Coffee Klatsch: Fancy Beans are No Match for Supermarket Brands

Coffee snobs are offended that Americans love low-brow grocery-store brand Folgers most, buying more of it than any fancier brands on shelves, meaning — for now — the coffee snobs are losing. 

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Coffee snobs are offended that Americans love low-brow grocery-store brand Folgers most; in fact, consumers are buying more of the mainstream beans than any of the other brands available on grocery store shelves. One Atlantic Wire editor calls this trend "depressing" because "we have so much good coffee." "We" may be taking it too far: Much of the country doesn't obsess over — nor have access to — single pours and single origin. In fact, despite an abundance of blog posts and magazine articles about (fancy) coffee culture, the majority of coffee drinkers don't — on the regular — choose to participate in the fetishization of caffeine consumption.

Coffee culture, as a sub-genre of foodie-ism, has a lot in common with its distasteful brethren. "It has always been crucial to the gourmet’s pleasure that he eat in ways the mainstream cannot afford. For hundreds of years this meant consuming enormous quantities of meat," B.R. Myers begins his "Moral Crusade Against Foodies." For foodies that means $100 lunches as a "great value"; for caffeine snobs its $16 per pound Bard Coffee. ("This is what coffee tasted like in nineteenth century!" the director of the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s Symposium Peter Giuliano told The New Yorker's Matt Buchanan in April.) That's the justification for spending over four times the price of Folgers on a drink that had a "slightly sweet funk," per Buchanan's refined palate.

Indeed, much like fine dining, fine drinking involves a huge mark-up. Even Starbucks, a brand Businessweek considers "trendy," costs around $12 per pound at Walmart. The cafe a coffee-loving editor sent me to charges about $12-$15 a pound, and bags of Stumptown go for as high as $22.50. Wages for most people have stayed flat for an entire decade, so to spend that much money on an addictive drink consumed every single morning seems, well, indulgent, considering that a big 33.9 oz. tub of Folgers sells for $7.98 at Walmart and may taste just as good, if not better, than Starbucks.

The moral crusade against coffee snobs isn't just about cost. Many people pay premiums for treats. But, it's the evangelism, not to mention the obsession, that irritates. Here's one coffee drinker's regimen in New York magazine, for example:

"First it was mornings, and then it was afternoons, and then it was mornings and afternoons," he says. "Lately, I’ve been kind of freaking people out. I’ve been ordering five-shot sugar-free grande soy lattes. People look at me like I’m a freak. But at least they remember my order, right?" On a really busy day, he says, he’ll take six shots. 

If he were imbibing a different liquid, there'd be another, more stigmatized name for his addiction. (To drink that many lattes at Blue Bottle — one of the most beloved fancy coffee houses in New York and San Francisco — would cost $25 a day.)

Coffee snobbery is fancy consumerism dressed up as good taste. Does expensive coffee taste good? Yes. But let's get real: It's not necessarily better than the cheaper stuff. It's just that, for foodies of all types, part of the point of it all is the pageantry.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.