The Social Significance of your Taste in Coffee

When we go for our annual family reunion in the countryside in California, my brother-in-law always brings his high-quality espresso machine, along with the requisite freshly ground espresso beans from his favorite San Francisco shop.  He is much like his brother, my husband, who can drive for miles on a camping trip in search of a “decent” latte; instant made over the fire just won’t do.  Yet, we are not your typical upper class family who tastes signify status and, as Pierre Bourdieu argued, serve to exclude those who don’t have the “right” tastes—in this case, for a café latte brewed just so.  My husband’s family, you see, is not a northeast WASP family of the type so disdained by the middle of the country, but rather they are immigrants from Pakistan (perhaps disdained by the middle of the country for other reasons entirely!).  When they were teenagers, they learned to appreciate the sweet, strong, milky tea of South Asia that US coffee shops now call “chai” (and they chuckle when they hear Americans ordering a “chai tea”—which translates to a “tea tea”).

So what should we make of the social significance of tastes in coffee?  Bourdieu argued that elites arbitrarily define certain cultural products as “high quality” in order to maintain their status.  In fact, my brother-in-law’s Bay Area technology firm actually brought in baristas to do 15 minute lessons in how to make a good espresso/latte at his office (this is one of those firms that serves everyone breakfast, lunch, and dinner with an on-site chef).  They seem to be grooming their employees for high social status.  This indeed is how my brother-in-law explains his taste for “good” coffee was cultivated.  Furthermore, according to Bourdieu once the lower classes start to adopt those cultural products elites then change the cultural arbitrary to maintain their status.

Starbucks illustrates this point well.  A few weeks ago I noticed a Starbucks coffee cup sitting next to the driver of a city bus in Cambridge.  Interesting, I thought, that a bus driver is drinking Starbucks, which I associated with “good” coffee.  And, to my pleasant surprise, Starbucks came to the working class town I grew up in a few years ago, and whenever I’ve gone on visits to my parents it is packed.  Then, last week at our family reunion my brother-in-law explained to me that Starbucks coffee is “bad” (they burn the milk, apparently), and no self-respecting San Francisco coffee connoisseur like himself would be caught drinking Starbucks coffee.  Huh, I thought.  The cultural arbitrary has changed. Maybe the Starbucks executives actually tried to make it so, to gain more customers for a product whose price can only go so high.

I think I will stick to my daily PG Tips tea.  What kinds of coffee do you drink, and how have those tastes changed over time?  What led to those changes in taste for you?

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4 thoughts on “The Social Significance of your Taste in Coffee

  1. Well, I agree that some portion of the issue lies in social arbitrary and preservation of class and rank; however, I think you miss another portion of the reason why “Starbuck’s is bad.” Starbuck’s has chosen to go mass market. While I do agree that mass market is disdained by the upper class partly because of its lack of exclusivity; anything… anything… anything produced mass market simply loses quality. There are proven reasons for this in economics and business– mainly, the time, effort, education, and labor force required to make something high quality is simply not available en masse. Simply put, economics quantifiably and empirically observes an inverse relationship between quantity and quality. You simply cannot make Rolls Royces on an assembly line, the whole point is that they are hand made. And the scale and capacity required to mass produce hand made Rolls Royces does not exist.

    Let’s examine the options:
    1. Starbucks hires experts to make coffee in all of its stores.
    Can’t happen, not enough experts. Even if enough experts were around, they’d be paid so much as to make the stores unprofitable… or the price would have to be passed on to consumers, who would not buy and the stores would shut.
    2. Starbuck’s decides to run fewer stores and use experts. Coffee would be great, world class, high quality; but, prices would rise. Only the elite would buy there.

    So you see the mutual exclusivity based on the economics.

    • I’m not sure if your economics point makes sense. Plenty of small coffee shops brew espresso the “right” way, and charge about the same as Starbucks. Perhaps Starbucks is making higher profit margins, because they’ve successfully marketed the brand “Starbucks coffee” to people willing to pay for that brand, when in reality it’s cheaper to make than the “higher quality” stuff in elite coffee shops? But then, why don’t the small shops do the same?

  2. is this comparison similar to eating lettuce vs. arugula for your salad? in some ways Arugula is an acquired taste. To an untrained taste bud, Arugula is actually bitter. Lettuce tastes nice and sweet. However, any upwardly mobile New Yorker will be not be caught eating lettuce salad.

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