Coffee Shop Culture: Why the World Has a Love Affair with Coffee

Here at Happy Medium we love coffee. And I mean really love it. As I’m writing this, we’re brewing our third pot of coffee for the day…and it’s only 8am. Coffee has become a sort of cultural phenomenon with about 83% of American adults identifying as coffee drinkers according to USA Today and the National Coffee Association. But where did this popularity come from, why are coffee shops everywhere these days and how did we get here?


For that answer, you need to take a trip back in time several thousand years to the 9th century in what is modern day Ethiopia. There are several legends, but perhaps the most popular involves a goat herder and some oddly hyperactive goats. According to this story, the herder noticed his goats eating certain berries, becoming energetic and refusing to sleep. He told monks at a local monastery who experimented with using the berries in a drink, or as we’d say today, brewing the world’s first cup of joe.


Regardless of whether the story of the goat herder is completely true or espresso-induced legend, coffee does indeed have it roots in Africa. From there, the first credible reports of coffee cultivation stem out of 15th century Yemen and the Arabian Peninsula. As coffee consumption in the region grew, up popped what would be the world’s first coffee houses in major cities like Mecca, Damascus and Cairo. Much like today, they became gathering places where people could exchange ideas. In fact because of this, they were often referred to as “Schools of the Wise.”

By the early 17th century, Europe’s first coffee house opened in Venice. The trend quickly spread and the first recorded coffee house opened in England in 1652. Over the next couple of decades, thousands more opened across Europe. Sometimes called “penny universities,” they became known as places of political and religious discussion over a cup of coffee for the cost of a penny.

This open forum for discussion attracted many names we still recognize and study today. Bach, Beethoven, Rousseau and Voltaire (who allegedly drank about 40 to 50 cups a day) are all known as avid coffee drinkers and coffee shop connoisseurs. Coffee houses are even credited with giving rise to the Age of Enlightenment in Europe.


Coffee appeared in the New World around the same time as Europe, but tea remained the drink of choice. That is until the famous Boston Tea Party in 1773 when colonists revolted against the high tea tax and many switched to coffee. Among those colonists, several founding fathers became known for their love of coffee including Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, who is quoted as saying coffee was his “favorite drink of the civilized world.”

It might not have been what Thomas Jefferson drank, but our web developer Kyle likes his coffee with dark chocolate almond milk and a dash of vanilla creamer.


Fast forward a few hundred years to today. Coffee is as popular as ever with local coffee shops and mega chains like Starbucks within a short drive from most Americans. The look and selection of drink choices may have changed a bit, but at their core, coffee shops remain a gathering place for discussion, collaboration and creativity.

In fact, there have been a ton of studies and articles written on coffee shops and why they’ve become known as conduits for work, ideas and community. Here are a few of the top studies and theories:


In one study on coffee shop noise, researchers looked at how background noise affected creative thinking. They found just the right amount of noise – like that in a coffee shop as opposed to a library or bar – actually enhances performance on creative tasks.


One of my favorite authors, Malcolm Gladwell, puts this theory forward: that simply being out of the stuffy office can increase productivity. As he puts it, being away from your desk can feel like getting away with something and removes distractions like gossiping with coworkers, long lunches or mindlessly surfing the internet.

An interesting TED Talk that I listened to recently called “Why Work Doesn’t Happen at Work”tells a similar story, suggesting that work is too full of distraction. In his talk, software engineer Jason Fried says the combination of meetings, managers and other distractions – in some cases over-collaboration – can break up the day too much and many people find it easier to work in spaces with fewer mandatory distractions like coffee shops or airports.


The last theory we’ll touch on is peer pressure. A study out of India showed that in some cases people do more work in coffee shops out of fear they’ll be judged if seen doing nothing. While working alone, they feel a need to be productive in order to justify taking up space in the coffee shop.


Whatever the case, coffee shops have definitely become a staple in America and around the world, serving as not only a place to grab a latte, but also as a gathering place for work, meetings and the exchange of ideas. So next time you’re trying to justify paying $5 for that triple venti soy caramel macchiato and spending hours in a coffee shop, remember it’s actually great for you socially and creatively!

Coffee mugs at Happy Medium
At Happy Medium we love coffee and cool mugs. Check out this collection!

As an added bonus for those of you in the Des Moines area, here are some of Happy Medium’s favorite local coffee shop haunts:

  • Scenic Route Bakery: Located in Des Moines’ East Village, Scenic Route offers delicious drinks with plenty of tables and an abundance of natural light.
  • Smokey Row: In what was once a grocery store in the Sherman Hills neighborhood,Smokey Row has a large menu of coffee drinks, teas, food and desserts in a 1950’s soda fountain atmosphere.
  • Java Joe’s: A favorite of the news media especially around caucus time, the historic downtown Java Joe’s location offers some unique flavor options to go with it’s in-house roasted coffee.
  • Mars Cafe: Located in the Drake Neighborhood, Mars Cafe is a favorite hangout for Drake University students looking to get work done over a great cup of coffee.
  • Ritual Cafe: With its artsy, bohemian vibe, Ritual Cafe not only has a delicious mocha bianca, but also offers a great selection of vegetarian and vegan food options.

What are some of your favorite places to grab a coffee? Did we miss any? Do you find that you work better in a coffee shop? Let us know in the comment below!