An October 2020 poll by the American Coffee Association proves this assumption. The poll shows American coffee drinkers still consumed almost three cups a day during the pandemic, and about 80 percent of coffee drinkers are still getting their caffeine hit at home. App-based ordering, including delivery, soared 63 percent among consumers who drank coffee, and drive-through ordering increased 13 percent among this group.
Even with a pandemic changing consumer habits on everything from travel to eating out, what do these numbers say about Americans’ infatuation with coffee? Is it purely the caffeine hit? Is it the comfort in the habit of the daily cup of joe? Or is it more the connections forged from coffee dates with friends or business deals closed at the local coffee shop?
Regardless, it’s clear that coffee has long held a prominent place in the American consumer’s routines.
History of coffee
Lots of stories exist around the history and origins of coffee. One legend says an Ethiopian goat herder named Kaldi realized his goats became extremely active and unable to sleep after eating berries from a particular tree. This story goes on to say that Kaldi later took these berries to a monastery.
The monks believed the berries to be the devil’s work and tossed them into the fire. However, they quickly found the aroma of the beans roasting to be enticing. The monks raked the beans from the fire and put them into a jug with hot water to preserve them. They later drank the brew and discovered it helped them stay awake for evening vespers.
By the 16th century, people in Persia and Turkey were drinking coffee. In the early 1600s, coffee reached Europe through trade, and the Dutch introduced coffee seeds to the East and West Indies. In the 1650s, the first coffeehouse in England opened in Oxford. By the late 17th century, merchants and professional gentlemen were meeting in coffeehouses around England to sip coffee, read newspapers, and chat. Once Colonial unrest began in the 18th century, coffeehouses quickly became community hubs where American politicians, merchants, businessmen, and farmers gathered to discuss the growing dissatisfaction with England.
Locals frequenting coffee shops these days may have more in common with their American and British forebears than they realize. Today’s coffee shops — from chains to local holes in the wall — draw much of the same cross section of students, artists, civic leaders, academics, rabble rousers, and travelers as early coffee shops of 17th century England and Colonial America. These early coffee drinkers — like coffee devotees today — gathered not only to satisfy their coffee craving but also to share news, compare ideas on the issues of the day, and make connections.
As people are emerging from a year of COVID-imposed isolation, making connections is especially important in today’s world. Sean McCrossin owns two Drip coffee shops in Columbia — one in Five Points and the other on Main Street. The Five Points location tends to draw more students and people who are associated with the university, while the downtown shop draws more business types who work in nearby offices. His two shops may attract different types of customers, but Sean’s goals for both shops remain the same.
“I really believe the role of a coffee shop is to provide a platform for the local community to connect with each other and express themselves. And coffee is basically what we sell to help to build that platform,” Sean says. “It’s about having an atmosphere that’s stimulating but not offensive — playing music that achieves that. This makes people feel comfortable. People can express themselves and find connections with other people. I also think we reflect the community.”
Fortunately, the pandemic didn’t seem to impact negatively the survival of coffeehouses as much as other types of restaurants. In 2020, only 0.6 percent of coffee shops in the country shut down.
Sean says he closed the Five Points shop for only three days last spring. Once it became clear that people would be quarantined for more than a few weeks, he got creative to keep his loyal customers happy.
“I’ve got a food truck we normally use for espresso,” Sean says. He set up the bus in Five Points and served only coffee for six hours daily for about 10 days. “We were lucky because I had the bus. It only takes me to operate. I made just Americanos at first. Then I had some complications with the bus, so our manager and I served coffee behind a table set up in the front door of the shop.”
Sean harkens back to how the Americano style of coffee first came about – in another historic situation that required creativity and innovation. After World War II, American soldiers would go into European cafes seeking coffee like they drank at home. “Europeans don’t make drip coffee,” Sean says, “so the coffee shops essentially just mixed espresso and water. That’s pretty much what I did on the bus.”
Typically, most coffee shops brew their coffee using one of four methods. It takes about 70 roasted beans to make one average cup:
• Drip is the most common way to brew traditional black coffee. Medium grounds go into to a brew basket and are run through an automatic machine.
• Pour-over is a more refined way to make a stronger brew. Boiling water is poured slowly over fine grounds set in a filter basket. A cup set underneath the basket catches the coffee.
• Espresso comes from pressurized hot water passing through a filter containing finely ground, dark roasted beans. The force produces an especially concentrated shot.
• Cold brew comes from coarsely ground beans steeped in room temperature water for an extended period of time. The result is a low-acidity, high-caffeine brew many people enjoy cold.
Research varies widely on why some people spend as much on coffee as they do on essential purchases. Regardless of why people spend money on their daily caffeine fix, Americans do spend a lot on this habit. A popular fundraising tactic several years ago compared the cost of a daily cup of coffee to the daily cost of a contribution to public television. It’s a comparison that vividly illustrates how this daily purchase can add up.
About 24,000 coffee shops are located in the United States, and on average, a coffee shop sells 230 cups of coffee per day. The average price for a cup of coffee in the United States rings up at $3.28. Americans spend more on coffee than they do on their cell phone bill. On average, this accounts for more than $1,000 in the average consumer’s annual budget.
In Amsterdam, coffee consumers have more than just price to consider when purchasing their daily dose of caffeine. While coffee shops in America vary from the consistency of a Starbucks location to the quaintness of the local underground shop, the fact that coffee is sold inside is still pretty clear to the average person walking by the storefront. In Amsterdam, however, visitors have to be careful about entering what looks like a traditional American coffee shop.
Someone looking for a cup of morning caffeine and a freshly baked croissant should seek out a koffiehuis or coffeehouse, not a coffee shop. Coffee shops are for smoking cannabis, while coffeehouses are for sipping hot beverages and indulging in delicious pastries.
Farm to cup
The two most common types of coffee beans sold in America are arabica and robusta. Originating in the highlands of Ethiopia, arabica is the most commonly used and widely available bean, making up about 60 percent of the world’s coffee production. It is delicate and difficult to grow. High-quality arabica, often found under gourmet labels, has a more delicate flavor and the coffee is generally less acidic. The quality of the arabica bean diminishes when served cold or with creamer. It is best served hot, brewed with the pour-over or drip coffee technique.
Robusta is the second most popular bean. It is hearty, disease resistant, and typically more economical. Instant coffee is generally made of 100 percent robusta. This high-caffeine bean, which can have harsher, more bitter qualities, is often found in blends. Robusta is often considered a perfect coffee for cream and sugar lovers.
Drinking coffee puts consumers at the tail end of a long and complex supply chain that moves the raw beans from farms around the world to the piping hot mug in a local coffee shop. A typical supply chain includes the following:
Growing — Planting typically happens during the wet season to ensure the roots get firmly established. Plants take anywhere from four to seven years to produce their first harvest and will grow fruit for up to 25 years.
Picking — Coffee farmers usually have one major harvest annually. In most countries, the crop is picked by hand in a labor-intensive and difficult process. The process has been mechanized in some countries like Brazil where the landscape is relatively flat and the coffee fields immense.
Processing and Milling — Coffee berries are processed either in a traditional “dry” method using the sun or “wet” method using water and machinery. This removes the outer fruit encasing the sought-after green beans. The green coffee beans are hulled, cleaned, polished, and sorted.
Roasting — Beans are industrially roasted, becoming darker, oilier, and tasty. Different temperatures and heat duration influence the final color and flavor to meet consumer preferences for everything from light roasts to dark roasts.
Packaging and shipping — Any imperfect beans are discarded, and the remaining roasted beans are packaged together by type. The beans are loaded onto ships in either jute or sisal bags and shipped to retailers, coffee shops, and in some cases, direct to consumers.
Grinding — Roasted beans are ground up by machine or by hand to better extract their flavors. The goal of a proper grind is to get the most flavor in a cup of coffee. The length of time the grounds will be in contact with water determines the ideal grade of grind. Generally, the finer the grind, the more quickly the coffee should be prepared. This explains why coffee ground for an espresso machine is much finer than coffee brewed in a drip system.
Brewing — Water is added to the coffee grounds in a variety of methods.
While most coffee drinkers don’t give a lot of thought to the supply chain or the farmers who move the product from the farm to the cup, sustainability and free trade issues related to coffee production impact the entire coffee economy.
Columbia native and Citadel professor Dr. Alison Smith had the chance to experience coffee farming firsthand when she took a “coffee tourism” trip to rural Nicaragua. Initially, she saw this as an enjoyable way to travel while also supporting women coffee farmers. Once she arrived at her destination, however, Alison quickly understood the key role women play in the country’s coffee economy.
Alison’s host was involved with a local cooperative of female entrepreneurs who had banded together after the men’s cooperative refused their membership. Small growers form cooperatives to get the best price for their coffee.
“These women enthusiastically welcomed me into their homes and lives,” Alison says. “In communities like the one where I stayed, families often live off the bounty of 10 acres, half of which is planted in crops for the family’s consumption and the other half in coffee to be sold for income.”
Kimberly Easson has taken the business skills she gained from her University of South Carolina International MBA degree and applied them to her 20-plus year career of bringing attention to gender inequities in the international coffee business, like those that Alison witnessed in Nicaragua.
After graduation from USC, Kimberly spent time in Costa Rica, where she got her first exposure to the coffee economy while working in marketing for the founder of a local coffee company. She quickly developed a personal and professional passion for the working people on the coffee farms.
“I didn’t have a connection to poverty in such a visceral way,” Kimberly says. “I didn’t know how so much of the world lived. Even back then we were paying $3 to $4 for a cup of coffee. I was in Guatemala and Nicaragua with all these farmers and thought something was wrong. I wanted to do something about it.”
Kimberly’s career has taken her around the world focusing on fair trade certification. The more time she spent in working with the coffee economy, the more she realized the role of women is highly undervalued and underappreciated.
“It’s not widely known that women are coffee farmers,” Kimberly says. She points to the fictional character of Juan Valdez, made famous in 1970s advertising as the iconic face of the Colombian coffee industry. “I thought about him as a distinguished man with his mule. He was pretty well dressed and looked a little sophisticated. In reality, coffee farmers are living in different circumstances and often are very poor — women and youth in particular.”
The modern coffee percolator was invented in 1889 by Hanson Goodrich.
Instant coffee was invented by New Zealander David Strang in 1889.
Freeze-dried coffee was invented in 1938.
Decaffeinated coffee was invented by Ludwig Roselius in 1903.
Melitta Bentz invented the coffee filter in 1908.
Achille Gaggia invented the modern espresso machine in 1946.
The first pump-driven espresso machine was made in 1960.
The coffee table became a popular item of furniture in the early 20th century.
During World War II, coffee was rationed for a short time in America (rationing was introduced in November 1942 and ended in July 1943).
Brazil is the world’s largest producer of coffee.
66 percent of women drink coffee every day, compared to 62 percent of men.