Robinson Meyer is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers climate change and technology.
A single PR stunt reveals the complicated, pervasive intersection of logistics and culture.
Last week, Thermos overnighted me a cup of hot coffee from Minneapolis to Washington, D.C., to see if it could. It was a bald-faced PR stunt. It succeeded in both senses: The coffee was still hot by the time it reached me, and I am writing about it now.
Now you’ve been warned: This is an article about a PR stunt. It was, however, an extraordinary PR stunt—well-executed, conceptually simple, and bubbling with zeitgeist. And I accepted the hot coffee for reasons beyond my love of roasted arabica.
The stunt was ostensibly to promote Thermos’ vacuum-insulated 40-ounce Stainless King beverage bottle. The company claims the Stainless King can keep hot things hot and cold things cold for 24 hours, and indeed my own experience with this monarch of thermoses bore that out.
The stunt’s part of a larger contest (and context). In May, Thermos shipped 25 of its Facebook fans in the contiguous U.S. free coffee overnight from Ritual Coffee in San Francisco. This month, the second time it ran the contest, it chose a more midwestern provider: Spyhouse Coffee in Minneapolis.
Courtney Fehrenbacher, a marketing manager at Thermos, told me that the company hopes to re-run the contest every other month, at least until the end of the year. Altogether, Spyhouse will hand 35 of its steaming envoys over to FedEx to be distributed across the country.
But, dare I say, the stunt was about even more than Thermos, Spyhouse, the Stainless King, or the Iron Throne. It was about logistics.
As best as I can assemble it, here is the trajectory of the Stainless King and its erstwhile contents.
The coffee inside the Stainless King was Spyhouse’s Las Nubes roast: a coffee variety indigenous to Kenya and grown in El Salvador. The varietal was brought to El Salvador in the early 20th century when that country’s economy rested on its coffee production. This bean was grown on a similarly old farm, high-altitude land owned by the same family since the 1920s. (Or, at least, that’s the story Spyhouse tells.)
This bean, though. It was harvested sometime last winter before it entered its customary months of rest. Afterward, it was shipped to Spyhouse, which roasted the beans on July 21, 2014. It became the shop’s Las Nubes lot.
I presume it roasted those beans in the morning, because by the afternoon it was brewing the coffee. Around 4 p.m., the team got out their 10 Stainless Kings (designated for me and fellow members of the media) and filled them with Las Nubes, which they dripped. Then they put them in Thermos’s special packages—augmented with a bag of freshly roasted Las Nubes—and drove the boxes “about a quarter mile away” to the local FedEx facility.
According to a FedEx spokeswoman, the package was placed in a modified McDonnell Douglas DC-10, called an MD-10*. That plane’s a couple decades old, at least—McDonnell stopped making them in 1989—and FedEx owns more than anyone else. FedEx indisputably owns the largest private cargo fleet in the world, and, according to the trade journal Supply Chain, the fourth-largest aircraft fleet, period.
Perhaps the package was stopped and exchanged in one of FedEx’s global or national hubs, in Memphis, or Indianapolis. Eventually, though, it arrived in D.C. in the wee hours of the July 22. Unloaded from the plane, sorted, loaded onto a truck, and carried to The Atlantic’s office/cement island-fortress, the Watergate, it reached its destination at 7:21 a.m. The coffee had been roasted less than 24 hours before.
Of course, the coffee wouldn’t reach its final destination—my belly—for another hour or so. I got to work during the eight o’clock hour, hoping to intercept the Stainless King, and discovered Santa had already arrived.
With my colleague Adrienne, I unboxed the long-traveling liquid. Like Max’s dinner in Where the Wild Things Are, it was still hot.
Talking to Spyhouse’s founder and owner, Christian Johnson, I’ve been able to piece together the coffee’s temperature-history. Spyhouse uses water at exactly 203 degrees Fahrenheit to brew Las Nubes. Johnson estimates that by the time that liquid—now coffee—departs the brew shuttle, it’s between 175 and 180 degrees. Then it was capped, vacuum-sheathed, and sent on its way.
But still the conditions outside changed. “Depending on the exact placement of the package inside the aircraft, temperatures range from 40 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit during an average flight, with the average temperature being about 60 degrees,” a Fedex spokeswoman said of the Thermos’ cargo transit. And the pressure changed outside as well, rising to the equivalent of 8,000 feet above sea level.
It was about 72 degrees in the district as the package trundled through, and a few degrees cooler in my almost-refrigerated office. When we uncapped the Thermos, we measured its temperature to be 151 degrees.
“Wow. That’s amazing,” said Johnson, after I shared this heat conservation with him. “So really you only lost 25 degrees between when we capped the thermos to when you opened it.”
He added that the other factors involved in long-form transit—the altitude, the pressurization—shouldn’t have significantly affected the coffee’s taste. I think that sounds right. I found Las Nubes as described, similar to other El Salvadorean coffee I’ve had that didn’t migrate: acidic in a citrusy way, a little sweet.
According to Fehrenbacher, the idea for the contest came from an anecdote that Thermos’s president would tell. Once upon a time, the story went, a client had paid the company to regularly overnight coffee from across the country. (No one seems to remember just which client this was.) Why not see if they could recreate the story for marketing purposes?
The gimmickry of the stunt seemed to attract Johnson to the idea. But when he spoke to me, he obligingly remarked too on the pop-cultural power of Thermos. He and the other baristas carried Thermos-made lunch boxes as kids; they respected Thermos as a stalwart American product. Now, they were proud to partner with the company for the contest.
And Thermos is an enviable tool for that reason. It embodies “do one thing well” in the world of beverage receptacles. People buy it because they want something that does what a Thermos does—and every time, without fail, without system reboots or lag, it dispatches this task admirably. (Though if I have one quarrel with the Stainless King, its top cap was sometimes very, very hard to screw off.)
Talking to Thermos and Spyhouse, I was struck by the image at the top of this post: A Ritual Roaster, pierced and bearded, pouring single-origin coffee into that most mainstream of food receptacles: the Thermos. It’s more than urban-meets-rural: It’s the new dream of artisanal, ethical food preparation meeting the old dream of mass-produced American plenty.
It reminds me of the most recent product of K-Hole, a kind of art collective that mocks corporate trends-casting reports by issuing its own. K-Hole calls the aesthetic that gives rise to artisanal coffee “Mass Indie”:
Mass Indie ditched the Alternative preoccupation with evading sameness and focused on celebrating difference instead. […] Whether you’re soft grunge, pastel goth, or pale, you can shop at Forever 21.
But as Mass Indie becomes mass-er, it starts to hit snags. “Individuality was once the path to personal freedom—a way to lead life on your own terms,” says K-Hole’s report. “But the terms keep getting more and more specific, making us more and more isolated.” Each product, slightly different and catering to a slightly different audience, winds up isolating people in islands of taste and difference:
Feast.ly, Fast.ly, Vid.ly, Vend.ly, Ming.ly, Mob.ly: each provides a specific service, finetuned to a specific user need, brought to life by a specific entrepreneurial urge. They’re all targeting different audiences, but the general public can’t remember who’s who.
As Mass Indie approaches cultural domination, its elites flee. They’re alone on their perfectly curated and indecipherable islands of taste. They instead embrace—and please, please, do not stop reading when you encounter this word—normcore.
Normcore moves away from a coolness that relies on difference to a post-authenticity coolness that opts in to sameness. But instead of appropriating an aestheticized version of the mainstream, it just cops to the situation at hand. To be truly Normcore, you need to understand that there’s no such thing as normal. […]
Normcore seeks the freedom that comes with non-exclusivity. It finds liberation in being nothing special, and realizes that adaptability leads to belonging.
“If you live in the middle of nowhere,” Fehrenbacher told me, lauding her own company’s stunt, “you get to try some of the country’s best coffee.” Thermos has already shipped hot coffee to central Florida, northern Michigan, and (of course) New York City.
Looking at that picture of the bearded barista and the line of identical Thermoses, I thought, what could be more normcore than this?
But there’s something that enables all of this, from my supping of the coffee to your reading this now: the global supply chain. The ability to fling ingredients and products from coast-to-coast and continent-to-continent makes not only Thermos’s contest but Spyhouse’s very business possible. It’s the supply chain that moves coffee beans from El Salvador to Minneapolis, where they can be roasted and sipped in days. It’s the supply chain—in the form of FedEx, which, remember, has the world’s fourth largest collection of aircraft—that performs the final stunt of getting coffee around the lower 48 in half a day.
Behind every ingredients list stand the movers and shippers of our world: each, like FedEx, possessing a private army of execution. I accepted Thermos’s coffee contest because it seemed a spectacle of logistics. But every single day of our lives is already that.
This post originally appeared on The Atlantic: