Whipping up a Trade Trend
The “cloud coffee” phenomenon making the rounds on Instagram and TikTok is a prime example of how ingenious people leverage global trade to bring us ideas and products we never knew we needed, but that we now love.
I’m talking about dalgona coffee, sweet caffeinated happiness in a cup. It is made of equal parts instant coffee, sugar and hot water whipped together into a beautiful froth and then spooned on top of your favorite hot or cold milk. This delightful and photogenic confection is *everywhere* on social media.
In the spirit of inquiring into the global origins of the products we love, here’s what we found out.
Dalgona’s “Honeycomb Toffee” Origins
Dalgona coffee isn’t new, but owes its new popularity to Korean actor Jung Il-woo, who demonstrated how to make it on a television show. Dalgona, however, appeals to both older and younger generations because it harkens back to a street food candy from the 1970s and 80s called ppopyi in Korean, meaning honeycomb toffee. The shortcut version of dalgona coffee is meant to be the Millennial version of ppopyi.
Thanks to K-pop culture and social media, dalgona coffee has spread worldwide. As it goes viral globally, more cultures are laying claim to its origins. Macau, in southern China, is where Jung’s clip was filmed earlier this year. The owner of Hon Kee Café in Macau had been making the drink since the early 2000s.
Culture warriors in India and Pakistan claim it as well. There the drink goes by phenti hui coffee, “hand-beaten coffee,” and “Indian cappuccino.” Proud coffee drinkers in Greece claim dalgona derives from its “frappe” (sound familiar?). A form of dalgona can be found in Libya. Coffee aficionados in Cuba use espresso instead of instant coffee.
Image credit: KIMCHIMARI, Dalgona/Ppopgi – Korean Sponge Candy Street Food
We Can’t Make Our Dalgona Without Trade
But these countries aren’t the superstars of coffee trade, nor is the United States. Brazil, Vietnam, Colombia, Indonesia and Ethiopia are the world’s top producers of coffee. Coffee is mainly produced in developing countries located in the Bean Belt and exported to higher income countries (we see you Finland, top consumer of coffee in the world).
The sugar in dalgona coffee (at least outside the United States) is likely to come from one of the largest producers in the world – Brazil, India, China, Thailand or Pakistan. Both sugar and coffee involve tariffs and complicated supply chains that include giant multinational corporations and myriad smallholder farmers growing crops around the world. Yet somehow, they are both quotidian or everyday products that we don’t think deeply about when we buy them. We choose our coffees and sugars from the grocery aisles or coffee shops and move on with our lives.
So the next time you find social media inspiration for your next food craze, think about the global trade that underpins it. The world is a big place, and trade brings it right to our Instagram feeds.
Take the “dalgona coffee challenge” and find out how good trade tastes: video tutorial from Yummy:
Brooke Tenison is an International Economist at the Department of Commerce. She was previously a Research Analyst at the International Monetary Fund, a Graduate Research Fellow at the Mercatus Center, and an Economic Fellow at New Markets Lab. She received her Master’s in Economics from George Mason University. Any opinions expressed are her own and are not representative of her current or former positions.