Global Coffee and the Education for Taste

The chains entered the Japanese market in the 1990s, as speed and convenience became a crucial life factor. The first chain, Doutor, was founded by a Japanese entrepreneur inspired by Brazilian coffee culture[1]; the second was the American Starbucks. Recently, the number of independent coffee shops decreased, while the number of chains has seen a slow but steady rise, inevitably dictating the character of the contemporary coffee landscape.

One of the main effects of the coffee chains in Japan has been the fact that they made coffee more visible. The ubiquitous chains expanded the coffee consciousness to include those who would not normally drink coffee - mainly members of the younger generation who were born to affluence, an unprecedentedly broad consumer choice, and taste for novelty, which the kissa could not address. The chains redefined coffee from an older men’s drink taken at a kissa (often with a newspaper and cigarette) or an accessible, yet hardly refined coffee can to a trendy beverage suiting diversified tastes. This was carried out through several means: the incorporation of a uniform visual language that has come to signify global coffee culture; expanding the menu to include a wide variety of sweetened caffeinated beverages; and the general staging of an accessible, hip urban coffee experience. Most components of this experience represent a standardized set of ritualized procedures, structured in a way that necessitates familiarity and allows for little improvisation. All this is maintained and reinforced by the marketing power of global branding. This power also asserts the global chains’ role as an authority and arbiter of taste. Taste is central to the process of cultural production, as the acquisition of taste translates into acquisition of culture, often in its most mundane expressions.[2] Moreover, as taste becomes increasingly central to individual self-cultivation, the notion of authority becomes particularly significant. While kissa establish small-scale ‘taste regimes’, the chains enact an entire system of socialization into coffee.[3]

Starbucks Japan launched its coffee seminars at the beginning of the 2000s. A similar system was soon taken up by another American-based chain, Tully’s Coffee. Both chains enact today three levels of coffee education, comprised by standard ‘coffee seminars’ and several seasonal or product-oriented events. There is also a notion of graduation, whereby a customer who completes all three levels is granted a certificate (which grants no formal licence and therefore has no practical application). The courses are taught by coffee instructors: chain employees who hold the rank of a ‘coffee master’. The official aim of the coffee education is to enable the customers to expand and deepen their knowledge of coffee in order to enjoy the beverage at its best. The seminars take place inside the stores during regular business hours; usually a separate corner is allocated to them. The intensity of the coffee training is partly determined by the fact that the main site of practice is the body: the participants’ smell, taste, and prepare coffee by mimicking the instructor, and internalize the learned actions through repetition.

Similar to other forms of education, a coffee seminar begins with knowledge, whereby the basics of coffee science (types of beans, growing regions, roasting levels) are explained in detail. The instructor’s explanations are accompanied by colourful posters and charts that display the taught material. The explanations are followed by coffee tastings. The instructor prepares several samples and the participants practice tasting according to the main principles, namely, smelling, sipping, spreading, and describing. They then report their insights while trying to recognize the special features of the brew. The tasting is followed by the actual practice. Once again, the instructor prepares the brew, this time demonstrating the learned technique step by step. The participants take turns in performing the sequence. The nature of the practice varies according to the theme of the seminar, and can include the use of several coffee-making devices, such as a hand-drip pot, a French press, or a home espresso machine. The individually prepared samples are then passed along, tasted, and commented upon by all the participants. Sometimes, an incorrect technique is demonstrated, such as pouring water into a hand-drip device in a non-circular manner or over-filling the espresso scoop, in order to emphasize the correct procedure. By being shown the ‘wrong’ way, the customer learns how the lack of proper training undermines the adequate pleasure of coffee drinking. The practice requires not only the practical understanding of how to make coffee but also the knowledge of the contexts in which the practice is embedded. Coffee culture is related to its European origins and various attributes of Euro-American lifestyle, such as the globally recognizable holidays of Christmas or Valentine’s Day. The 2-hour seminar is concluded with a session of Q&A. Most of the participants’ questions relate to the domestic consumption of coffee, such as the optimal storage of the beans, coffee grinding techniques, or the purchase and operation of coffee devices. The participants are then given a gift kit comprised of a small bag of coffee beans and a souvenir from the chain’s merchandise line-up.

Throughout the seminars, coffee is presented as a complicated science, an expertise which can signify not only an ability to make a tastier coffee but also the acquisition of taste in its broader sense - of sophistication and cultural capital. The post-modern myths of self-cultivation and self-expression through consumer practice are addressed through coffee education, whereby coffee becomes a channel to pursue individual identity projects. Moreover, the use of cultural references re-creates the culinary experience as a cultural experience, and links coffee to the world of symbols and imagination. Through prescribing the framework for practising coffee as an elaborate cultural substance and infusing it with meanings beyond the practical, this educational system in effect ritualizes coffee. In contrast with the kissa discussed above, the mythscape created by the global chains does not place coffee in the context of modernity or nostalgia, but of a globalized taste and individualized lifestyle.

  • [1] Doutor was founded by a Japanese entrepreneur Toriba Hiromichi, and today is the largestcoffee chain in Japan.
  • [2] Bourdieu, Distinction.
  • [3] The following description is based on the author’s participant observations and interviewsconducted at coffee chains’ educational events during the years 2009, 2011, and 2014.
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