A tall man with a boy’s face stood outside Philz, a $$-on-Yelp coffee shop with a branch in the Tenderloin. He approached the sleek pre-yuppies going in and out and said, “Excuse me?”
He was white and young and fairly clean—nothing like the bums they’d ignored all day—so many stopped. When he then asked for change, they would duck and weave into the AC’d haven of $4 coffee with fresh mint sprigs. (The nice ones stumbled over an apology.) He moved on.
This Philz (a Bay Area chain) is on Van Ness and Turk, a block from Polk Street and its famous gay and transgender prostitutes. It backs up to the neighborhood with the highest density of single-room occupancy buildings/flop houses, right across from Peet’s. Every place on the block has a Foursquare mayor.
Philz’s chalkboard lists columns of cheeky names tagged with synesthetic “cupping” notes, hardly distinguishable from wine tasting vocabulary. Philtered Soul promises “an overwhelmingly satisfying aftertaste sure to please your souls’ deepest desires.” The apostrophe may or may not be a typo, but all of our souls have shared desires. Why not?
Everywhere I’ve lived, coffee has been an overt symbol of my part in gentrification.
In New Delhi I spooned up fake frappuccinos (fauxppuccinos?) in a wi-fi cafe in Hauz Khas, right at the start of its second-wave gentrification. Trendy Indians call it the Village. Construction workers climbed rickety scaffolding with no safety nets, erecting playgrounds for the rich.
In Manhattan I lived in Alphabet City and drank cappuccinos (real) across from Tompkins Square Park, site of actual class riots in the 80s. No one smashes the doors of the Christadora House anymore. My aunt owns a condo there.
In San Francisco now I watch the homeless forced out of coffee shops for the audacity of having nowhere to go. We sheltered folk all sit, shoulder blades pressed towards spines, and avoid each other's eyes. Minutes pass. We sip our lattes.
In all these cities—other people’s cities—islands of old growth compete with the slash-and-burn of bland wealth. Fragmented forests are cut through with trendy boutiques, fusion restaurants, and of course—well, you get it.
Why coffee? For starters, it’s the second-largest traded commodity in the world, after oil. Despite heavy marketing efforts, hardly anyone picks a gas station for the brand. But they’ll administer a pistol-whipping over coffee.
Pierre Bourdieu, whose 1979 book Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste is rather impenetrable, had a theory I like:
The antithesis between quantity and quality, substance and form, corresponds to the opposition – linked to different distances from necessity – between the taste of necessity, which favours the most ‘filling’ and most economical foods, and the taste of liberty or luxury – which shifts the emphasis to the manner (of presenting, serving, eating, etc.) and tends to use stylized forms to deny function.
Pour-over coffee—waiting ten minutes for coffee to trickle through a specially-made Japanese funnel—comes to mind. Taste, including the mouth stuff, is completely inseparable from culture. We own no part of our aesthetics. Instead we use preferences to create and understand the social structures we are part of. Hard workers “Run on Dunkin’.” Most Bay Area snob-shops offer a personal coffee experience, each cup made just for you.
But as soon as the middle class latches onto the favorites of the rich and famous, the wealthy move on.
Starbucks worked for awhile, with its grande/venti code and delightfully artsy interior. But lattes haven’t been enough for years; even McDonald's serves them now. Where to go but snobbier precincts?
Hand a glass of white wine to a professional wine taster—how will he rate it? Let’s say 88 on a scale of 80 to 100. Give the same wine to him again, even minutes later—the rating will be plus or minus four points, on average. After adding flavorless dye to one of the glasses, researchers at the University of Bordeaux found even experts mistook the dyed liquid for a typical red. And like non-experts, wine professionals will rate a glass of wine from a fancy bottle higher than the same wine poured from a cheap bottle. (You know, something with a bird on it.)
British psychologist Richard Wiseman found that average consumers have a 50/50 chance of guessing which wine is $5 and which is $48. Serve a non-expert a glass of wine during an fMRI and tell her it’s expensive; her brain scan suggests she’ll enjoy it much more than if she thinks it’s cheap. In short, nobody can tell the good stuff from the jug wine. (This is a modified take on William Goldman’s rule of studio filmmaking: “Nobody knows anything.”)
Charles Spence, an experimental psychologist at Oxford, says these wine-centric conclusions can likely be applied to coffee. “They both have a very complex, aromatic and multi-sensory profile of taste and texture,” he said. Spence earned a name for himself with clever studies showing that cup color changes the taste of hot chocolate, and the sound of an espresso machine affects the perceived taste of the brew.
(In case you doubt the wine versus coffee comparison, a Consumer Reports blind taste test determined that Folger’s decaf is the best of the grocery store offerings, noting it has “a touch of fruitiness and earthiness, but papery and cereal aromas make it a good candidate for milk and sugar.”)
I asked Spence, who has consulted with corporations from Starbucks to Unilever, about how to leverage cross-sensory experience, and if anyone can really identify a vanilla top note. “We are all suggestible,” he said. “In the absence of any branding or labels or descriptive sensory stuff, perhaps you can’t tell the difference.” But given a description of what you’re supposed to taste, “that allows you to sort your experience in a different way, and then maybe you really do experience those things. But you needed the label or the information or the cue or the trigger to get you there.”
In one study, undergraduates took a questionnaire that sought to determine values, including the importance of “seeking authority, wealth, social recognition, and preserving one’s public image.” Given a choice by scientists, kids who most valued social power preferred a sausage roll. Those less-inclined to value power chose the veggie alternative more. The punchline: the two rolls were identical.
In another study, researchers compared Perrier to a generic brand of mineral water and found that Perrier was favored only when the two drinks were labeled. (My personal favorite is the study that showed most people can’t tell paté from dog food.)
Ben Cushing, a sociologist at Portland State University, studies social movements, especially anti-capitalist ones. I picture him using props in class.
“This is a story that could be told through a thousand commodities,” he told me. “The coffee economy is an echo of the colonial relationships of power that led up to it. And you can draw a parallel with gentrification, where you have a colonization of low-income urban spaces by high-income professionals. It’s a different dynamic, but an expression of the same politics of inequality.”
Carrying a Philz cup through the Tenderloin, I waffle, exactly as class conscious and self-involved as I was raised to be. A part of me wants to throw it away—hide the evidence of my spending a half an hour at minimum wage on a minor buzz. Another part is quietly pleased by the attainable affluence. What a dream for marketers.
Mostly I just drink the coffee. It's delicious.
Advertisers, of course, are keenly aware of all of this. They fund a ton of social and cognitive psychology research. (There’s literally a field called consumer psychology.) They know the cup in our hands is a visible symbol of our place in the social strata, and that our preference has almost nothing to do with flavor. Sell it right, and we’ll buy our own loyalty.
Are you a Mac or a PC? A Starbucks or a Blue Bottle? Who do you want to be when the chips are down?
By the way, our cute local chains aren’t quite ours anymore. With demand for “third wave” coffee (Starbucks was the second) growing, VCs and private equity firms can smell the blood in the water. Blue Bottle got $20 million last year, and this May, Philz got an eight-figure investment, which people pegged at between $15 and $25 million.
Philz has another flavor, "It’z the Best." It has “a hint of dark demanding tones.” Demanding coffee. What a world.