On the eve of International Coffee Day, Katharine Hill explores 3 key cultural shifts in the coffee category.

  1. Coffee becomes less ‘sensual’ (eugh) and more ‘wholesome’

Dominantly, coffee has been presented as a dark and intense product which transports you to an intense and sincere place of…adult sensuality. Such visual motifs include moody interior shots, dramatic studio lighting, adults inviting other adults up to their apartments after dinner, references to doing the tango (?), portrait photography which emphasises mouths, sipping – in all, a world of adult pleasure and ‘sexy’ stimulation in which George Clooney is the ringleader.

Emergently, ‘benefits-led’ coffee brands like Dr Smood and Loco Coffee have moved coffee away from this commitment to night-time ‘intensity’ and towards soft colours and flavours drawn from nature (rose, turmeric, coconut, matcha) and this focus on wholesome gentleness places coffee in a brighter and more athletic context. Images of outdoors activity (visuals of plants, exercise, skateboards) healthy colour (pale greens and blues, pops of neon) and holistic wellness (plants, yoga, athleisure) conjure a healthy world of wholesome energy – coding coffee as daytime, dynamic and nourishing.

  1. Coffee becomes less individualistic and more connective

Particularly in the US, coffee has been dominantly presented as a vat of fuel that keeps an individual running through their ambitiously busy schedule (Anna Wintour’s giant Starbucks cup was as if someone glued a battery pack to her hand). Visual tropes of lone individuals at work (laptops, businessmen, office space and references to ‘on-the-go’ corporate America) has long-connoted a world of individualistic productivity – coding coffee as the fuel that allows individuals to strive for personal success.

Increasingly, a more relaxed idea of supportive community alters how we understand coffee’s purpose. The coffee shop becomes not a space to close-off and plug in but as a communal space in which for social bonding to occur. Emergent coffee tropes include references to interpersonal connection, acts of kindness (i.e. pay-it-forward coffee cards), generosity of time (at Birch Coffee, signs on the table encouraging you to ‘put your phone away and talk to a stranger’) and overall emotional empathy (Starbucks Reserve promising ‘we come together over coffee. Co-operation, culture and communication. Love, inspiration and connection’). Increasingly, coffee fuels the collective, rather than the individual – providing a moment of social recuperation rather than social competition.

  1. Craft eschews coded ‘masculinity’ and embraces codes of ‘femininity’

Dominantly, third wave coffee’s craft credentials have upweighted the historical masculinity of craftiness – a manly ‘workshop’ aesthetic packed with rough, raw and deliberately ‘non-decorative’ design tropes (fundamentally epitomised by bearded men in leather aprons). We now see a shift towards a lighter and more open presentation of crafted coffee. This craft ethic found a more egalitarian modality that embraces less gender-specific visual and linguistic cues to tell its story.

Emergently, we find craft is coded not via cues recalling the male-centred workshop but via an idea of the ‘artist studio’ in which women, sunny colourways and attention to detail are all welcomed in. At Stumptown we encounter the championing of local female artists (especially illustrators and printmakers), at Partners we see a bright and polished array of contrasting packs clashing like a Pantone palette.  Overall there seems to be a clear shift away from coffee as enmeshed in a deeply masculine, overtly ‘rational’ set of narratives towards 3rd wave craft coffee as open, non-serious, empathetic and experimental.


Overall, these 3 shifts indicate an ‘opening up’ of coffee from a dominant narrative of formal ‘masculine’ intensity (rooted in ideas of hard work and industrial productivity) to an emergent cultural narrative that is softer, lighter and more nourishing.


3 Key Takeouts for Coffee Brands:


  1. Embrace coffee as a daytime energy source that is compatible with healthy, active lifestyles;


  1. Rather than fuelling the individual to be ever-faster and ever-more productive, consider how the coffee break can provide a moment of rest and social recuperation;


  1. Invite women into the coffee story – to help expand normative ideas of ‘male expertise’ that continue to dominate the craft coffee category.



Katharine Hill, Project Director

A Cup of Culture: How Coffee is Finding its Chill