submitted by George Poulos on 18.12.2004
Post War Australia - Selling Coffee drinking - Review.
The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World
Basic Books, $US30.
In the 1900s, coffee traders eschewed sex appeal in their advertisements as ‘questionable taste’. Sexism was confined to praising a wife whose coffee pleased her husband. Virtue gave way to violence during the 1930s with the endorsement of physical assault by husbands dissatisfied with the brand their wives had chosen. A 1950s advertisement ‘showed a woman with an inverted cup on her head and coffee streaming down her face’. Research for Proctor & Gamble reported that housewives would accept ‘all sorts of abuse’ in advertising since they ‘experienced it much of time in their daily lives’.
Mark Pendergrast follows a trail of violence beyond US kitchens as coffee and sugar depopulated Africa for slaves and the Americas for land. After the abolition of slavery in Brazil in 1888, indenture and peonage kept down wages. If field-hands were paid US rates, the cost per cup would be counted in dollars, not cents. Higher prices for raw beans do not percolate down to those labourers. Brazil burnt stockpiles of coffee but could not grow enough flour for its population, another instance of what Che Guevara identified as ‘distorted development’, not under-development. The mechanisms for these unequal exchanges had been established by 1877 when Guatemala provided a ten-year tax holiday for foreign investors.
Pendergrast documents centuries of oppression up to the death squads across Central and South America. He serves a strong black but dribbles in cream and syrup when he footnotes that a few slave-owners were kindly. Notwithstanding this soft-centre to his liberalism, his evidence about poverty and monopoly spoilt the enjoyment of the reviewer for Business Week. Uncommon Grounds helps us to discern what is novel in globalisation, apart from the label. Australia might have been a late comer to coffee but not to the global reach of the beverage trade. The first fleet took coffee on board at Rio en route for Botany Bay. From there, three of the convict transports returned via China to load up with tea.
Understandably, Pendergrast has not followed his story into Australia. Had he done so, he would have found evidence for many of his generalisations, but also a special case. Coffee has become emblematic of changes wrought to our diet since the 1940s. The received version is that Austral-Britons used to drink tea but now we have become multi-cultural and prefer coffee. The numbers support this story. Before the Pacific war, per capita consumption of tea was three kilos against 250gms for coffee. By 1971, tea was down to two kilos while coffee had increased fivefold. Since then, tea has dropped below one kilo and coffee doubled to more than two.
The assumption has been that because European immigration coincided with a revolution in eating and drinking, the newcomers were responsible for the popularity of coffee, pizza and wine in place of tea, meat pies and beer. Concomitance, however, is not causation. Post-war immigration also paralleled a rise in the sale of branded pet foods, but not even Eric Butler has suggested that the Southern Europeans brought that with them.
Missing from the conventional wisdom is the recognition that coffee, like pet food, was promoted by corporations. The migration of capital has been more influential than the migration of consumers or shopkeepers. A Swiss firm, Nestle, had the biggest influence here although we have next-to-no Swiss immigrants.
Prominent among resident suppliers of coffee in the 1950s were those well-known central and southern Europeans, the Harris family and the Griffiths Brothers. Similarly, the Chiko roll was invented by that Chinaman Frank McEnrae, Dial-a-Dinos founded by that Italian Richard Henry Wescombe and Papa Guisseppe pizzas by his countryman, the Hungarian Joe Piazs.
Of course, pre-war levels of tea drinking were no more natural than was a switch to coffee. Both relied on marketing. The Tea Market Expansion Bureau, for example, advertised in seventeen Australian newspapers and magazines during the winter of 1938. Its successor, the Tea Council, fought back against coffee with television ads to three million viewers twice a week throughout 1966.
The switch from tea to coffee had been part of changes in consumption of all liquids. Between 1964 and 1985, coffee doubled and tea halved while soft drinks went from 40 to 73 gallons per year. Tea had been a thirst quencher, with the first cup before breakfast. Coffee did not take over that role, which is now filled by colas, bottled waters and fruit juices.
Part of the reason for misunderstanding the dietary changes is that ethnic chauvinists brag that they brought excitement to a barren society. This contrast is based on false quantities. Milan was indeed more sophisticated than Perth in 1960, but was Calabria a gourmet’s delight in comparison with Queensland? Also, the Anglo-Celts who champion the culinary changes extrapolate from their frequenting of expresso bars, whereas the majority eat out on fast food. An explanation for why aficionados thronged Melbourne’s Lygon Street is not applicable to how coffee replaced tea in Moonee Ponds.
One of the best known names in coffee – Andronicus - tests the hypothesis that post-war immigration sent us from tea to coffee. John Andronicus had never tasted coffee on his native island of Kythera; his family had been too poor. His initiation came when he stayed with an uncle in Egypt on his way to Australia in 1907, aged 13. Two of his brothers were travelling to ‘The Greeks’ throughout New South Wales country towns before opening their own business in 1910 to import, grind and supply coffee. By the early 1950s, the Andronicuses supplied a dozen or so outlets. An invitation from Woolworths sparked the sons to develop the wholesale side. In 1960, they began advertising over 2SM, using John Mahon’s ad libbing style once every fifteen minutes between 9am and 1 pm, which doubled sales in three years. They were taken over by Nestle in 1986. Out of alliances with chain stores, mass marketers and a transnational corporation, the brand now holds 5 per cent of the grocery sale of roasts.
Comparable drives operated with Vittoria, an independent Melbourne firm of Italian-Australians established in the 1950s, and which popularised expresso-style and pioneered the brick-like vacuum pack. The brand came from behind by advertising over the thinking person’s radio to be top of the roast and ground niches by 1990. But these achievements came decades after coffee had been accepted.
The adoption of coffee by Australians is not an instance of multiculturalism but of Mall-ticulturalism, that shopping arcade of synthetic ethnic flavourings. Harvard Marketing professor Theodore Levitt recognised that the stress on specialty foods grew out of the ubiquity of McDonald’s and Coca-Cola:
Without the generalised homogenisation of tastes and preferences there would be no distinction in ethnicity or specialisation. To have the latter requires the dominant presence of the former. The global growth of ethnic markets confirms the greater presence of global standardisation of segments. Everywhere there is Chinese food, country-and-western music, pizza and jazz. The global pervasiveness of ethnic forms represents the cosmopolitanisation of specialty segments.
This process affected the United Kingdom where coffee sales overtook tea by value in the 1980s without an influx of European settlers.
Corporate marketing is not the whole story. Spending operates within the mesh of government regulations and economic conditions. After the rationing of tea ended in 1950, its price leapt, which held back sales. The need to balance trade throughout the 1950s limited imports. The abandonment of those controls in 1960 blew out the current account deficit. The government reacted with a credit squeeze which depressed coffee sales along with other discretionary expenditures.
Coffee-making machines had appeared in Europe before the Great War. Early in 1939, ‘The Wonder Drink Dispenser’, La Carimali, sold to every city in the Commonwealth, a café owner in Brisbane buying three. This equivalent of the ‘60’ Class Beyer Garret steam engine could dispense ‘every conceivable kind of hot drink – Malted Milk, Soup, Coffee, Bonox, Cocoa Chocolate, Tea, etc., etc., on the one machine in five seconds’. It also boiled eggs.
A smart-looking machine did not of itself alter the quality. Driving from Port Douglas to Noosa in 1979, I found expresso machines invariably being used to boil water and milk for instant coffee.
Running through these chops and changes to the management of total demand were the spread of affluence, status-seeking and the acceleration of everyday life and work. The last of these proved the major social force in leading Australians away from tea and towards coffee. The battle was won not by coffee, but by its instant formulation. The disadvantage of tea was that it took too long to brew. The disadvantage of coffee was that it went stale so quickly. Nestle answered both problems with Nescafe. Nestle had marketed this innovation here in 1939. Following wartime restrictions, the product needed to be relaunched as the ‘three-second coffee’ once local manufacture began in 1947.
The time famine also witnessed the flop of instant tea and the triumph of the tea bag, sales of which quadrupled to 1,350 million between 1972 and 1975. Jiggling became a national past time after Lipton’s 1971 TV commercial. Because the tea bag uses fewer leaves per cup, the decline in tea consumption is not as sharp as the total volumes suggest.
Pressure at work ensured the success of the Café-Bar, invented here in 1964 for use with instants. The 20,000 in operation by 1972 were time and money savers, eliminating the tea break and the tea lady. Staff got themselves a cuppa when they needed it to take back to their desks or benches.
By 1960, Nestle held half the coffee market, with fifty other brands competing for the rest. Maxwell House entered in 1961 with the offer of two jars for the price of one, an introduction it could afford because of its oligopoly profits as the market leader in the USA. Seventy per cent of coffee by then was instant, and 70 percent of that was Nescafe. Yet, no case has been reported of Mediterraneans smuggling jars of Nescafe in their luggage. Today, Nescafe retains more than 60 per cent of the instant volume. ‘Nescafe 43’ rates tenth on A. C. Nielsen’s Top 100 Brands behind Coca-Cola, six kinds of cigarettes, Pura Milk and Tip-Top Bread. Nestle’s ‘International Roast’, positioned thirtieth, dominates the economy end.
The impact of marketing on the shift from tea to coffee was repeated by changes within the coffee market. A decade’s research preceded the release of granulated Nescafe in 1969, packaged in clear glass to display its difference from the powdered version. During the 1980s, the share of granulated went up from 38 to 45 percent, while powdered fell from 56 to 44. Quality instants had arrived by 1970. Moccona, the Dutch brand in collectable jars, added freeze dried, granulated decaf and expresso to secure 7 per cent of the market before being taken over by Sara Lee. In 1992, Robert Timms (absorbed by Bushells) released instant coffee bags containing both roast and soluble to match the demand for freshness and convenience. Flavoured roasts and solubles industrialised the addition of liquors or fruit to coffees brewed after dinner. Jarrah provided flavoured instants from 1984, followed by Andronicus dispensers of Irish Cream around supermarkets.
A price ladder operates through powdered, granulated, freeze dried, ground and specialties. The fresh and ground end remains very price sensitive. Failure of the 1985-86 Arabica crop in Brazil pushed prices up and drinkers back down the quality scale. Sales of roasts increased by 20 per cent in the boom year of 1989 before registering no growth during the recession we had to have in 1991.
Australians were ahead of US Americans in the move to specialty roasts. The inaugural issue of Australian Gourmet in February 1966 devoted five pages to coffee, ending with advice on blends and the injunction never to boil. By 1969, humorist Keith Dunstan mused that his brother’s life as a ‘Coffee-olic was fairly complete’ after he had made his entire family spend ‘one half of the day chasing coffee beans and the other half chasing filter papers’.
The Australian palate also benefited from the availability of Arabica from the New Guinea Highlands. German colonists had produced some coffee there in the nineteenth century but an industry was not established until the 1950s. Output exceeded 1500 tons in 1960, or 5 per cent of coffee imports to Australia. The highland plantations were owned by both settlers and locals. Pendergrast includes the story of Joe Leahy, son of a European father and New Guinean mother, who began planting in the 1950s. He set up a joint venture with the Gagina people just before the price collapse of the 1980s brought on the conflicts captured in Bob Connolly’s and Robin Anderson’s documentary Black Harvest. Coffee’s transformation of our world has not bettered the lot of those closest to its production, whether in New Guinea or Guatemala.
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