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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