US coffee consumption is low – do Americans need their own ‘hora del café’?

  • Honduras has a dedicated coffee time known as “la hora del café”
  • The US has relatively low per capita coffee consumption at 4.4kg per year
  • The introduction of fika culture or “la hora del café” could help increase consumption

EACH DAY between 4pm and 5pm, the Honduran Institute of Coffee (IHCAFE) encourages everyone to stop what they are doing and observe “la hora del café” – an hour in which people can pause and sip a cup of coffee from Honduras.

The initiative, which is accompanied by an hour-long broadcast on Radio América, was launched in a bid to boost both the quality and quantity of coffee consumption across the country.

Like many other producing countries, Honduras has historically exported considerably more coffee than it consumes, with consumption per capita as low as 0.350 kg in 2020, according to Faostat. However, by increasing the amount of coffee that stays in the country, it can help ease dependency on international markets and, in turn, reduce farmers’ vulnerability to price fluctuations.

Similar schemes have been successful in Kenya and Colombia, where the focus has been on finding ways to boost specialty coffee consumption. Toma Café is perhaps the most well-known example, which managed to turn around a 20-year slump in Colombia’s coffee consumption, while also increasing the market share of premium varieties.

This is in stark contrast to traditional “consuming countries”, such as the US, Italy, Germany, Australia, and the UK, where coffee consumption is considered naturally higher. Governments or national coffee associations in these regions have rarely felt the need to promote consumption because it has always been relatively high compared to the coffee origins themselves.

However, rampant inflation and an ongoing cost of living crisis have somewhat changed the outlook. According to the National Coffee Association’s 2023 National Coffee Data Trends report, “the number of coffee drinkers in 2023 who say their financial situation is worse than it was four months ago has increased by 59% since January”. Meanwhile, 60% of people now say they are “cautious about their spending habits”. So does the US market need to introduce its own “hora del café”?

The impact of wealth disparity

Last year, coffee consumption in the US soared to a two-decade high. NCAUSA reported that 66% of Americans now drink coffee each day – equivalent to more than 140 billion cups per year.

However, while this may seem like a lot, its annual per capita consumption is relatively low at just 4.4kg. This puts the US all the way down at 25th on the list, behind the likes of Brazil, Canada, Austria, and Switzerland. It is also significantly lower compared to the per capita coffee consumption of Nordic countries, such as Finland, Norway, and Iceland. Norwegians, for example, drink more than double Americans at 9.9kg per capita.

Noah Jashinski, who has worked as a consultant for a number of brands, including Blue Bottle Coffee, says a large part of the discrepancy comes down to the distribution of wealth.

“In the US, it is very limiting in terms of who can afford coffee and some of it is because the past couple of years the cost of green coffee has shot through the roof,” he explains. “The problem is that now that things are returning to normal, companies aren’t going to backtrack and bring down the price of the coffee for consumers.

“In Oslo (the capital of Norway) there is a higher quality of life and more leisure. The issue is that in the US the opposite is happening – the two sides are going further in different directions. And because the disparity in the US is getting so bad, companies have stopped appealing to the lower or lower-middle classes, and are making products for richer people, because that’s where all the money is now.”

Fika for the US market

The idea that a consuming country should roll out an initiative to boost coffee consumption may seem strange to most. However, while it may not need to be as aggressive as Toma Café in Colombia or “la hora del café” in Honduras, the US could certainly benefit from some light encouragement.

Inspiration for consuming countries can be found in Sweden’s fika culture – a dedicated time for drinking coffee and socialising that has become ingrained into the population’s daily life. Many Swedish firms even have mandatory fika breaks where employees are given free hot drinks and encouraged to pause from work.

A similar approach would work well in the US, helping to address both the wealth disparity and issues with work-life balance.

However, for fika to be effective, it should come from the top down. US companies are unlikely to offer employees the opportunity to take additional time out of the day and subsidise coffee unless there is a direct incentive from the government.

A move like this wouldn’t be unprecedented. In 1955, the US Department of Labor fought a court case that meant employers had to cover the cost of coffee breaks since the business was positively affected by their staff consuming caffeine. An extension of this that covers the cost of coffee, therefore, doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch.

That said, Noah suggests that as many people continue to work from home rather than in offices, such a scheme should also focus on at-home consumption. “What was interesting about Covid-19 was that people were forced to figure out how to make coffee at home,” he says. “And that was what created a big shift in the market. The number of coffee shops that were closed during the pandemic years was unbelievable.”

Whatever shape such an initiative takes, it’s clear that any debate about coffee consumption shouldn’t just be limited to producing countries. Certain countries may have the reputation for being “consuming” for now – but without encouragement, it won’t necessarily be warranted forever.