The anthropology of coffee


In 1991, coffee-drinking seemed to be on its way out in the United States. From a peak consumption of 3.2 cups per day per person on average in 1962, coffee consumption was down to measly 1.75 cups. There were good reasons for this: Nobody liked the cheap, nasty sludge generally available and the entire experience reeked of Grandma.

Enter advertising giant Ogilvy and Mather, working for Maxwell House.

Their suggestion: Segment the product by quality, value and personal image—ideas that all ended up leading to the thriving coffee market of today. Just when we thought we were out, they sucked us back in. (Meanwhile, the parallel rise of coffee and decline of tobacco could be a sociology thesis, in and of itself.)

That little insight is part of a three-part series on the anthropology of coffee on the blog Anthropology in Practice. The first part looks at how coffee became a necessary part of our morning existence. The second delves into the history of the coffee bean in human culture. And the third examines the social role of coffee in creating a culture of productivity.

Image courtesy Flickr user jphilipg, via CC


  1. Interesting reads. As a non-coffee drinker, I’ve always felt like an ‘outsider’ looking at the strange world of coffee. I’ve never thought of using that perspective to anthropological advantage.

    1. You might check out Eduardo Galeano’s “Open Veins of Latin America.” In it he has ‘organized the various facets of Latin American history according to the patterns of five centuries of exploitation. Thus he is concerned with gold and silver, cacao and cotton, rubber and coffee… These are the veins which he traces through the body of the entire continent, up to the Rio Grande and throughout the Caribbean, and all the way to their open ends where they empty into the coffers of wealth in the United States and Europe.’

  2. John B. Watson, father of Behaviorism, was one of the advertising VP’s who popularized the idea of the coffee break…for Maxwell House, I believe.

  3. Nobody liked the cheap, nasty sludge generally available and the entire experience reeked of Grandma

    My limited experience of US coffee suggests not much has changed. Yes I avoided the corporate coffee houses.

    1. Next time you are visiting the U.S., let me (@danielofarabica on Twitter) know and I’ll direct you to quality coffee joints. No excuse for having bad coffee in a major metro area in the U.S.

  4. Oh, nonsense. Coffee didn’t come back because of Maxwell House. There was an espresso culture among Italian immigrants, then there was a guy in Berkeley named Alfred Peet who started convincing the rest of us about the virtues of good, strong coffee. He wasn’t interested in expansion, but a number of people who worked for him were; they moved to Seattle and founded a number of coffee companies, one of which was Starbucks.

    Maxwell House sells to the people who liked grandma’s brown water.

  5. I am so thankful for the little coffee shop here in town. Every bean, cup, pot of coffee or tea is a labor of love.

  6. I used to hate coffee. Whenever I would try it, I’d make this screwed-up face that was part surprise, part disgust, and all rejection. My coffee-face was almost as funny as my alcohol-face (of which surprise is not an ingredient).

    Then I got a coffeemaker whose brand rhymes with Fun. (I’m not a shill!) I discovered that I hated coffee because it was never prepared properly. With my new coffeemaker, all the bitter was removed, and I started to enjoy coffee and its delicious power of the wake-up.

    I still hate alcohol, though.

  7. The blog posts were a little disappointing. There are many excellent, well-researched books on the recent economic history of coffee (eg, Mark Pendergrast’s delightful Uncommon Grounds from 1999), but this analysis depended on an article (at which gets its data mainly from 2 trade journals.

  8. Coffee did not “come back,” it never left. I clearly think the facts are not facts at all.
    As a 1960 person we went to local Coffee Houses in Santa Monica, Venice and Hollywood where we had espressos and lattes, no booze sold at those Jazz joints or Folk Music places.

    They roasted their own coffee and it was GREAT!!

    Grandma’s coffee was also wonderful because she got “fresh roasted beans” and not the crap in the cans!
    A little roaster right in the middle of Beverly Hills supplied coffee for those who hated the canned stuff.

  9. Awesome three part series. As an employee at a small roasting company, I found this really interesting and decided to share the link with all of our friends.

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