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Why Did Coffee Become So Popular?

Coffee has become omnipresent. 

You walk a couple blocks and you’ll see several coffee shops. You watch a movie and coffee is at some point offered. You scroll through Instagram and you see countless latte art posts. You go to brunch and everyone is drinking coffee. For the ever-growing population of coffee drinkers, this is a welcome sight. Coffee has gone through a sort of rebranding in the past couple decades that has seen it become an iconic staple in our daily lives and culture. No longer is it just a cup of warm, bitter liquid we routinely drink when we get in the office every morning. It has gone from being a routine to a ritual, and there’s a difference. 

A routine is systematic. It’s procedural. It’s the result of going through a mundane task enough times that you inevitably fall into an efficient pattern. There’s a reason the phrase, “Fall into a routine” exists. It’s done in a largely subconscious state. That’s what coffee was. 

And yet, somewhere along the way, we changed our outlook. Coffee has become intentional. We look forward to waking up and getting the coffee maker going. Or stopping in a coffee shop along the way to work. Or getting to the office to get some coffee. The day just doesn’t feel right without it. Life is all about a series of steps that you take until you’re far enough away that you can turn around and enjoy the view. Coffee has become a big enough part of our lives to deserve its own step. Our day won’t be good or productive unless we have our coffee. It’s a ritual.  

But why? 

Chicken or the Egg

Sleepless in Seattle
Why did we start to develop deeper feelings towards coffee? Was it simply bound to happen or are there factors that allowed us to realize its untapped potential? Starbucks likely had a large impact, becoming the first national iconic coffee shop in the late 90s. It attracted people with commercialized traditional specialty drinks along with a new standard for brewed coffee, ushering in a fresh perspective on what coffee could, and should, be. All it takes is one company to make something cool, and Starbucks did just that.
All of the sudden, it mattered where you got your coffee from. It was no longer a faceless beverage. People had preferences, and with preference comes identity and tribalism. “Oh, you’re a Starbucks person?, I prefer Dunkin”. The cup you carried meant something. It was a conversation piece.

How You Doin’?
The rise of Starbucks coincided largely with one of the most watched TV sitcoms of all time airing: Friends. Everyone began looking for their Central Perk. Friends showed us what Europe already knew for a long time, that a coffee shop can be a great place to just hang out. An alternative to bars, coffee shops could be a gathering spot for friends, families and various other characters of life, day or night, weekday or weekend. 

Because the Internet
Business and culture sparked coffee, but what took it to the next level was the introduction of the Internet, and more specifically, laptops and cellphones. The internet meant we were no longer chained to our desks. Now anywhere could be your office, so why not choose a place where there’s free internet, a table, an outlet and an endless supply of coffee? Laptops started to decorate coffee shops. Business owners, students, and anyone looking to plug into the web found solace in the open and welcoming arms of their local, or not local, cafe. A great migration was taking place.

Piggybacking off the internet was the creation of social media. If identity and tribalism weren’t a thing before, they sure were now. Everyone wanted to share what lifestyle and brands they associated with. Since coffee plays a big role in most people’s lives, it plays a big role on social media. It was now cooler to be photographed with a Starbucks cup in your hand than a cigarette.  

Speaking of Cigarettes
This is going to sound crazy, but just hear me out. One last possible factor for the rise in coffee is the decline in smokers. Whether it was people trying to find a new addiction or finally being able to fully taste what kind of coffee they were drinking, it’s interesting to note the inverse popularity trend these two industries had in the 90s and 00s. For most of the 1900s, coffee and cigarettes went hand-in-hand, literally. An increased awareness of the dangers of smoking by the government and US citizens led to a reduction in smoking, so all the was left was coffee. So maybe it was inevitable after all…