American culture is the butt of many jokes. From exaggerated southern drawls and supersized meals to gas-guzzling cars and the endless release of movies about high school, it seems nearly every facet of American culture is fair game for mockery. Usually, I find these jokes humorous and in good taste – even if they are sometimes a bit condescending. But there is one part of American culture that I feel is unduly criticized: our coffee.
“American coffee” usually conjures to mind images of a suburbanite toting a venti-sized iced coffee from Starbucks. The omnipresent chain has become something of a 21st century McDonald’s, proliferating at an impressive rate both domestically and internationally. In its conception, Starbucks was intended as an American version of the Italian café experience. This is why you order a ‘grande’- or ‘venti’-sized coffee at Starbucks. This also reveals the origin of most of the classic drinks on the menu. Italian coffee, like most Italian cuisine, requires high-quality ingredients and precise preparation. One might spend an hour or more enjoying their carefully-crafted drink, while leisurely reading the paper or chatting with an acquaintance. Starbucks’ business platform, which focuses on delivering products quickly to the consumer, cannot accommodate the leisurely pace of its Italian café template.
However, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Starbucks, like any business, has adjusted into the culture in which it exists. American daily life is inherently faster-paced than that in other countries. A 2009 article by Psychology Today found the pace of life had increased by 10 to 30 percent worldwide. The explanation for this fast lifestyle is often assigned to better technology and homogenizing cultures. Is it any wonder why Starbucks experienced one of its biggest growth spurts as a company during the same time? On the domestic front, working hard is in our DNA as part of the American Dream. Forged in the Industrial Revolution and later reinforced by the World Wars, the American spirit values hard work and determination. This is in contrast to the much older, more well-established European traditions, which would not be affected as dramatically by modern events.
In this context, it makes sense that our coffee is high-caffeine, high-sugar and sometimes, low-quality. Most of us know that Starbucks drinks – particularly their frappuccinos – can quickly add up to hundreds of calories. However, ordering a drink at Starbucks is not an inherently unhealthy experience. Starbucks estimates there are 87,000 possible drink customizations. Surely, there are healthy options or alternatives for those with dietary restrictions among these choices.
Although Starbucks was modeled after the Italian café, its Americanization makes sense in a modern context. Our coffee fuels our breakneck pace of life. It’s not always well-crafted and it doesn’t always use the finest of ingredients, but it’s ready in minutes for us to get on with our day. In essence, American coffee is just that: American.