Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Why Do Americans Drink Coffee?

The way you drink, where you drink, how you drink—all becomes part of your persona.

Khoi Vinh believes coffee drinking in the West is a self-conscious and ostentatious practice—“not just a daily habit, but a totem of conspicuous consumption”:

Once in hand, we proudly parade those ostentatiously titled cups of coffee, lidded and wrapped in insulating sleeves, around with us as we walk and drive. They’re like our hood ornaments: branded markers, symbols of our fealty to given coffee houses that, we are convinced, make us better, more informed, more authentic, more committed consumers of dirty hot water than those others who will settle for lesser brands.

But Jason Kottke argues that our coffee culture, “like almost everything else these days, is a sport.” Everyone has a favorite “team” (aka Chemex vs. French press) and preferred technique, and they often love to argue with “fans of other teams.” There are more methods to brew coffee than I ever thought possible—this Pop Chart Lab “Compendious Coffee Chart” shows a swath of them, from the “Toddy Cold Brew” and “Kyoto Dripper” to the “Neapolitan Flip.” And don’t forget the various methods of serving and drinking coffee—of course we are familiar with plain black coffee (so boring), the americano, cappuccino, and latté. But have you heard of a cortado? A galão? A Vietnamese Cá Phê?

In addition to methodology fans, there are also those who ascribe to various coffee retailers—whether it be a chain a la Starbucks, or a local indie store (usually offering thimble-size shots of espresso). Nathan Yau recently mapped the most popular coffee chains across the nation: Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts had the greatest fan base, clearly dominating on the east and west coast. Dutch Bros. and Tim Hortons also had a pretty good showing in their respective regions.

Frank Bruni wrote a column for the New York Times in 2010, describing his journey from one method of coffee making to another. While he learned to appreciate the art of French press and other various methodologies, he also came to love the beautiful simplicity of good old Mr. Coffee—to find in your kitchen “10 cups of coffee, brewed automatically, just five minutes earlier, as a consequence of a few simple steps and some alarm clock-style programming the night before.”

It seems many people are as excited about various coffee brews as they are about wines—and coffee tasting can have a similar air of self-conscious elitism as that expressed in various wine-loving circles. Some shun Starbucks with an eye-roll and a reference to its big-gulp sized, sugary drinks. Others scoff those silly hipsters who only drink their coffee with butter.

So why do Americans drink coffee? Do they truly love their cups of joe for joe’s sake, or do they claim it as a status symbol, a team activity like watching March Madness?

It probably depends somewhat on the region of the country, as well as the predisposition of the coffee drinker. I’ve met some coffee drinkers who are madly in love with the beverage, whether it comes in an instant packet or as a fancy pour over. Other friends can only drink the brew if it comes in a copiously sugared façade (pumpkin spice latte or peppermint mocha, anyone?). Still others seem to enjoy the art of coffee-brewing itself, and spend their days discussing the art of bean-grinding, and pondering whether it’s best to use hot or cold water in their various brewing machines. Coffee drinking, like so many other “foodie” veins, comes with a bit of identity sculpting. The way you drink, where you drink, how you drink—all of it becomes part of your cultural and social persona.

But coffee can also be part of a community ritual. This interesting New York Times piece by Michael Haft and Harrison Suarez explores the role coffee has played in the lives of American soldiers throughout history. Haft and Suarez “picked up the coffee habit” as Marines: in basic training, “Nobody talked about recipes or ratios—on breaks, you threw a dollar into the metal tin, you filled up a plastic foam cup and you got back in the classroom.” While in the field, they bartered for instant coffee and packets of Irish cream cappuccino. When they came home from their deployment, coffee became more than just a drink: “It was a way to remember what it’s all about, a way to connect with old friends, a way to make sense of where our paths in life had taken us.”

Many of us can identify with coffee’s communal power. My college roommates exercised a daily ceremony of coffee brewing before class, and we grew accustomed to each other’s tastes and preferences. Local baristas grow to know their regulars, and create favorite drinks with a fondness emanating from familiarity and trust.

America’s coffee culture, like its citizenry, is diverse. There are some who would probably scoff at your Starbucks Venti Caramel Macchiato (and they’d probably remind you that it’s not a real macchiato, for the record). There are others who drink their Dunkin’ Donuts brew with a passionate and loyalty akin to a sports affinity, like Kottke suggests. But for some of us, coffee is just another good excuse to spend time together: a tasty, happy tradition, worth preserving for its various merits, and for its ability to help us connect.