Coffee separates elite from hoi polloi

November 21, 2017

Here’s a challenge for you. Go online and try to find the cost of a cup of coffee at your favorite eatery. It’s not impossible, but it may take a while. I spent far more time on this project than I anticipated because my curiosity was piqued by an article that appeared in the Wall Street Journal. But, I’ll get to that in a few minutes. 

A strange twist to today’s column is the fact that I don’t drink coffee. But, I used to. When I was still a toddler, Mom would pour a little of her Maxwell House into my glass of milk. Gradually, the quantity of coffee was increased until I was drinking coffee with a little milk and a lot of sugar.

Sometime during my late teens, I started taking the stuff black and sugarless. I doubt that I’d have made it through college (taking classes and working, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.) without my 10 (give or take) cups per day. But, at some point (I think I was around 35), I quit. Cold turkey. And, I haven’t had a single sip since.

Coffee is good for us

Now it turns out that coffee may be a benefit to health. An article in the Annals of Internal Medicine cites two studies that conclude that drinking coffee could lead to a reduced risk of certain serious medical conditions. Moreover, it doesn’t matter if the coffee is caffeinated or decaffeinated. Either seems to reduce the incidence of heart disease, cancer, stroke, and liver disease.

The studies were conducted over a 16-year period and covered coffee-drinkers of all ages and backgrounds. Both studies came to the same conclusion: one’s risk of dying might be lower when one drinks coffee. Neither gender nor ethnicity made any difference. And, the best news is that the more one drinks, the better off one might be. The bad news is that coffee, for which I paid a dime, now is at least 10 times more expensive (except for McDonald’s in northern Mississippi, $0.69).


A simple cuppa Joe

The baseline for a cup of coffee seems to be $1, although there is great variation (even within the same chain of restaurants throughout the Central Valley). The preferred place to purchase coffee is at a drive-through, in contradistinction to the diner of my youth. Moreover, a cup is no longer a cup. Now coffee comes in various quantities, with prices adjusted appropriately.

In Madera, according to the online menus, McDonald’s sells Premium Roast Coffee for $1, small; $1.49, medium; and $1.69, large. Also, I found a notice that the chain would sell “any McCafé beverage” for $2 beginning on April 1, 2017, and that includes lattes and frappés.

At one time, Starbucks existed mainly to separate the social elites from the hoi polloi, but it seems that pricing strategy and quantity have overcome pretense and snobbery. However, coffee prices vary considerably from region to region, and this is particularly true of Starbucks, which can still be sort of pricey in major metropolitan areas.


Store-bought vs. homebrew

Wherever one buys a cup of coffee, it’s a lot more expensive than it would be to make it at home. Most of the websites that I visited put the cost of a homemade cup of coffee (using a recognized brand, like Folgers or Yuban) at about $0.12. A chain that buys the raw material in quantity and amortizes the cost of its coffee-making equipment over a 7-year lifespan can prepare the brew for half that cost, making for a very good margin of profit.

Dan Gentile, writing for Thrillist, did a personal tour of popular coffee joints in Chicago. He found that the least expensive cuppa joe could be obtained at Wendy’s ($0.99). That beverage is brewed from an “Arabica Blend,” the same coffee that is advertised at McDonald’s ($1.29), Burger King ($1.39), and Dunkin’ Donuts ($1.79). Taco Bell, however, advertises “Premium Rainforest Alliance” at $1.49. And, Chick-fil-A features “THRIVE Farmers” blend for $1.95.  Anybody who draws a median salary can probably afford any of the above once in a while.


Conspicuous consumption

Nearly 120 years ago, American economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen explained that, in our society, it was not enough to simply possess great wealth, one had to put that wealth in evidence (“The Theory of the Leisure Class,” 1899). In other words, we have to show off our money. Over the years, the extremely wealthy have separated themselves from the rest of us by driving ridiculously expensive cars, wearing tailor-made or designer clothes, or sporting wrist watches that cost more than the average person’s house.

More recently, conspicuous consumption (Veblen’s term for blatant extravagance) has taken more subtle forms. I’ve attempted to show this with some of my columns, like “Handbags Hint at Social Hierarchy,” (Aug. 20, 2016) and “Social Status and Easter Bunnies,” (April 15, 2017). Now, in his WSJ article (mentioned in my first paragraph), Charles Passy draws our attention to a new craze: outrageously-priced coffee. He says that coffee snobs are “moving past the higher-end brews offered by chains like Starbucks and embracing coffee’s Third Wave, with its emphasis on ‘farm-to-table’ sourcing and alternative brew methods.”

The next time you’re in Brooklyn, stop by the Extraction Lab and order its Panamanian-sourced java, which is brewed “using a $13,900 Alpha machine.” It’ll set you back $18. Or, have your driver take you across the bridge to Manhattan and visit Eleven Madison Park, a Michelin-starred restaurant, where Maya Albert, the eatery’s coffee director, will spend 10 minutes at your table, using her Silverton “dripper,” which resembles something out of a chemistry lab.

The resulting beverage, which emerges from a three-step process, is coffee that comes from a rare Wush Wush bean from a small farm in Columbia. $48 per cup. Five years ago, Devoción, which supplies the Wush Wush, harvested beans from the feces of the civet, a catlike animal that feeds on coffee beans. It was believed that the digestive process of the animal improved the taste of the coffee. Yuck!

The piece d’resistance, however, is available in Southern California at Klatch Coffee. It’s called Esmeralda Geisha 601 at $55 per cup. Klatch owner Mike Perry claims that he “picks up everything from berries to stone fruit to ‘notes of jasmine’ with each sip.” According to Passy, “He doesn’t dare suggest adding milk or sugar.”

Jim Glynn of Madera is a retired professor of sociology, and an author of books, articles and this weekly column.

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