How American Coffee Has Changed Through The Generations

From its simple beginnings in the diners and the homes of the 1940s, to its gradual decline in popularity from the early 1960s to the 1980s, to its reimagining and resurgence into the new millennium, coffee has undergone a tumultuous and fascinating American journey. What was once strictly a utilitarian beverage or social lubricant has transformed into ubiquitous, cutting-edge and artisan.

American Coffee in the Early 20th Century

After soldiers were supplied with coffee rations during the Civil War, coffee became highly valued for its ability to promote wakefulness. Although coffee was occasionally considered a luxury, caffeinating was still considered its primary value nearly a century later, in the postwar 1950— many people viewed coffee as a pantry staple. As such, it was often taken black, without a lot of frills. Espresso machines were nowhere in sight. The five-cent cup of coffee, often accompanied by a doughnut, was celebrated as a victory of middle-class entitlement, taken usually at that classic American icon—the diner. Coffee consumption during the 50s was essentially flat, with minor fluctuations, and essentially all the coffee on the home market came through a handful of big, well-known, corporate roasteries.

The “Me” Generation And The Rise of Coffee Culture

While it can now be said that coffee, in all its various forms, may be our most obvious cultural touchstone, it wasn’t always this way—in fact, there was a time when the 20- to 29-year-old demographic wanted nothing to do with coffee, because it associated coffee with its parents and grandparents. The decline in consumption began in the 1960s. In 1962, 74.7 percent of the adult population reported drinking coffee; by 1988 that number had shrunk to only 50 percent. Moreover, those who drank coffee were drinking less: average consumption was 3.12 cups per day in 1962, but by 1980 it had dipped to 2.02 cups and by 1991 had dropped to 1.75. The “Me” Generation preferred soft drinks—soda consumption took off in the 1960s and continued to skyrocket through the 1990s—and was more interested in a beverage that resonated with their identity. Specialty coffee was about to change everything.

Generations X, Y and Millennials

Specialty coffee actually began in late 1960s-era New York City and Seattle as a counter-movement to declining prices and declining quality of coffee. By the early 1990s, it was joined by a new marketing strategy by ad agency Ogilvy and Mather that sought to “re-brand” coffee’s image by creating segmented products. Now, coffee would be tailor-made to the individual: each cup, custom-ordered, bestowed upon its drinker a new identity and a feeling of personal value. Americans became “what they drank.”

As a result, roasting began to diversify, and it was suddenly possible to order from many small batches of roasted coffee. Fair Trade coffee found a market, exploding from 2 million pounds per year in 1999 to 45 million pounds per year in 2005. People began to care more and more about the taste and source of their coffee, and willingly paid more for coffee—a study from 2012 estimates that the average American worker spent about $1,100 on coffee that year. The modern coffee shop was born, and with it the modern barista, espresso drinks, latté art and the rise of the coffee culture phenomenon.

Today, coffee offers something for everyone. Whether coffee drinkers stick with the black drip coffee their grandparents drank (and 39% of Americans still do!) or drop in every morning for their customized, Fair Trade, shade-grown cappuccino, coffee has proven itself a win-win.