Thursday, October 14, 2010

Reconsidering Coffee and Sociability

In a recent post by coffee bloggers Bill and Kim, they discussed a coffee tasting party where they invited friends and acquaintances to taste premium coffees from a French press and a drip machine to facilitate a better appreciation of coffee. A great read on its own, it prompted me to think about the relation between coffee and sociability.

Either by the nature of drip coffee, being sipped over an extended period of time, and/or the growth of cafe culture in the modern era, coffee is seen as a drink where people can come together, drink coffee, and socialize.

What I hope to do is discern the differences between chatting at a public cafe and the intimacy of one's home or private residence in relations to drinking coffee.

First, one can certainly have meaningful conversations at public coffee houses like Starbucks or Dunkin' Donuts. When I use public, I merely mean that they are located in the public sphere, not the state of their ownership. I contend that locally-owned cafes also be included in this category for the following reasons. In both cases, baristas make your coffee and money is exchanged for services rendered. Customers sits down and engage in their affairs, whether it be conversation, reveling in a peaceful moment, or running out the door to their next 2 hour meeting. Fundamental to understanding the differences between coffee at a cafe and one's home is that a barista is making the coffee, not yourself.

I realize this is an obvious observation, but the implications should teased out to fully understand how this affects social relations. The physical act of brewing and serving is delegated to someone else. This delegation or shifting of responsibility reduces personal interaction and connection between two people engaging in coffee. In this delegation an important element of social activity and communication is lost. In making coffee at your place of residence with the host brewing coffee for the guest, it reflects, in part, the values, care, and importance of the relationship to each person. The host enjoys preparing coffee for the guest, and the guest acknowledges the care and pride the host takes in his/her coffee and presentation. Certainly this relationship isn't exclusive to coffee, but what is peculiar to coffee consumption are the rituals associated with it.

For example, pictured above are two cups of Turkish coffee. From what I have read, certainly not from academic sources but from coffee blogs, Turkish coffee consumption in Turkey has a specific presentation and culture revolving around communication, holds significant meaning in society.

What I am arguing is that partaking in cafes, while convenient and a place for discussion in a public space, removes a certain social intimacy inherent in making coffee for yourself and others. By relying on a paid barista at your local coffee shop, one depends upon others to engender better social relationships which could be strengthened through one's own action in a host/guest relationship.

I am not calling for a boycott of cafes or anything near that extreme, but rather that there is a dependency on cafes to facilitate social relations. Instead, one should reconsider meeting at Starbucks, and invite people over for coffee at your place.

My Turkish coffee turned out pretty bad tonight. I didn't boil the water resulting in a gritty coffee, but in the picture above I wanted to show my wonderful little foam I spooned out.


  1. Sounds like you've been in the Heidegger lately.

    Or maybe Marx...

  2. Here are my thoughts, fwiw:

    When two or a few people talk over coffee they've purchased in a coffee house, the downside is that, in having partaken of the commodity relation, there are actually more people in the interaction, but they aren't really present themselves; only in the product. I think Marx talked about this when he was talking about how we reify commodity relations when they are really actually relations between people. When one makes coffee for other people personally, that reification is reduced, although it is still there to some extent of course (in the purchasing of the coffee beans, etc.) I suppose in a communist society, the problem is solved in that everyone is interacting with everyone else all the time, but each on his own free initiative since everyone is doing what he freely wishes to do.

    On the other hand, when one is in a coffee-house, one has the opportunity to watch other people whom one doesn't know, observe their interactions, their behaviours, etc., in a public place. One can detach oneself from the situation and act as an anthropologist of modern society. I think this is tremendously interesting to do in a variety of public places.