Coffee has become the drink of productivity, and not just at work

Photo Illustration of Latte and Baristas Working

Customers visiting the Riverside Drive location of Hub Coffee Roasters in Reno, Nevada can sip a latte while watching the baristas at work — as seen on Jan. 28. Photo, illustration, and story by Patricia Bouweraerts

Maybe it’s time to sunset the flashy company incentives and open floor plans — the coffee pot is the place where productivity is hot.

Have you ever wondered how drinking coffee has become warmly connected with work — whether it’s chatting by the breakroom Keurig®, meeting or interviewing “over coffee,” sipping drip brew instead of tea at training sessions, or even seeing someone at an airport with a Starbucks® cup and supposing he or she is a traveling professional?

An article published earlier this month by Fast Company — and shared on LinkedIn.com — features coffee in its report on research-based evidence to favor using career strategies that engage and please the senses, “Why you want your boss to hold a warm cup of coffee when you ask for a raise.”

There are now more than 247,400,000 people in the U.S. who are age 18 and older, according to a 2017 estimate by the U.S. Census Bureau, and 64 percent of those are regular coffee drinkers of a cup each day or more, reported Reuters in March. Many Americans drink more than one cup. The National Coffee Association (NCA) posted in September that coffee drinkers average three cups a day.

“As an individual country, the U.S. is the largest consuming country followed by Brazil — though the European Union as a whole is the largest consumer,” said Rebecca Pandolph, chief of the statistics section for the International Coffee Organization. “Around 345 million cups are consumed per day in the U.S.”

Coffee’s history, America’s history, the rise of modern marketing, and the evolution of urban and suburban culture has led directly to a strong association between work, output, and coffee.

Brief background of the bean

Coffee is a red cherry-like fruit; in its center is the bean, its seed. The plant is considered a tropical evergreen bush or small tree, originating in Ethiopia. Before the bean was ever roasted, the pulp of the fruit was fermented to make a type of beverage similar to wine, wrote Tori Avey on PBS.org.

Peoples of the Arabian Peninsula began cultivation and trade of the coffee bean some time before 1400. From there, use of the beans eventually spread to India and Europe. The Dutch began growing coffee in Sri Lanka and on the island of Java in Indonesia. French growers chose the Caribbean and South America, and Spanish farms were introduced in Central America.

There is a romantic legend about Brazil.

“The famed Brazilian coffee owes its existence to Francisco de Mello Palheta, who was sent by the emperor to French Guiana to get coffee seedlings,” posted the NCA. “The French were not willing to share, but the French governor’s wife, captivated by his good looks, gave him a large bouquet of flowers before he left — buried inside were enough coffee seeds to begin what is today a billion-dollar industry.”

The Industrial Revolution — coffee and work

Coffee became more specifically associated with work during the Industrial Age, according to The History Channel’s documentary, “Modern Marvels: Coffee.”

“Up until that point in the 17th Century, everybody in Europe drank alcohol,” said Wade Davis, Ph.D., ethnobotanist, National Geographic explorer-in-residence in the video. “The entire continent of Europe was mildly besotted all the time. Why? Because if you lived in London or in Paris, you couldn’t drink the water of the Thames or the river Seine unless you wanted to get cholera or dysentery or some other parasitic disease.”

Stewart Lee Allen, author of The Devil’s Cup and also featured in the documentary, agrees.

“You would start a day with beer,” Allen said in the film. “At 10 o’clock, instead of a coffee break, you’d have a beer break. And then at lunch, you’d have more beer. And people were constantly commenting on the sort of haze everybody was in. And so what happened with the introduction of coffee is that that slowly replaced that.”

It may have been coffee that made the Industrial Age possible.

“You simply could not afford to be drunk while you’re working the heavy industrial machinery that gave rise to modern society or the Industrial Revolution as we know it,” Davis added. “And so caffeine became part of the Industrial Revolution because it became the drug of choice of the Protestant ethic — of the kind of anti-sensual, workaholic world that gave rise to the kind of the austerity of the Victorian Age.”

Coffee in the U.S., patriots, cowboys, and miners

Coffee was introduced to North America early on. Captain John Smith, who founded the Colony of Virginia at Jamestown in 1607, knew about coffee from his visits to Turkey, wrote William Ukers in his book All about Coffee. In addition, a mortar and pestle used to make “coffee powder” was shipped on the Mayflower.

Because the colonists perceived tea taxes levied by King George III as unfair — the Stamp Act of 1765, and the 1767 duty on tea — America reacted and turned to coffee, Ukers wrote. Places sprang up to drink the newly preferred beverage.

In New England — especially in its social center, Boston — taverns served coffee along with other beverages, he added. One historically significant tavern was the Green Dragon, where the Boston Tea Party was planned.

“In the words of Daniel Webster, this famous coffee-house tavern was the ‘headquarters of the Revolution,’” Ukers wrote. “It was here that (Dr. Joseph) Warren, John Adams, James Otis, and Paul Revere met as a ‘ways and means committee’ to secure freedom for the American colonies.”

Coffee was later used by Civil War soldiers for bursts of energy, Avey wrote. In addition to soldiers, the drink became popular on the frontier.

“In 1864, John and Charles Arbuckle, brothers from Pittsburgh, purchased Jabez Burns’ newly invented self-emptying coffee bean roaster,” Avey wrote. “The Arbuckle brothers began selling pre-roasted coffee in paper bags by the pound. They named their coffee ‘Ariosa,’ and found great success selling it to the cowboys of the American West. It wasn’t long before James Folger followed suit and began selling coffee to the gold miners of California.”

Physiology: the scoop on caffeine

Coffee naturally contains caffeine, a stimulant. Caffeine boosts energy, mood, and the ability to concentrate. It also increases heart rate and can temporarily increase blood pressure. The drug enters the system relatively quickly and the effects can last across several hours. An individual may acclimate to caffeine and not get as strong of an effect as those who use caffeine only occasionally.

Boston University Professor Sir Hans Kornberg explains the physiological effect of caffeine in a SmithsonianMag.com video, “The History of Coffee Culture in America.” Caffeine has an impact on a signaling molecule between cells, cyclic adenosine monophosphate (AMP).

“As you know, when you suddenly become excited, a material called cyclic AMP is released,” he said. ”And the cyclic AMP tells all sorts of machinery in the cell to ‘get moving.’ On the other hand, there is also a natural mechanism which comes in and says ‘OK, you’ve made enough cyclic AMP, ah, we’re now enough. … What caffeine does is it inhibits this reaction. It allows cyclic AMP to continue to be made. That is why it’s a stimulant.”

Stimulants can enhance physical and mental performance. Kenneth Kirkwood, an assistant professor at the University of Western Ontario, Canada, specializes in the history and ethics of recreational and performance-enhancing drugs. He wrote an essay on caffeine use in the book Coffee — Philosophy for Everyone: grounds for debate.

“When we look at the place of coffee in North America, we can see that there is an institutionalized belief in coffee’s power to energize our minds,” he wrote. “in the classic wage-per-hour workplace, there is often one or two (often legally required) periods in a workday set aside for rest, and known as ‘coffee breaks.’ You can take these breaks no matter what your beverage of choice, but it is perfectly acceptable and understood that you might consume some of this brain tonic to fortify your spirit for another bout of work.”

Most often, we take our coffee at home, but the second most frequent location for drinking a cup of joe is at work, according to ADT Healthcare.

Marketing has shaped our relationship with coffee

Coffee was known to most Americans by the 1900s, and it was generally available at the grocery store in large cans made by a handful of brands. There weren’t many flavors, but a basic, somewhat bland roast and its decaffeinated version.

Anthropologist Krystal D’Costa writes about the culture of coffee on Anthropology in Practice, a blog that started at ScientificAmerican.com.

Coffee’s popularity started to decrease after 1962, and by 1988 only half of Americans regularly named coffee as a beverage of choice, she wrote. Those who did take coffee also drank less than they had previously. Brazil, the country that had become its major producer, raised prices after a frost, and consumers reacted to that, as well. Another blow to the coffee industry involved a demographic change.

At the beginning of the 1980s, the coffee industry found that people in their 20s thought of coffee as a beverage for their parents, and instead preferred soft drinks.

Marketers came up with a strategy to address these social changes. The president of public relations firm Ogilvy and Mather, Kenneth Roman, Jr. proposed a plan that became wildly successful. They would create coffee varieties to fill all different types of individual needs and wants, a segmented market, separated by demographics such as age, class, and lifestyles.

“Coffees became more personal, more accessible,” D’Costa wrote. “The group that the market feared it had lost, the 20–29-year-olds, had been netted. People began to drink coffee because it meant something to them: a flavor for everyone, a style for every lifestyle — we have methodically been taught to socialize over coffee, to look for a boost in productivity from this drink.”

Shift work, productivity at night and in the early morning

In the 1960s, workplace routines began to shift, said D’Costa in an IgniteNYC talk, “The Anthropology of Coffee … in Five Minutes.”

“Also during this time the culture of work is changing, right, more people are entering the workforce,” D’Costa said. “We’re seeing night shifts. We’re being grouped into these hard time sets when we’re supposed to be working, but not everyone is productive. So what do we do?”

Employers found a way to step-up energy, and at the same time treat workers to a flavorful beverage.

“So coffee enters the workplace because employers install coffee machines in the workplace to encourage productivity,” she added. “So all of these factors combined give us the ritual consumption, so we start thinking that we need to drink coffee in the morning in order to be productive when we’re really taught through all these different factors that we need coffee.”

Staffers are not always working at the time of day when they’re naturally at their highest energy level.

“Our time is managed; it is not our own, “D’Costa wrote on ScientificAmerican.com. “Psychologists Ryan, Hatfield, and Hofstetter (2002) report that while 75 percent of adults over the age of 65 consider themselves morning people, only 10 percent of those under age 65 feel that they can be categorized in this way.”

A workplace perk develops into routine.

“We consume coffee as a means of performing the tasks we need to complete in the setting of the workplace,” D’Costa wrote. “And if we all do it, then it normalizes the behavior and helps us believe that we are achieving optimal levels of productivity. It also becomes a crutch throughout the day as we reach for our afternoon lattes to plow through the second half of the day — believe me, the line at the Starbucks near my job is equally as long in the afternoon as it is in the morning. We use it to ward off boredom and fatigue.”

Coffeehouses become associated with working

Remember the marketing connection? It also comes into play when thinking about why we work at coffeehouses. An individual may express him or herself with choices of coffee shop, beverage, and manner of working.

In the book Coffee — Philosophy for Everyone, essays on the coffee experience are featured. One writer, associate professor and graduate coordinator in the Department of Humanities and Cultural Studies at the University of South Florida, Brook Sadler describes the coffeehouse as a place where people can escape from the structured workplace and work in terms of their own style and pace.

Coffee is also associated with comfort and indulgence. Fluffy whipped cream, cocoa shakers, and sprinkles of aromatic cinnamon are reminders of life’s pleasures, Sadler wrote. There is also a kind of idealistic image that the coffeehouse is a hub for thinkers and creatives — of striving and doing.

“It is that the picture of the coffeehouse as the gathering place for artists, intellectuals, and emerging politicos is still a picture of workers, for the energy and excitement of the atmosphere is characterized in part by the idea that there is work to be done — creative work, intellectual work, political work,” Sadler added.

An individual can be alone at a chain coffee shop, and yet not alone.

“The experience of public anonymity is of being precisely yourself yet occupying a social space in which you are no one to anyone else present; you can do whatever you like, be however you like, and be seen doing and being this way and yet appear only as an anonymous other,” Sadler wrote.

The suburbs, with coffee linked to safe, predictable spaces

Starbucks Coffee Company positions its brand as a “third place,” with home and work as first and second, according to the company’s information page.

Colin Marshall wrote in a Guardian article that Americans may find at Starbucks what they lost after gradually leaving cities for the suburbs — a safe place to meet — although social aspects of the chain coffeehouse have now decreased.

“Walk into a Starbucks today, and you may not notice much connection going on: some customers come in chatty groups, but many others arrive in search of nothing more than a place to open their laptops and get some work done; in effect, using Starbucks not as a third but a second place — their workplace,” Marshall wrote.

Carrying a cup increases perception of productivity

The association between coffee and productivity even extends to other places beyond the coffeehouse. A covered cup and a briefcase seem to go together.

“The next time you travel, take a look at the number of folks drinking coffee or caffeinated beverages,” D’Costa wrote. “Perhaps there is a sense that carrying coffee or having it nearby confers the idea of productivity also. So not only are we drinking it to get us through the day’s activities, but we have it with us to seem like we’re busy and productive during times when we’re not actually working — it could almost be classified as a status symbol.”

From the drink of education to the drink of work

The first public coffeehouses in the 1400s–1500s, qahveh khaneh, were popular centers in the Arabian Peninsula for social activities such as conversation, listening to music, playing chess, and catching up on news and politics. Because so much discussion and information exchange took place there, they were known as “schools of wisdom,” or “schools of the wise.”

In 1600s Europe, coffeehouses filled similar social and educational aims, despite the contention by some who called the black, invigorating beverage the “bitter invention of Satan,” according to the NCA’s history of coffee.

“Despite such controversy, coffeehouses were quickly becoming centers of social activity and communication in the major cities of England, Austria, France, Germany and Holland,” the NCA posted. “In England ‘penny universities’ sprang up, so called because for the price of a penny one could purchase a cup of coffee and engage in stimulating conversation.”

Coffee started out as the drink of education. Now it is the drink of work.

“Coffee goes to work, whether in a steel-handled thermos to the construction site or in a paper cup from McDonald’s to the drone’s cubicle or in the ubiquitous cardboard-sleeved Starbuck’s cup to, well, any job at all,” Sadler wrote.

This evolution has been steady and reinforced from a variety of angles.

With the Industrial Revolution, the American Revolution, the suburban social transformation, and the modern marketing explosion, coffee appears to have moved securely into its warm and reassuring status as the chosen beverage of work.

Like Jack’s enchanted bean — the tallest stalk with intertwining branches — the coffee bean equals productivity as far as the eye can see … everywhere.

 

Additional resources:

(Updated Jan. 31, 2019)

Have your say