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Win For Folgers Results in Unprovoked Attacks on ‘Coffee Snobbery’

folgers top coffee brand by volume, study shows

Ground Folgers Coffee. Creative Commons photo by Nomadic Lass.

A Bloomberg report that identified Folgers as the top-selling ground coffee brand (by volume) in U.S. grocery stores has resulted in what seems to be an endless stream of unsolicited attacks on “coffee snobbery.” It begs the question, “What can we do as an industry to help elevate the mainstream discussion of coffee quality and culture?”

This is from the original Bloomberg report, Sorry Coffee Snobs, America’s Favorite Is Still Folgers:

Folgers remains the country’s leading brand, with an average 15.6 percent share of the U.S. market, by volume, from May to July, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Maxwell House (KRFT) came in second with 10 percent. Private labels ranked third, followed by Green Mountain with 4.3 percent. Starbucks held only 3.3 percent.

The report goes into no detail on how the numbers were compiled, nor on how they compare to market share analyses in previous years. Instead, it quotes a source from JM Smucker Co. — the company that owns the Folgers brand, as well as Dunkin’ Donuts, Cafe Bustelo and other retail coffee brands — who says that the increase in sales is most likely due to a new jingle. The jingle (“the best part of waking up, is Folgers in your cup”), is performed by a group of young dulcimer-wielding men who look like they may also be extras in a Mumford and Sons video. Nice video? Maybe. A well-coordinated attempt to tap into a younger, influential market? Probably. Responsible for a 4 percent increase in ground coffee sales in the U.S. in the past three months? Doubtful.

Many papers and magazines framed the Bloomberg report as an affront to Starbucks. Here’s from Time Magazine’s Folgers Is (Still) America’s Favorite Coffee

Despite the growing ranks of artisanal, cold-brewed and single-origin coffees now stocked on supermarket shelves, Americans still buy more Folgers than any other brand—even Starbucks, reports Bloomberg Businessweek.

To those papers, let’s remember that the Bloomberg report only measures ground coffee sales in grocery stores by volume. To say that those market share numbers mean that Folgers is a more popular coffee brand than Starbucks is at best misleading, although it may sound great in a headline.

But Starbucks is not the victim here. The real victims are what many mainstream sources are referring to as “coffee snobs,” who might be defined as those coffee drinkers who take an interest in the quality and taste of their coffees, or those who enjoy espresso drink types. Or, these “snobs” may go so far as to take an interest in brewing methods, coffee roasting, local coffee companies, or even an approach toward ethical consumption of sustainable coffee. God forbid.

To these “snobs,” here is one of the more subtle “I told you so’s” resulting from the Bloomberg report. This one comes from the L.A. Times:

There may be a gourmet coffee shop on every corner of Los Angeles and a barista who is all too happy to tell you what kind of milk you should have in your coffee, but not every coffee drinker in America is a coffee snob. And not everyone can afford the designer coffee. In fact, many prefer to make their own at home, with Folgers.

The most ridiculous unsolicited attack on coffee “snobbery” comes from Rebecca Greenfield at the Atlantic Wire, who begins with the odd premise that the number of blog posts on coffee culture should somehow result in big market swings for corporate giants like J.M. Smucker:

Coffee snobs are offended that Americans love low-brow grocery-store brand Folgers most; in fact, consumers are buying more of the mainstream beans than any of the other brands available on grocery store shelves. One Atlantic Wire editor calls this trend “depressing” because “we have so much good coffee.” “We” may be taking it too far: Much of the country doesn’t obsess over — nor have access to — single pours and single origin. In fact, despite an abundance of blog posts and magazine articles about (fancy) coffee culture, the majority of coffee drinkers don’t — on the regular — choose to participate in the fetishization of caffeine consumption.

Later, Greenfield says it’s time for some “real talk.” Unfortunately, she immediately throws out all credibility as a commentator on things related to coffee quality:

Coffee snobbery is fancy consumerism dressed up as good taste. Does expensive coffee taste good? Yes. But let’s get real: It’s not necessarily better than the cheaper stuff. It’s just that, for foodies of all types, part of the point of it all is the pageantry.

Finally, Greenfield gets more real:

The moral crusade against coffee snobs isn’t just about cost. Many people pay premiums for treats. But, it’s the evangelism, not to mention the obsession, that irritates.

Perhaps Greenfield is just crabby, or maybe she’s never had a good cup. But perhaps all of this misguided and unprovoked animosity from mainstream sources should inspire a discussion among specialty coffee professionals. Why is specialty coffee so often associated with negative customer service experiences? What, if anything, can we do to better shine the light on the virtues of good coffee for consumers without alienating them?

We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Comment

26 Comments

Tony DiCorpo

People have to be open to trying something different and be educated on what great coffee is, why artisan roasters do what we do and why we serve it as we do. If it’s the price of a prepared cuppa at the local coffee house that’s too high, then buying beans for home is a more cost effective. If that $15-22 per # price tag for top grade coffee beans is too steep, then they will never make the change and that’s ok. There is a market for all coffees.

Coffee is an affordable luxury for most. If they can pay $4 for a typical *$ latte laden with sugar, flavoring syrup and scalded milk that hides the coffee taste (likely for good reason here), then they can pay $4 for a single origin Guatemalan from a single farm or estate that boasts stone fruit and layers of chocolate and citrus. And if they like Folgers for the taste or price, they should stick with it; there is nothing wrong with it. It really is all about the taste and enjoyment. It’s that simple. You don’t have to be a hipster or snob to enjoy an excellent coffee; you just have to want to enjoy and excellent coffee. Problem is people think what is available in most local shops and coffee chains is specialty coffee and it’s not. It’s a commodity grade coffee at best lacking a lot of flavor(s). People need the education about great coffee. If they are open to learning and tasting, then making the transition to a better brew is easy. There are more and more alternative brewing method coffee shops popping up all over. They call it third wave or slow coffee. It’s making its way out of trendy cities and into others.

At my coffee bar we don’t even have cream, sugar, sweeteners or flavors. All of our coffees are served black via pour-over, siphon or French press. All of our espresso beverages are served straight without flavors or sweeteners. We source some of the worlds top grade coffees, roast them to a certain roast level specifically to enjoy them black. Once cream or sugar is added the nuances go away and we are no better than any other brew at that point. If you want a $4 cup of milk or sugar we are not the coffee place for you. If you want an excellent cuppa hand crafted by a skilled barista, we are the coffee place for you. Being about the coffee and not the coverups is what excellent coffee is all about. This is what people should understand. There is a movement among coffee professionals to bring this awareness to the mainstream; look around your city and search for shops that serve coffee via alternate coffee brewing methods.

I was just interviewed by our local paper and he was astounded to have found only 4 places in our city (Cleveland, Oh) that serve top grade coffee via pour over, 100% hand crafted. Only two of them (me included) only serve our brewed coffee this way. The other have large brewers as well and make coffee by the airpot. So it’s not far off, this third wave coffee movement. Check your local burbs. People with catch on like they did in the 90’s when the second wave coffee hit scenes with *$ and indies following suit.

greg

Who would be stupid enough to believe it wasn’t Folgers? In places like Australia and England, instant coffee is still king.

Joel

Folger’s isn’t actually coffee; it’s a coffee product. Calling it coffee is like calling Velveeta cheese.

Derek

If you look at the Folgers label is says ‘coffee flavored crystals’ Yuck! Some Frankencoffee developed by the evil genius’s at Proctor & Gamble = Scary!

Gabriela Cordón

If we see it from the marketing perspective, same product has a different value perception for each person. That is why different segments of the market exist and products can be diversified and offered at different prices as well, because it represents a wide range of value. As Tony says, “nothing wrong with it” if the product fulfills customer’s need.

The industry has done a terrific job educating coffee professionals. Those professionals understand that the goal is always “satisfy the niche market’s need”. More and more the globalized world is becoming the most segmented one.

Robert Hunt

Forgotten in the fog of these coffee wars is that once there was a middle ground. It wasn’t burnt roasts, as everyone complains about S’bucks, and it wasn’t the verrry narrow market segment that will put up with a coffee bar that only serves single-origin, pour-over, no-cream-and-sugar, extremely light-roasts.
We miss something here, and it’s that the very high quality green coffee of the 70s thru 90s that was roasted very well by places like Peet’s, Spinelli’s and others was treated so badly by all the zillions of entrepreneurs who saw big cash in serving a beverage with such a nice markup. We ended up with, by the early 2000s (when most of the current crop of Third Wavers were still in high school) a peppering throughout the landscape of utterly mediocre cafes piloted by people who in some cases did not even drink coffee. So sure, if the average Joe or Joan steps in and has one of them new-fangled expressos, and it tastes like hot bath water, no wonder the backlash, and the retreat to the familiarity (not to mention the perfectly consistent) of Folgers et al.

I submit that the damage was done long before the uber-barista set “discovered” coffee, as if it were El Dorado. The Second Wave was perfectly fine with many of us ancient, cranky coffee lovers. We used to be able to get some pretty fine brew back in the day. You just had to know where to look for it.

Rich Westerfield

It’s an odd consumer backlash when you consider comparisons to say, hamburgers or beer or cars or most anything else.

Few people really “like” Coors Light, although it’s the best selling brand of beer in the US. But it serves a purpose. It’s cold and you can pound them. And when forced to defend Coors Light (or any light beer), people will normally say they don’t like the taste of “heavier” beers and/or those don’t fit their lifestyle. Attacks on “beer snobs” are fewer and less vitriolic.

Nobody believes McDonald’s/Wendy’s/BK put out the best hamburgers. Yet those are certainly far more popular than Five Guys or In-and-Out or similar chains (or much better indies). So popularity has little to do with quality or taste. It has more to do with utility. You could say the same for Pizza Hut, KFC, Tim Horton’s… and so on. Everyone knows there are better options, but at what cost in time and money?

Few people go on the attack on online forums/blogs when the subject is a great hamburger or beer. They may disagree, but they’re not out there calling the servers names or the concept of a great steak “pretentious”. Yet it seems “pretentious” and “third wave coffee” are linked at the hips whenever the discussion comes to coffee.

Culturally, no bar gives free refills of beer, nor does anyone give out free seconds on hamburgers. But “free refills” of commodity coffee was almost an inalienable right not too long ago. I think that’s part of the problem, at least with older generations. Somehow bottled water overcame this issue. What can we learn from that?

The other part of the problem is the industry itself, particularly the service aspect. Specialty coffee may owe a great deal of its success as an industry to Starbucks, but Starbucks “YES” policy has also made it difficult for super-specialty shops to suggest that any option other than exactly what the customer wants may not be an ideal way to present the product. We haven’t figured that out yet. And we may never appeal to as wide an audience as we may like.

Scott

Americans don’t mind enjoying cheap products as a result of exploitation. Granted, farmers of many of our $18/lb coffee are exploited, but usually the exploitation is comparably less. Buying from a local roaster that touts organic/coop/direct trade/free trade coffees are all a step in the right direction, but for a country that supports corporations that will do anything to increase margins, paying a fair price for coffee seems outrageous. Sadly most of these “news” sources are in the pocket of corporations and paint conscientious as snobs. It takes effort (and more resources) to consume in an ethical way.

McFowle

Standing outside the cultural consumer norm in this country is a sure way to draw criticism and “coffee snobs” get their share, the same way wine snobs, cigar snobs and organic food snobs get theirs. Lost along the way is the reality that better quality products offer a better experience of those products, and may offer a higher degree of enjoyment in life that’s worth paying for. Where coffee is concerned it’s too often unfortunate that a higher quality product is lessened by the dogmas pitched by self-obsessed hipsters convinced that consumption of better stuff means they’re better for consuming it and have a moral duty to correct the rest of humanity’s failings. To each his own—but next time I get lip from some True Believer barista because I like a robusta blend for the crema it gives some espresso, I may just yank the ring out of his ear lobe. Damn snobs….

Max Fulmer

The problems inherent to Folgers, or supermarket “choice” cuts of steak from cruelly technified feedlots and slaughterhouses, go far beyond the narrow scope of this article and most of its comments. The fact that a product tastes a certain way (subjectively speaking, bad) pales in comparison to the fact that inhumane and exploitative conditions were required to produce it.

The vast majority of the actual coffee in Folgers is Vietnamese Robusta. Whether or not your grandmother prefers that to a syphon-brewed day lot from a single producer in San Augustine, Huila who employed a Kenya-style double fermentation and three-stage drying is of monumentally less importance than the fact that the farmer in Vietnam got paid for his coffee with a sack of rice just large enough to feed his family for another week. Folgers has no interest in seeing that situation improve, whereas buyers of the top-tier specialty coffees reap direct benefits from seeing the standard of living in coffee producing countries rise.

Convincing grandma that there is something out there better than Folgers is incumbent on everyone in the specialty coffee industry. But just appealing to the taste parameters is insufficient. Indeed, as the “unprovoked attacks on coffee snobbery” demonstrate, a few people really get turned off by it. For people like myself, who taste, make, and discuss coffee all day, this can be hard to fathom. But the discussion must be broader than just the tasting notes if the general public is going to listen to it in any meaningful way.

wait …

Whoa, I agree with most of what you say, but the reality is that the Vietnamese farmer is far better off than any other coffee producer in the world. Cost of production is around 1000/ton and the avg producer grows about 8 tons annually on 2 hectares. At an avg local price of around 1900/ton this year, these guys made $7200 after costs. A decent cost of living in rural Vietnam is less than 2k per year. It might not be for you or me, but societally the Vietnamese farmer is well off. Meanwhile you have coffee producers in virtually every other area of the world except Brasil rolling forward debt at incredible interest rates and having no financial incentive for their work. If anything, the rest of the world’s producers need to emulate the Vietnamese model however possible (though certainly not their coffee quality!!!!!!)

Tom

Like wine, the best coffee is the one I like. If I like Folgers or MH best, that’s the one for me. I happen to roast my own. I like Ethiopian and most Central American beans, but try to limit my selection to Fair Trade beans. I admit it; I’m a snob in my own house, but not at yours.

Clive Drew

It’s not an “either/or” proposition, it is merely market segmentation that offers consumer choice. My first cup of the day happens to be Folgers. I am cost-conscious when I purchase, and even with Folgers I will look for when it is on “special” in a particular supermarket.

Derek

The key word is ‘Ground’

Very few coffee’s offered at supermarkets come in ‘ground’. Most are whole bean. No wonder Folgers is leading in this category – the other players are much smaller. I wouldn’t take this as a testament to quality – just lack of competition.

Skuncario Boricua

This I find curious. At least in Puerto Rico (rather different coffee market compared to the USA proper), local brands (regardless of local or foreign origin of the actual beans) are very varied but are mostly available in ground form, only the extremes (really big brands or the pricey specialty stuff) sell beans at the supermarket. I do rremember visiting the state of Indiana during summer 2013 and I do remember several brands available ground at Walmart and Target: Dunkin’ Donuts, Bustelo, Maxwell House, Folgers, Nescafé and Eight O’clock. Where are you shopping that ‘very few’ brands come in ground form?

Randy Wirth

Coffee is among the top three most environmentally exploited crops on the face of Mother Earth. The other two being cotton and sugar. That means unsustainable levels of herbicides, pesticides, and artificial fertilizers. With commodity grade coffees (Folgers, MJB, Maxwell House…..) that is what you are supporting.
The same is true of social justice issues of fair wages, child labor, exploitation of women. Independent certification is one way you can know that a better world is in the making. However, clearly quality must underpin any effort whether it be coffee, sugar, cocoa, tea, bananas, wine….Consumer education by all means is critical for change. Most people will do the right thing when armed with good information on how their products are being produced.

Joe

I love how everyone thinks the farmer always gets screwed when he is the one bringing in most of the money. The people that get screwed are the pickers. The farmer will just send a bus into a small town/village pick up the pickers and pay them virtually nothing for a full days work. I remeber talking to one of these poor farmers who was also banking in money on pepper, cocoa and importing in outside goods to sell. He was laughing about how he made 1 million just off his imports.Folgers and these other large companies just buy the beans in bulk not from a farmer, but a broker. If they were to pay more do you think that would really help the people that need it? No, the broker would take more, the farmer would take more and I doubt the pickers would get more. Buying premium fair trade from small farms does help, but there is no way these larger companies can do that to support the volume needed to supply the general pop.

Randy Wirth

There is alot more Fair Trade volume available now than ever before. Volume is no excuse for the big companies to do something beyond marketing hype. The specialty industry is mostly interested in the top tier quality of Fair Trade leaving most of their crop unpurchased by specialty coffee people. I just got back from a trip to Aceh Sumatra where the average certified Fair Trade Cooperative was lucky to sell 30% of their coffee under Fair Trade contract. The rest goes to the commodity market at below the cost of production. In other words, the only thing “floating their boat” is organic and fair trade premiums and the fair trade village premiums. Direct Trade micro lots make even less difference and most micro lot producers have little motivation to continue the following year. In fact the whole “direct trade” claim literally plays into the hands of the biggest players who can out market anyone with story. Without any independent verification of claims, “direct traders” have taken us back to the 1970s where everyone had a great coffee “story.” Have we forgotten about the Kona Kai scandal where even some very big players like Starbucks had been buying Costa Rican and Panamanian coffees represented by the importer as Kona!!! Sure the guy eventually went to prison but the public was scammed for nearly 10 years. Don’t get me wrong, I love my importers but I do not use them to certify Fair Trade, Organic, or Smithsonian “Bird-Friendly”. I use them to help me narrow down my selections based on quality since I, like most, cannot afford to go to each country I source from three times/year to pick my coffees.

The only farmers I have seen making a living in our current market are the largest estate farms (land passed down )and industrialized farms that use machines to pick along with massive petrochemical inputs to boost production. At one point I heard that their goal is to be able to can a profit in a 35 cent/lb. market whereas break even for small specialty producers can be as high as $1.85/lb.

James

As was mentioned, Folgers get the majority of their coffee from Vietnam.
That is part of the reason why Abigail Folger agreed to fake her murder along with Sharon Tate and the others back in 1969.

I know that will come as news to most of you. But it’s true! Abigail Folger, Sharon Tate and the others were part of a CIA operation that faked their murders at the hands of Charles Manson’s “Family” members.

One of the reasons that Folger was willing to fake her death is that it benefited her family, the Folger’s, to keep the Vietnam war going for another five years. Part of the reason that the Vietnam war benefited from the Vietnam war had to do with coffee.

However, the reasons why the CIA wanted to keep the Vietnam war going was first and foremost to continue to make billions of dollars for the war industrialists that were supplying the weapons that were used in the war. That is one of the reasons why Sharon Tate was willing to fake her death at the orders or request of her father, Paul Tate, who was a Colonel in the military and worked in Intelligence.

If you read this article, which is in no way mine, it will explain it much better than I can. http://mileswmathis.com/tate.pdf

I highly recommend it.

If you do read it, I have no doubt that you will clearly see that the Sharon Tate and Abigail Folger “murders” were faked. The entire Charles Manson story is a lie that was orchestrated by the CIA and other members of the government.

Cassandra Hale

My contribution is to buy amazing fair trade beans and make French Press with my freshly ground beans. That’s all I serve to my guests!! Plus, I always share the truth about fair trade vs. non-fair trade. I let the facts and the quality of coffee speak for itself! My husband does call me a coffee snob because the plastic smell of Folger’s makes me gag, but he always requests the good stuff!

Tony DiCorpo

Look a little further into Fair Trade and you will see the farmers get very little of that $. There are a lot of smoke and mirrors in ‘Fair Trade’. It’s mostly a feel-good feeling on the part of the consumer. Most of the $$$ goes to those involved in the organization, such as the CEO and CFO. Many hands are in the pie and many people need to get paid from it. Plus farms have to pay to be part of the organization and they are forced to upgrade many farm facilities, and it’s usually cost prohibitive for them to do so, sending them further into debt. Most FT coffees are not the best quality either. Direct trade is better when there is no one between the roaster and the farm with maybe the exception of an importer. Food for thought.

Don

Absolutely right. Much like art snobs who ooh and ahh over a red dot painted on a canvas, coffee snobs are more to be ridiculed than emulated. The pricey coffee available today is only incrementally better than a properly brewed cup of anything but the cheapest, dollar store, varieties.

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