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Seattle Times news librarian Gene Balk crunches the numbers

November 15, 2012 at 6:30 AM

Is it true that Seattleites drink more espresso than water?

From an AP article by Luis Cabrera, July 18, 1989

In 1989, back when coffee still meant Taster’s Choice to most Americans, a reporter for the Associated Press found something very strange going on in Seattle.  Espresso practically flowed through the streets here.  Reporting back to an astonished America on this city’s booming cafe culture, he made an outlandish claim: “Some say Seattlites drink more espresso than water.” A nation gasped.

The reporter may have spelled “Seattleites” wrong, but was he right about us?  Did we — and do we — really drink more espresso than water?  It’s been 23 years since that AP article.  Isn’t it about time somebody looked into this?

I couldn’t resist.  So I crunched a lot of market research data, and I have an answer to share with you.  I know that on the face of it, it sounds preposterous — but the reporter was right.  It is true.  Seattleites actually do prefer espresso to water — at least if you’re talking about bottled water.  And here is the remarkable thing: out of the 96 metropolitan areas that I studied — from New York to Los Angeles, from Toledo to Tucson — there is only one place in the United States where more people drink espresso than bottled water.  I’ll give you one guess.

Seattle, of course.

Now I realize you won’t fall off your chair at the news that we’re tops in the nation for espresso drinking. Everyone just assumes that, and the data support it.  A formidable 35 percent of us don’t let a week slip by without downing some type of espresso-based drink.  That ranks us No. 1 by a good margin.  Still, if you’re from here, I’ll bet you’re thinking: “35 percent?  That sounds low …”

But this part might come as a surprise.  As much as Seattleites love espresso, we hate bottled water.  Mineral, spring, well, flavored, vitamin-enriched, electrolyte-charged, you name it.  Maybe it’s because we’re sensitive to environmental issues here — those plastic bottles aren’t exactly “green.”  Whatever the reason, we just don’t like the stuff.  Only 29 percent of us drink it regularly, and that ranks us second from the bottom — 95th out of 96.

So if you haven’t done the math in your head already, we have espresso drinkers outnumbering bottled water drinkers by 35 percent to 29 percent.  Seattle is the only place in the country where the balance favors espresso, and it’s not even that close of a contest here.


To illustrate just how far we are from the norm in this regard, I created an index, as seen in the chart on the left.  For each metropolitan area, the index measures the likelihood of the locals to drink espresso rather than bottled water, or bottled water rather than espresso, compared to the U.S. average.

It’s practically a Northwest sweep at the top of the espresso side.  On the opposite end of the spectrum — the places where people would rather drink bottled water — the New York area dominates.  It’s not that they hate espresso there; they just can’t live without their Smartwater.  And Los Angeles stands out for not standing out.  It’s the only city that has zero skew, meaning Angelenos like espresso and bottled water equally.

But the real story here is Seattle.  As you can see on the chart, we’re in a league of our own. Our index score of 94 means that we’re 94 percent more likely than the average American to prefer espresso to bottled water. 94 percent. Only in Seattle.

So, espresso or water?  In this town, there’s simply no contest.  23 years later, it turns out that reporter knew what he was talking about.

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