Props to the blog wcuk for one of the more thought-provoking posts I’ve read in a while: The Rise of Yuppie Foods « wcuk. It concerns the question of whether the diversification and specialization of common consumable staples — from coffee to wine to chocolate to the restaurants where we eat — is driven less by taste buds and more by “a middle-class need to distinguish itself through consumption”.

What else to explain the insane rise of the illusion of choice in the past couple of decades? More than just the pursuit of better quality and a greater variety of consumables, to a large degree it is the result of segmentation marketing — intending to target you, as a customer, to define and re-assert your own identity through your consumption habits.

One awkward, angst-ridden suburban teen’s Marilyn Manson T-shirt is just another person’s double-tall, four-pump vanilla caramel macchiato.

Or so the argument goes. Heady stuff. It would certainly explain a lot of the viceral, dismissive reactions and cultural resentment you now find against elitist gourmet products — as evidenced by the “$4 coffee” myth.

A brief history of modern consumer snobbery

Well, maybe it wasn’t entirely wcuk’s recent post per se that I found so thought-provoking. After all, I’ve long since dismissed use of the word “gourmet” as shorthand for a cheap marketing ploy to pass off canned pork & beans as maiale e fagioli in scatola with just one extra adjective. But his post referenced a fascinating historical review of specialty coffee from an anthropologist’s perspective, a paper titled: “The Rise of Yuppie Coffees and the Reimagination of Class in the United States” [PDF, 460kb].

As discussed in the paper, coffee got its start as an elite, rarefied beverage imported from remote corners of the world, made available only to the truly privileged. But in time, it became affordable, popularized, familiar, ritualized, mass produced, standardized and commiditized beyond all recognition of its origins. The quality dropped precipitously as the big players who dominated the supply market competed only for the lowest price.

It is only recently, in the past couple of decades, where have we witnessed the development of the specialty coffee trade — largely as a grassroots, Hail-Mary-pass reaction by small roasters to the dwindling number and aging demographic of regular coffee drinkers throughout the mid-20th century. And there was deliberate intent behind this transformation. The flavored coffee fad of the 1990s, which comedian Denis Leary immortalized with his desire for “coffee-flavored coffee”, was a direct marketing pitch towards soda-drinking twenty-somethings who didn’t drink any coffee. (These days you could argue that milk has largely become the new coffee flavoring.)

As the anthropologist puts it:

my newfound freedom to choose, and the taste and discrimination I cultivate, have been shaped by traders and marketers responding to a longterm decline in sales with a move toward market segmentation along class and generational lines.

You are what you, uhh … consume

And how does this relate to consumers distinguishing themselves through consumption? Citing more from the paper:

That there is a complex relationship between class and food consumption is often remarked, first in the obvious sense that particular groups occupy differential market situations in terms of their ability to purchase certain foods, and second in the uses various groups make of foods and food preferences in marking themselves as distinctive from or in some sense like other groups

It’s interesting and relevant history — the sort of thing that the self-described Third Wave coffee prophets tend to conveniently ignore. (If not outright deny its existence, like the architects of China’s Cultural Revolution. What is it with self-fashioned revolutionaries and their inability to cope with history?) And yet it comes from a paper written in 1996 — when Starbucks was only 1,006 stores in 21 states (it is now more than eight times that size in the U.S. alone, and it plans to add some 2400 new stores just this year).

Sure, like the Third Wavers, I still believe taste is big part of it. CoffeeRatings.com owes its existence to my first revelation espresso. But on the whole, there’s clearly a lot more to it than just that: coffee is a booming, not a dying, business today. Even if you don’t think coffee has become a mildly addictive fashion accessory, how do you explain all the new coffee drinkers — many of whom don’t even like coffee?

As with all good history, it pays to read it for yourself first.