American beverage culture represents the epitome of consumer choice and convenience — a vast array of options to solve for evolving needs and lifestyles.

Young woman drinking coffeeFor 30 years now, the research and understanding of food and beverage culture has been at the heart of everything we do here at The Hartman Group. Foundationally, we believe that if you are going to truly understand food and beverage, you must first understand “the culture.” It’s there in every insight. It drives our innovative thinking. And most importantly, it allows us to see and better understand oncoming trends.

Culture, for us, is an abstraction that describes the powerful forces patterning social behavior beyond complete individual control. It’s about the mechanics of everyday life.

Through an ethnographic lens, it’s possible to observe how consumers craft unique identities through consumption. This has led us to observe that foods and beverages are bought for reasons far beyond just simple sustenance. Viewed culturally, food and beverage purchases can signal:

  • Who we are
  • Who we want to be
  • How we want others to see us
  • How we see the world

A Primer: Why Cultural Analysis Matters

Understanding linkages between consumption and personhood provides a powerful context for the designing, marketing and selling of products. Ethnography enables us to explore culture by studying people in their natural settings in the context of everyday life through participation in daily routines. Cultural observation builds intimacy, familiarity and rapport in order to surface hidden beliefs, discover what matters most (and why) and expose contradictions. Because of the speed of change today within culture, it’s more important than ever before to think a little more like a social scientist.

We find that culture is embodied in the mundane and the extraordinary; it is evident in many places, and yet it can be hard to pinpoint. At its roots, culture is not simply a collection of artifacts and rituals: culture encompasses the assumptions, meanings, ideals, goals, habits and ways of interpreting the world that a particular community shares. At its essence, culture is the context in which we live our lives; it is a force that determines behavior, constrains choice, shapes desire and defines need.

This is why we believe that culture, not people, is the real audience for innovation.

Good innovations help free consumers from cultural constraints that negatively impact their experience of everyday life while being sensitive to culturally driven obstacles to their integration. Innovation should respect the reality of cultural forces.

Beverage Culture in America Today

According to our Modern Beverage Culture 2018 report, American beverage culture today represents the epitome of consumer choice and convenience — a vast array of options to solve for evolving needs and lifestyles. This culture is the backdrop against which individuals define and express what beverages and drinking mean to them. Beverage culture matters because it defines what choices an individual can make.

American beverage culture is characterized by the primacy of individual choice and convenience.

Individual choice:

  • Your beverages should be personalized to your individual tastes and health needs
  • Beverages should reflect your values and aspirations
  • You can drink what you want, when you want it (mostly)


  • It’s good to always carry a beverage with you to stay hydrated
  • Drinking on the go is common
  • Certain beverages can replace food

With relatively few cultural restrictions on when or with whom to have a specific drink, beverage choice reflects individual needs and signals identity. The belief that people have individualized needs that shape what they choose to drink is an important part of American beverage culture. This means that beverages also become a means for people to express themselves.

Convenience and choice converge with other trends in both the marketplace and wider culture to reshape beverage supply and demand.

The landscape of beverage needs and behaviors evolves as new attitudes develop about how beverages can serve health and wellness needs and cultural values in the context of convenience and choice. The modern beverage landscape is the result of a highly responsive marketplace adapting to these changed attitudes and in turn is being shaped by them.

As the following illustration depicts, these influences have formed a feedback loop causing marketplace change that includes a decline in consumption of traditional drinks (like dairy, juice and soda) while upstart categories (including functional beverages and RTDs) seize share.

Forces Shaping the Modern Beverage Landscape

Shifting Cultural Values Drive Marketplace Change

As shifting cultural values drive companies to respond, new options in turn drive more customers to adopt these new values. These values include:

Back-to-nature beverage

Desire for simpler ingredients and production practices elevates categories like kombucha and less processed formulations (e.g., real sugar in soda).

Drink responsibly 2.0

Consumers ’ search for information and assurance around sourcing creates new dimensions of quality in many categories, especially those with an agricultural association, like coffee and milk.

Drinkable discovery

Pursuit of more diverse flavors and benefits prompts consumers to explore new beverage styles and ingredients from around the world — creating opportunity for new categories to emerge and transforming formerly staid categories, like beer.

Stay on top of the evolving marketplace with insights and analysis from the food and beverage industry’s leading authority on consumer culture and behaviors, The Hartman Group. Learn more about our report, Modern Beverage Culture 2018: Get Report