Food & Drink

American Coffee Culture Is Finally Slowing Down

Why to-go coffee is transforming into mindful sipping.

espresso machine
Photo by Amanda Celestino for Buunni Coffee

To be American is to drink coffee—but to do it in a way that facilitates productivity. For many of us, the caffeine addiction begins in college, where we’re taught the art of pulling all-nighters. Eventually, coffee becomes synonymous with fuel. In order to multitask, we take our drinks to go. When the office gets too stuffy, we camp out at coffee shops. When we’re looking to network, we schedule meetings under the guise of “coffee chats.”

One of the biggest questions circulating this moment of lockdown, besides the more obvious concerns, is: “How do we take a break?” The idea that we have all of this extra time, and it does not have to be spent writing the next King Lear, seems like a foreign concept. So we’re turning to books like Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing, in an effort to reconcile our drive to do more with our capacity for self care. “Our very idea of productivity is premised on the idea of producing something new, whereas we do not tend to see maintenance and care as productive in the same way,” Odell writes.

The familiar image of the outdoor, street-facing, European cafe—in which patrons bask in the sun, people-watch, or smoke a cigarette over a café au lait—is premised on this activity of doing nothing. In Italy, espresso is consumed while standing at a bar, chatting with the barista. The Swedes practice the tradition of fika, which involves setting aside time each day to slow down and drink coffee mindfully, alone or with friends. Germans have a similar tradition called kaffeeklatsch. The Viennese coffee house, listed by UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage, is a place designed for leisurely lingering, “where time and space are consumed, but only the coffee is found on the bill.” 

These traditions expand to Turkey, where coffeehouses have served as social clubs since the Ottoman Empire, or Cuba, where large brews of café cubano are split between friends in tiny paper cups. The true birthplace of slow coffee, though, is Ethiopia, where three rounds of coffee are sipped for hours. The lengthy Ethiopian coffee ceremony, which involves the washing, roasting, grinding, and boiling of coffee beans, is as much of a sensory experience as it is an act of consumption. “It really is the opposite of coffee to-go, or coffee for caffeine, or coffee for a utilitarian purpose,” says Sarina Prabasi, co-founder of New York City’s Buunni Coffee and author of The Coffeehouse Resistance: Brewing Hope in Desperate Times. Prabasi, who lived in Ethiopia for eight years and met her husband there, says the coffee ceremony was a huge part of her life in Addis Ababa.

“If you were to say ‘I’m going to have coffee’ or ‘I really need a coffee right now,’ that would be considered very weird in Ethiopia. It’s always ‘Let’s have coffee,’ or ‘Shall we have coffee?’”

“I think maybe the equivalent that I can think of in the US is family meal time, or Thanksgiving dinner, where there’s a lot of conversation over a long period of time,” she says. Consisting of blessings, political conversations, and sometimes even conflict mediation, the coffee ceremony is productive. “It’s that sort of gathering space where people catch up, whether that’s gossip and rumors, or current events,” Prabasi says. “It’s a really important part of the social fabric of society.”

Perhaps the most prominent aspect, though, is the sense of community. Savored among friends and family, the ritual serves as an act of hospitality. “If you were to say ‘I’m going to have coffee’ or ‘I really need a coffee right now,’ that would be considered very weird in Ethiopia. It’s always ‘Let’s have coffee,’ or ‘Shall we have coffee?’,” says Prabasi. 

Outside of the US, coffee-drinking rituals seem to be rooted in social tradition. But in America, the coffee break began, unsurprisingly, as a response to the newly-implemented eight-hour workday in the early 20th century. Once employers began to notice how coffee breaks improved their workers’ performance, the routine became regulated. In 1952, a corporate interest group called the Pan American Coffee Bureau launched an advertising campaign, calling people to "Give yourself a Coffee-Break—and Get What Coffee Gives to You." Around the same time, psychologist J.M Watson worked with advertising companies to lure customers through classical conditioning techniques. After featuring the concept of the coffee break in Maxwell House advertisements, Watson was able to popularize the activity, making coffee breaks synonymous with the brand.

In the last few years, American coffee shops have begun to veer away from the Starbucks-era workspace aesthetic, embracing elements that are not exactly conducive to work—like communal tables or simple Scandinavian design. For Prabasi, having a space that facilitated conversation was very important to her and her husband, Elias. “We knew we couldn’t just cut and paste that Ethiopian coffee culture into a New York coffee shop,” she explains. But after the 2016 election, the coffee shop quickly became a hub for community activism, where regulars engaged in everything from postcard writing to phone banking. “A lot of people talk about how they’ve connected at Buunni, and that’s all about putting the laptop down, looking around, and talking with each other,” she says. 

Of course, COVID has made it much harder to meaningfully engage with others over a cup of coffee. But it’s also provided us with the liberty to pay attention. “You’re not rushing, you’re not commuting,” Prabasi explains, “The act of actually preparing the coffee, grinding your own beans, being your own barista, if you will, it’s a grounding experience. It’s a ritual that you can adopt at home.”

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Jessica Sulima is an editorial assistant at Thrillist who never rushes a cup of coffee. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
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