What determines a coffee culture?

This longer-than-usual Tale takes a deep look into why coffee is drunk the way it is in a particular culture. Grab a coffee and take 10 minutes to read this:


Dubai Coffee Museum, Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Arguably one of the hardest things to pin point with regards to any given culture is the underlying and hidden reasons for why things are what and how they are in a particular culture. This is an attempt in dissecting the topic of culture within the worldwide coffee industry and how drinking coffee is affected by particular cultures.


The worldwide quest for the perfect cup of coffee can even be recommended across continents. Petra, Jordan.

As a South African, the Third Wave coffee movement is rife in my blood stream – it’s what keeps me going and excited all at the same time. ‘Third Wave?’ you may ask! Basically its more than just coffee on the go – think ‘gourmet’, think speciality, think personal attention to your cup of goodness.  Although take away or throw away cups may be the culture norm here (depending on where you get your coffee), it’s more than that – it’s an experience, but a great one! Culture norms are those things people do that come from an underlying value system. Let’s take a simple example: in parts of Africa, some people are seen as somewhat lower in status than others (value system) and so when greeting those in authority, these people will get down on one knee as a way to honour or simply greet that person in authority (cultural norm).


Fixed price for one’s coffee. Cofix, Tel Aviv, Israel.

How we see the world is largely affected by our value system, be it a religious one or not. Although religion has a major role to play in value systems, for the purpose of this dissection, religious value systems are not discussed here. So, how does culture affect coffee drinking? It’s not as simple as reading one article, and so this article does not at all answer the question fully, but will hopefully give you, the avid coffee drinker-reader, a greater appreciation for drinking coffee in the given culture you find yourself in, and question and be aware of the values and norms of your particular culture so you can better understand yourself and the culture and country you live in.


Third Wave – Gloria Jean’s Coffees, Nicosia, Cyprus.

Having recently arrived back in South Africa from an eight month, 27 000 plus kilometre trip through 26 countries in Northern Africa, the Middle East and Southern and Central Europe, getting a taste, a literal coffee taste in most of these countries was a privilege second to none. It’s these kind of privileges that helped me appreciate my own Third Wave culture, yet also challenged me in how we need to perhaps do coffee a little differently in South Africa. But why change what works? You see, that’s the exact assumption that was challenged as I witnessed each country and its cultural norms with regard to drinking coffee – assumptions, based on my world view! Culture is based largely on world views and one’s world view largely shapes the values and you get the point, the norms, or way people greet…and drink their coffee. Without going into what my beloved South Africa, or Jordan, or Greece should do, let’s stick to the point – coffee drinking cultures are determined by people’s world views as to how it should be consumed. World views are simply the filters through which we see the world and everything around us. Yes, media plays a role, but there’s more to it as we shall see later. But this is not the complete story. Underlying, value systems play a role. These value systems can be a direct influence from religion, but are so culturally deep and cemented, that it is hard to ascertain what determines them exactly. Perhaps its human nature, perhaps its community, or perhaps it’s the larger society that determines these values; whatever it is, coffee has an influence on the value system.


This was the best cup of coffee I have ever tasted, Bari, Italy.

The underlying thread that flows through any of the areas I’ve travelled through is community and a sense of togetherness that the coffee bean brings to these societies. Coffee has a way of shaping the value system that further complicates separating the underlying value system from the norm of just drinking the coffee. The underlying value system and norms of drinking coffee – the two run hand in hand and form and shape each other all at the same time. Drinking coffee is a way to ‘escape a problem’ in Italy, by taking a literal coffee break for 10 minutes by standing at the Café bar and sipping on that Espresso, and a way to ‘entertain problems’ in Croatia, where drinking a single cup of Turkish coffee at a table for an hour or two while talking to an acquaintance about his or her issues.  Values shape the norms and the norms shape the values. Coffee is the value in some parts such as Italy and so the norm is what is explained above, and in some parts the value in Croatia is the person and the norm is the way coffee is consumed there – like the Turks – thick and strong that lasts long.


A special place – szklarka BISTRO, Szklarska Poręba, Poland.

‘Turkish coffee’ is consumed in many countries such as Croatia, Bulgaria and even in Greece, and this brings in another twist: how different countries affect each other with respect to their drinking norms. Value systems may play a role here, but not always – it’s more a factor of globalisation than anything else, and then the norm in ease of brewing method for instance, follows. From here the value is created. What I mean here is that through travel and the spread of information, food and food processes, norms of drinking coffee is transferred such as drinking Turkish coffee in Croatia. This becomes a norm in Croatia and over time this becomes a backdrop to serving their underlying value system of being really interested in each other; so Croat’s blend this norm into their value system to form their own way of consuming the drink. This is how cultures form at root level and this is how cultures change and adapt over time – through globalisation. Think about some cities such as Milan, Berlin, Istanbul and Cape Town, each of which are changing and being formed the more and more people travel through and stay in them from other countries. The spread of people and their ideas play a major role in what determines a particular coffee culture. It’s not always just a case of “that’s the way things are done here.”


This cafe has made a name for themselves and have won many coffee competitions – Caffènation, Antwerp, Belgium.

Hang in there – we are almost done! On that ‘globalisation’ word and how this affects the spread of ideas and influences coffee drinking norms and values –  this is a paramount fulcrum that we cannot ignore. At the Expo 2015 show in Milan, Illy Coffee showcased this brilliantly by bringing in all of the above into a theme of “coffee creates ideas”. This phrase alone can be broken up and dissected (which was pretty much done above), but as a whole, this is what coffee has enabled and done so well around the world – enabling ideas to be created! These ideas have shaped society and society has been shaped by the bean. Examples of this are as obvious as the coffee shop down your street, the micro roaster who adds his or her ‘twist’ to their tale in how they came about or why their roastery exists, or why their roastery has this or that name. Brands are affected, the interiors of cafés are affected by the bean, and even the culture itself…it’s a mix and it’s wonderful.


Enjoying a Café con leche, a traditional Spanish local ‘coffee with milk’ drink before the start of the Marathon Trail Sierra Norte, Spain.

So, where does this leave you, the avid coffee drinker-reader of this article? More and more, questions are being asked, questions that may lead to more questions and questions that are up to the individual to answer themselves and not be swayed by popular opinion. Questions arise that see the ‘what’ be seemingly more important than the ‘why’, but I hope that this article has helped you to not only ask ‘what am I drinking’, but more importantly ask, ‘why am I drinking this coffee’ or even better still ‘why has this coffee and culture influenced me the way it has?’ What you normally do is influenced by what you hold to be valuable, and your value system is influenced by how you see the world. How you see the world shapes your culture and that’s why coffee is drunk the way it is where you live in this beautiful world.


Pastéis de Belém has been making these pastries since 1837, often up to 20 000 a day, Lisbon, Portugal.

Tsitsikamma Ultra Trail Run – 23 April 2016
Blaize Trail

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