A funny thing happened after colonists, disguised as Native Americans, dumped 300-some chests containing tea into the Boston Harbor: The importance of tea—both politically and culturally—in the United States was over, and the people needed something else to drink. That void was filled by coffee, which first arrived in North America courtesy of Captain John Smith, but until the Boston Tea Party, coffee was a niche beverage: just .19 pounds per capita was consumed in 1772.
Following the Revolutionary War, a period in which John Adams wrote of the troubles “wean[ing]” himself off tea, Americans had fallen in love with the coffee bean, drinking 1.41 pounds per capita by 1799, and the infatuation skyrocketed for the next 150 years. Coffee was enjoyed by all classes—Park Avenue socialites and coal miners alike could take their coffee black or with a dash of cream. And as boiling the grounds with water gave way to the percolator and the electric drip coffeemaker, Americans put the pot on more and more often, drinking an astonishing 46 gallons per person a year—a record that will never be topped.
The rise of refrigeration, bottling, and carbonated soda dimmed coffee’s fortunes, but java is in the midst of a rebirth. What’s interesting about coffee’s current shift, though, is the change in universality. Sure, everyone drinks coffee, but do you enjoy Stumptown or Intelligentsia? Your hometown roaster or colorless coffee? Drip, French press, or Chemex? Coffee shat out by nocturnal mammals or doused with butter?
Coffee, like craft beer or bourbon, has taken on material significance, and has become another status symbol. It’s still good to the last drop, but it’s becoming increasingly more important to coffee drinkers that the beans were grown and harvested in a sustainable manner, which is why so many of us are happy to hand over $4 for a mug, or upwards of $20 a pound, for our daily “fix” of what is really just heated water and ground coffee beans. A delineation appeared to accompany this shift: the Blue Bottle snobs who look down upon the Folgers drinkers.
Post-recession, our culture has become defined by responsible indulgence. Videos from BuzzFeed’s “Worth It” series are regularly viewed millions of times on YouTube and is a good example of this change: You’ll learn about the true deliciousness of a $2,000 pizza topped with caviar, shaved gold, truffle, and foie gras, but you also know a $2 slice from your local pizzeria might be just a bit better (and $1,998 less). The small indulgences, like craft beer and coffee, have become items we splurge on; there is instant gratification without any sort of spending remorse because the cost—even if it is a $30-plus bag of Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee beans—isn’t financially ruinous.
In the parlance of our times, Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson are attempting to disrupt the coffee industry. The two launched Locol, a fast-food chain that opened last year in the Watts neighborhood in Los Angeles. As detailed in a fantastic California Sunday Magazine feature about the restaurant, Patterson outlines his ambition to upend coffee:
We’re bringing back the great $1 cup. The fancy coffee industry is not going to be happy with us. We’re going into institutional food, too. We’re already talking about prisons and hospitals and schools. It all comes back to this question of ‘Why does our society always serve the worst food to the neediest people?’ It makes no sense. And everybody always says, ‘That’s just the way it is, there’s no other way,’ but we are going to prove that whole paradigm is fundamentally false.
There is no reason a cup of joe should be more than $1, and yet we are totally comfortable with the increased costs that have accompanied coffee’s reascension. Is that because post-recession, it’s easier to distinguish your values and beliefs with something material, like a cup of coffee? Or we believe that something brought to market under better conditions is worth paying a bit more for? Regardless of the reasons underpinning the financials of coffee, Locol’s $1 cup represents a paradigm shift and a return to a mean—perhaps it is possible to have both sustainably raised coffee that tastes delicious.
Oliver Strand of the New York Times recently reported on Locol’s brews, and why the company is so adamant in redefining our centuries-old coffee culture:
“There’s an extreme democratization that I really want to make happen in coffee,” said Tony Konecny, the head of Locol’s coffee operation, who goes by Tonx. Good coffee, he said, should be brought to a broad audience, not just a “self-selecting group” of epicures.
Mr. Konecny’s ambitions for Yes Plz go beyond selling a high-quality cup of coffee at that magic price point, though he knows that it sends a powerful message. What he wants to do is shift the very nature of coffee culture. He has no patience for what he calls the “culinary burlesque” of pour-over bars, with their solemn baristas and potted succulents. “It’s dress-up,” he said.
Those settings and presentations, he said, send the wrong message: that good coffee must also be expensive and fetishized. “We have become overly focused on this ingredient preciousness, single-origin puritanism,” he said. As a result, he added, coffee just keeps getting “fancier and fancier.”