Coffee is the brew of a new crew of youngsters
PHILADELPHIA - The customer marched up to the counter of the Treehouse and placed her order for a one-shot espresso.
She was 8, an elementary schooler waiting with her parents while her sibling practiced an instrument at a nearby shop.
"The sister was getting music lessons, and she was getting coffee lessons," said Treehouse owner Randy Van Osten, who waited on the java-loving youth. "Some parents let their kids drink caffeine at a really young age. I have kids that come in that are probably 10 or 11."
Three years ago, when Van Osten bought the cozy coffeeshop in the center of Philadelphia, he wasn't expecting the younger set to guzzle his coffee, flavored lattes and espressos. But he got schooled quickly, and now pours hot and cold drinks, depending on the season, for before- and after-school crowds.
The days when coffee was served as an adults-only beverage, a taste acquired in dorm cafeterias and all-night study sessions, are long gone. As coffeehouses, both national and local, pop up on every corner, their new java flavors and products lure younger and younger customers.
Chalk up the spike to the easy availability of the beverage and all its variants. According to the Specialty Coffee Association of America, the number of specialty coffee retailers has tripled in the last decade. In 2005, all retail locations accounted for $11 billion in sales, up more than 14 percent over the last year's figure.
Although no specific statistics are available on how many young people drink coffee and at what age they pick up the habit, the number is large and growing, said Suzanne Brown, owner of Atlanta-based Brown Marketing Communications and an expert in the international coffee business.
Mostly, it's been driven by the hangout that the coffeehouse offers. In the 1980s, many Gen-Xers hung out in arcades; today, the Echo Boom (ages 11 and up) looks to Starbucks and such as their gathering place.
"It's such a hip place to go," Brown said. "And it's something that's condoned by parents - there's no alcohol served there. It's a safe environment."
It's also a place to get more than just coffee. Every coffeehouse has its range of sweet, caffeinated "gateway" drinks - from Frappuccinos to mocha swirl lattes - that get teens' taste buds primed for joe.
At the Gryphon Cafe in Wayne, N.J., on a recent Friday afternoon, a group of 14-year-olds were celebrating the weekend their favorite way - with conversation and coffee.
Most of the teenagers - freshmen in high school, for the most part - have been downing cups of java in its myriad forms since middle school at least.
They sat on the comfy couches of Gryphon's airy upstairs room, drinking caffeinated beverages that packed a powerful punch, with the air of no-big-deal.
"It's almost like there's a coffee culture now," Eric Greene said, pointing to his friend Julian Gal's steaming white mug. "I see that, and I want it. I love coffee."
Matthew LaVan is an old pro.
"I've always liked coffee - I've been drinking it since I was a little boy and my sister was a little girl. I'd drink it more often, but tea's easier," said LaVan, who attends Haverford Prep and who mostly sticks to decaf, at his parents' suggestion.
The friends are typical among their peers, they said.
"You'll always see people walking down the hallways with big cups of coffee during the first couple periods," said James Deslaurier.
Giant cups of coffee didn't start showing up in his classmates' hands once they got to high school - the affinity for java from Starbucks, from Wawa, from Dunkin' Donuts predates that, he said.
"There were people wandering the halls drinking coffee in middle school," Deslaurier said. "I was like, `We're 12-year-old kids. I don't think we need it.' This one person had a big mug she carried around to every class."
Cheryl Hausman, a physician at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, agrees with Deslaurier: 12-year-olds probably don't need the extra caffeine and sugar present in coffee drinks.
"Coffee is a stimulant," Hausman said. "It increases heart rate; it increases blood pressure. It has been shown to disrupt kids' sleep patterns. In high quantities, it makes us irritable, and it'll certainly do that to kids."
Still, said Hausman, medical director of the Primary Care Center at University City, the old wives' tale that coffee stunts children's growth is just that.
"One cup of coffee is not going to harm a child, but in light of all the other caffeine consumption in most children's diets, you might want to ask, `Why are you consuming that cup of coffee? Is it just to look cool?'" she said.
Don't rule it out. Parked on a couch enjoying the Treehouse's open-mike night recently, a group of young coffee drinkers said that for them, the coffee experience was more about community than taste.
Melissa Kendall, 19, is a coffee aficionado from way back, having acquired the habit at age 15.
"It was more like a social thing. My friends were drinking it," said Kendall, who samples coffee a few times a week, but not at home.
Even the job of serving it has a certain mystique.
"Being a barista is a whole profession," Brown said. "They're hip, they're entertaining. There's a whole championship contest, and the winners get paid more. They entertain the audiences."
At the Gryphon in Wayne, the high school freshmen were less concerned about who poured their drinks than discussing what was in them.
Zach Alexander, in fact, is so hooked on Starbucks Doubleshot - a potent, chilled espresso-and-cream concoction sold in a slender black can - that he grabbed one at a convenience store and brought it to the cafe, despite the menu full of choices available to him there.
"I don't drink it for the caffeine," Alexander said. "It just tastes great."
For the Radnor group and their friends, the days of parents frowning on coffee consumption are over, they said.
"I say, `I'm really tired,' and my parents say, `Well, go get some coffee,'" said Deslaurier.
Sitting with his cup of hot chocolate, Gal said he figured this year was the time to move on to the stronger stuff.
"I'd like to get into it more," said Gal, adding that it would be good to be able to use coffee when he wants to stay up longer for schoolwork. "It's kind of an acquired taste - like spinach."
That's good for Rich Mattis, owner of the Gryphon. The Friday-afternoon crowd of youngsters gives the place a good buzz, he said.
Does Mattis, 41, see himself and his friends in the group that takes over his top floor once a week?
"Oh my gosh, no," Mattis said. "I never drank coffee when I was that age. I didn't have friends who did, either. There were no coffeehouses when I was growing up."