Coffee vs. Alcohol: A better brew?

Almost everyone enjoys a good brew, but some brews are more acceptable than others, it seems. Around the world, coffee consumption has far outstripped that of alcoholic beverages, with around 2.9 pounds (or around 30 litres) of coffee consumed per person, on average, in one year. Compared with an average consumption of 5 litres per person, per year of alcohol worldwide, it seems we are much more inclined to be hitting a Starbucks than a bar on an average day.

Global average alcohol consumption

Global average alcohol consumption

Coffee is also a critically important trading commodity, second only to oil in terms of dollar value globally. I won’t get into the cultural influence of Starbucks, Tim Hortons and the like, but the impact on consumers and on the business world has been significant – much more so than any individual brand of alcohol in recent history.

Coffee is a relatively modern beverage. There is no Greek god of coffee, like there is of wine (though if there were, no doubt he would be a very spirited half-child of Zeus who enjoyed bold flavours, waking up early, and being chipper). The first evidence of coffee drinking as we know it today is generally placed in the fifteenth-century Middle East. Evidence of wine and beer consumption, in contrast, dates to 6000 BC and 9500 BC, respectively, or even earlier. Yet for such a young contender, coffee’s rise in popularity has been impressive.

No doubt in part this rise in Europe related to the appeal of the exotic, like the chocolate and other goods that originated in Turkey or other Arab countries. It is also likely that, like sugar, coffee was just tasty and appealing in its own right, and those who tried it liked it and wanted more. And certainly there is the social aspect, the rise of coffeehouse culture across France and Britain in the eighteenth century, which brought together politics, business and social interaction in a public forum as never before. The purported offspring of the coffeehouses, such as the stock market, French Enlightenment ideals, and even democracy, were significant. In a TED talk I watched recently, author Steven Johnson slyly remarked that the English Renaissance was curiously closely tied to the changeover from imbibing large amounts of depressants to large amounts of stimulants with the rise of the coffeehouse (go figure).

The best part of waking up?

Today, it seems that coffee has generally been linked to a host of other caffeinated beverages that are considered “good” (such as tea and cola) and alcohol has been linked with commodities that are “bad” and “unhealthy” (such as drugs and cigarettes). Why? Perhaps it is because colas, tea and coffee are unregulated, entirely legal, and (to a point) even considered safe for children, while the opposite can be said of alcohol, drugs and cigarettes.

Is the association fair? Hardly. While the dangers of addiction may be greater for the latter group, and public drunkenness more severely chastised than public hyperactivity, coffee and sugary colas (as fantastic as they are) are hardly the healthiest choices of beverages.

I suspect it is something else, something in the inherent nature or promotion of coffee that makes it seem less threatening than alcohol. Coffee suffers from none of the religious ordinances forbidding its consumption the way alcohol does (though, interestingly, coffee was also banned in several Islamic countries in its early years). Is has also never endured the smug wrath of teetotalers or wholesale prohibition.

Alcohol is generally placed into the realms of evenings and night-times, bars, and sexy movies, while coffee is the drink of busy weekday mornings, weekends with the paper, and businesspeople. Both are oriented toward adults, but coffee is in some ways more socially acceptable. Consider the difference between remarking that you just can’t get started in the morning without your coffee versus saying the same about your morning shot of whiskey. Similarly, asking someone out for a drink connotes much more serious intentions than asking someone for a coffee. And vendors are catching on: in Britain, many pubs are weathering the downturn in business caused by the recession and changing attitudes by tapping into the morning market of coffee drinkers.

Worldwide annual average coffee consumption (courtesy of ChartsBin)

Worldwide annual average coffee consumption (graphic courtesy of ChartsBin)

I wonder if the trend toward increased coffee consumption is in place of alcohol. I also wonder if it mirrors the general cultural shift toward an American orientation. The global dominance of Starbucks and other coffee shops seem to me to be supplanting the role of the local pub or licensed hang outs of the old world with a chirpy kind of Americanism and a whole new roster of bastardized European terms and ideas like “caramelo” and “frappuccino.” The New York Times backs up the idea of American dominance, noting that the U.S. makes up 25% of global coffee consumption and was a primary instigator of the takeover of coffee shop chains. Yet coffee is also extremely popular in Europe (especially in Scandinavia, as fans of Stieg Larsson would be unsurprised to discover) and even Japan.

Is this another case of American cultural colonialism, whereby traditions from Europe are adopted, commercialized, and re-sold to captive populations who want to tap into small piece of American corporate and social culture? Or is the global interest in coffee indifferent to American opinion?

Reading the tea leaves (coffee grinds?) to tell the future of consumption

Will coffee culture continue to increase in popularity, eventually supplanting the role of alcohol in social meetings? Two factors are worth considering here. The first is that while demand for alcoholic beverages in the developed world is shrinking, there is a growing interest in all kinds of alcohol (and especially wine) in emerging markets. Take, for instance, the rise of wine as a drink of choice and status symbol in China and Hong Kong as expendable incomes have grown. A similarly proportioned increase in coffee consumption there could be monumental – will it occur?

The second factor is the great cost of producing coffee. Putting aside the fact that most coffee is produced in comparatively poorer countries than those that refine, sell, and consume the finished product, the environmental cost is staggering. Waterfootprint asserts that for every 1 cup of coffee, 141 litres of water are required (mostly at the growing stage). Compare this figure with 75 litres for one similarly sized glass of beer and 120 litres for the average glass of wine and it would seem that a rise in coffee culture at the expense of alcohol could be disastrous for the environment.

Do the above statistics figure largely in the minds of those who drink any of the above beverages? Likely not. But all might – and likely will – in time affect production, and the economics of supply and demand will come into play, changing the equation once more and making it even harder to determine which is the better brew.

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