Thursday, February 04, 2010

The Radio Industry and Coffee

Yes, we do drink our fair share, but here I wanted to dig a little deeper and compare our rather young industry to one that's been around for centuries -- perhaps we can learn a few lessons.   

Coffee's origins date to the 1500s coming from Ethiopia in it's bean form and was first prepared in the way we drink it today in Yemen a little while later.  With Europe trading with the world at the same time the drink spread to England and the rest of Western Europe and by 1600 was pretty well known.  

At the time drinking water was a very dangerous idea.  The supply in much of Europe was loaded with bacteria and had already caused a few plagues.  The European population solved the polluted water issues by drinking Beer.   A small glass in the mornings to refresh, a break at 10 for another beer, one with lunch, a break in the afternoon followed by an evening of quenching the thirst with the brew.  It did avoid Cholera, but it did leave the working population in a bit of a daze much of the day.  

That proved to be a problem as the industrial revolution was starting.   Workers floating through the day on the beer diet was dangerous around primitive machines and it also killed productivity.   Coffee was the perfect answer.  Since the water had been boiled it was disease free and the caffeine kept the workers sped up and alert, helping productivity.  

Coffee spread around the world as the beans moved to Latin and South America, Hawaii, Vietnam, and through Africa.  Coffee became the most traded commodity in the world - only replaced in the last century by oil.  Coffee was largely produced by family owned business' who crafted the brews carefully.  It was largely made in coffee shops and in factories and not much at home.   

As the 20th century hit Coffee grew with the population and the full fledged industrialization of the world.  The family business' became absorbed into bigger and bigger corporations.   As the accountants and marketing execs took over coffee it changed.  The advent of the percolator in the 1920s started to bring coffee home.  Only problem is the percolator kept reheating and restraining the coffee till it tasted awful.  The other option was instant coffee which was brewed and then preserved or so finely ground it lost it's flavor also.  Instead of seeking out new technology for home brewing or finding another model to keep the quality of the product in place the coffee execs just kept lowering the standards to cut the price.  Saving a few cents now became the only goal.   Profit margin trumped everything and product quality was a costly drain on that margin. 

By the 60s and 70s Coffee was a dying commodity.  They had watered it down by moving to Robusta beans over the Arabica blends.   The Robusta beans have more caffeine but a lot less flavor - which didn't matter much because with the percolator or in instant form it tasted like junk no mater what.  By the late 70s the industry was seeing no growth and some steep declines in consumption.  The only thing moving the profits around was weather conditions often pushing up the price on the coffee crop.  There were many other pick me up drinks to go to like soft drinks also marketing themselves to a younger generation.   

So how did coffee recover and regain it's market?  In the 80s the advent of the drip machines helped build more consumption, but the product still wasn't much better and it flattened out as the decade closed.  Then came Starbucks.  Their blend of high quality beans, stores on every corner and strong marketing through the 90s and the last decade helped.   This germ spread and now we find much higher quality coffee even at McDonald's.  Coffee is now prepared in elaborate drip machines with fresh ground beans or in home espresso makers.  Even in the office we now see individually brewed machines.   

Right now we seem to be in the 60s and 70s era of coffee's history.  Cutting back on every level and lowering our standards as well as watching our market take a dive.   Really we all know the way out and really it's not that complicated.  Now off to the machine for a cup of Hazelnut Afternoon Brew.   Just think, if this was 1450 I'd be tipping an afternoon pint.