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June 13, 2014

STAWAR: Settle in for some coffee talk

As Father’s Day approaches, I’m reminded of my father and his generation. He worked for more than 44 years as an electrician at a Southern Illinois steel mill.

He had to be at work every morning by 6 a.m., so my mother would get up early to pack his lunch and see him off. By the time I woke up, he had already left and my mother was on her third cup of coffee and fifth Lucky Strike.

My father was known to prefer other beverages, so I never thought of him as a coffee drinker, but his black metal lunchbox always contained a Thermos of hot black coffee. With its minimalist, no-nonsense attitude, black coffee seems appropriately emblematic for a generation that survived World War II and The Great Depression.

When I was about 5, my father started taking me with him to the G & S Grill for early Saturday morning breakfasts on occasion. He told me the “G & S” stood for greasy spoon, and I was never sure if he was kidding.

Breakfast was just the precursor to a foray over to the nearby Army Depot, where a surplus sale was held every weekend. I never knew what treasures might await over at the depot.

Over the years, I remember him buying chemicals which dyed concrete, a Geiger counter, a metal office chair, an oscilloscope and every tool imaginable, including gigantic wrenches that were used on tank treads. For my part, I scored on a canteen, several helmets, a dosimeter in case of nuclear attack, a British bayonet and an excellent stapler, which I still use.

It was at the G & S, however, where I first learned to dunk a warm glazed donut into hot black coffee, an exhilarating experience that I was destined to repeat thousands of times.

My wife Diane’s father was also a coffee drinker. Diane, however, didn’t start drinking coffee until she went to a church-sponsored event one weekend, when she was in college. This was back in Wisconsin and as usual it was very cold. For refreshments, all they served was black coffee and oatmeal cookies. There was just something about that combination when you were cold and peckish that leads to being permanently hooked.

Things have changed a lot since those black coffee days. Recently a Dallas coffee drinker, Andrew Chifari, ordered the most expensive Starbucks drink ever — a massive Sexagintuple Vanilla Bean Mocha Frappuccino. It contained 60 shots of espresso and 4,500 mg of caffeine. It cost $54.74, but Chifari got it free through a customer loyalty promotion.

My father would have been appalled by the cost, but he wouldn’t have believed the price of any Starbucks drink. And good luck trying to get him to buy into that “tall,” “grande” and “venti” nonsense.

Today, as the number of coffee drinks has expanded geometrically, there are fewer Thermos in lunchboxes, as people are more apt to stop at coffee shop drive-ins than take their own beverages to work.

But what do these new choices say about us. Has the black coffee generation given way to a latte generation?

Two recent studies examined coffee preferences and associated personality features. In a 2012 book, “The You Code,” communications expert Judi James and James Moore describe how people’s coffee preferences relate to a range of personal characteristics.

Last year, Los Angeles psychologist Ramani Durvasula also published the results of a study of 1,000 California coffee drinkers. Together these two provide a fairly comprehensive typology of the modern coffee drinker.

• Back Coffee drinkers: In addition to the no-frills, no-nonsense perspective of my father’s generation, James describes these people as meticulous, well-organized, straightforward and authentic. The lack of sugar in their coffee is reflected in the lack of sugar-coating in their usual speech. Durvasula says they are often Type A, old-school purists, who keep things simple and resist change. They are often seen as being “abrupt and dismissive.”

• Latte drinkers: Lattes are the best-selling of all the “fancy” coffee drinks at Starbucks. Drinkers include metrosexuals, Beanie Baby collectors and most of my generation. These people are laid-back and often look to others for guidance. Supportive in personal relationships, Durvasula says they’re basically people-pleasers. They’re generous with their time, but easily over-extended and often neglect their health.

• Espresso drinkers: James calls espresso “the unfiltered cigarette of the coffee drinking world.” They says that these coffee drinkers are charismatic, energetic and the life of the party. Smooth talkers, out for a good time, they’re prone to moodiness.

• Cappuccino drinkers: are described as having bubbly personalities that match their frothy drink preferences. James describes them as loving and caring, warm and passion and creative and honest. Although they make excellent friends, they tend to associate primarily with other artistic types.

 • Mocha drinkers: are the romantics of coffee culture. They can be compassionate and insightful, but have difficulty committing to relationships.

• Frappuccino drinkers: are seen as adventurous, extroverted, caffeine fashionistas. They are slavishly devoted to trends and favor style over substance. They are said to be flighty and shallow.  

• Decaf/soy milk drinkers: This unpleasant breed is described as self-righteous and attention seeking. They have a tendency to be picky, fussy and squeamish. In relationships they are high-maintenance. Durvasula says they are obsessive and perfectionistic. While they often make healthy choices, they are preoccupied with order and control.

Finally, James assert that adults who avoid coffee altogether are unadventurous, boring and naïve. She described them as “being frightened by life.”

For my father’s generation, the consumption of black coffee was part of the shared American rite of self-reliant adulthood. By adding all that syrup and milk, I wonder just how far our generation has regressed.

 — Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at tstawar@lifespr.com. Checkout his Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast at www.planetterry.wordpress.com

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