If the British drink is traditionally tea, when did we start getting into coffee in such a big way? It might have gone in and out of fashion over the years, but coffee-drinking is now akin to being a national sport. Although its roots go back many centuries, it seems to have caught hold in Europe in the 16th Century, gradually became cheaper as trade routes and shipping costs improved, and eventually became a drink for the masses.
Speaking for myself, coffee was always my hot drink of choice since the 60s, other than in oriental restaurants where I drink green tea by the pot. The flavour of British style tea, served with milk and sugar, or maybe with lemon, seemed to me unpleasant, where coffee was warmly aromatic, inviting and delicious.
I caught the bug quite early. Firstly it was through asking about my mother’s 1950s chromed coffee percolator, which she never used in my experience other than one occasion where she made some in the Italian tradition of the time, a clear cup half filled with coffee and half with warmed milk.
But the clincher, long before the invasion of the Starbucks, was the Kardomah coffee shop in an arcade in Coventry’s shopping centre (the Wikipedia article linked doesn’t mention Coventry among the locations of their cafes, though I have a vivid memory of it being there!) Even going past the shop was enough to lift you off the street and into heaven. Downstairs they roasted and ground the beans, and you could buy your half pound of fresh ground coffee, with more varieties to choose from than I ever knew existed. Upstairs in the café you ordered your favourite cup and cake or sandwich. That was utterly blissful!
Admittedly the day to day coffee was only box standard Nescafé, which I learned to like in the mid-60s, courtesy of one of my dad’s aunts. Unlike America and the continent, instant coffee had a firm grip on the British market from way back. However, I detested the liquid Camp coffee with chicory beloved by my grandmother, and served with sterilised milk. That was truly vile; even now I shudder to think of it, yet apparently you can still buy the stuff! By comparison, the instant served by Auntie Annie, even though she added milk and about four spoons of sugar, was delectable for a young boy.
It was only later I got to cut down sugar until eventually I had none, ditto with milk. My coffee gradually became darker and stronger to accommodate the caffeine fix all coffee drinkers yearn for. All-nighters in preparation for degree finals eventually converted me to my current mode of drinking coffee strong as creosote, and in spite of spells of cold turkey I still drink it to this day – albeit mostly restricted to the morning.
In the early 70s two innovations advanced the British coffee-making habit: one was the advent of freeze-dried instant coffee, which cannot mask the flavour of cheaper robusta beans but undoubtedly enhances the flavour and aroma of instant, such that it tastes more like the real coffee to which it is supposed to approximate – though increasingly up-market instants began to arise based on the infinitely superior arabica beans
But at the same time cheap plastic coffee filters came into common circulation, initially accompanied by packs of filter-ready coffee and filter papers that were eventually replaced by permanent gold filters. While this democratised the use of real coffee, filtering had two drawbacks, quite apart from the need to buy the consumables: while it might have been acceptable in a cafe to sell filter coffee, where the fast turnover meant you got it reasonably fresh, too often at home the results were stewed, stale, bitter coffee with a nasty aftertaste; and secondly, no matter how good the mechanism for creating the coffee, it would still not produce acceptable results if you used second-rate ground coffee.
So while the industry tried to find ways to make their ground coffee taste fresher and more appealing, often through vacuum-packing, we consumers began to investigate other tools for the job. One such was the coffee grinder, since coffee beans, like all spices, lose their rich flavour very rapidly after grinding – the fresher from the grinder to the pot, the zingier your coffee. I remember my mother having an old-fashioned manual coffee grinder, and much much later she bought me an electric grinder, which I still use to this day. The next innovation was the cafetière, which again I use to this day. Unless you drop them, cafetières are cheap and need no extraneous equipment. Put decent fresh coffee into them, then leave them long enough to brew and the results will be drinkable and refreshing.
But it was the expresso machine that really caused the explosion in our drinking habits. Not that they haven’t been around for many decades, and enjoyed great popularity in its earlier guises, but the principle of pushing hot water under pressure through a capsule of coffee has been refined into the ultimate drinking experience in the past few years. It was less of an issue for we black coffee drinkers, though we could now drink expresso coffee – formidably strong short doses of concentrated caffeine, presumably second best only to taking it intravenously.
However, steamed milk made on the expresso machine gave rise to a vast array of frothy coffee drinks, the most popular of which tend to be cappuccino (usually topped with cocoa powder) and latte, though you can also try your macchiatos, mochas and many more variations. A whole new generation started to experience the joy of real coffee, down to the bean type, the precise roast, the grain of the ground coffee, the method of extracting maximum flavour, even the crema on top of our coffee (the creamy-coloured residue from the brewing process.) We became experts, able to appreciate every aspect of how our cup of coffee found its way into our cup.
Where once we might have asked for a cup of coffee, we now need to know precisely which type and size of coffee, what sort of milk, its temperature and probably the name of the cow that produced it. Where I order coffee, a former colleague of mine asks for “skinny wet latte with hazelnut syrup and one sweetener.” Takes all sorts, as they say, though this reminds me that at one time you would go into a sandwich shop and ask for “cheese sandwich” without having to worry about a thousand options along the way.
While the Italians founded the process and named the drinks, it was America where they took off big time, and therefore American and American-style coffee shops that made it over to the UK at a time when most of our cafés were flogging industrial instant coffee or awful filtered brands. And they were successful and expanded fast, to the point where in any given town centre you will find dozens of coffee shops, either in their own premises or sitting snugly at the back of your bookshop or department store. You can’t escape coffee shops!
It’s not just the coffee experience, of course. Starbucks have plenty of comfy chairs and newspapers to read while you drink. They tempt you to unwind, relax, chill out in the mellow surroundings, and to enjoy further refreshments along the way. Often you will see people conducting business meetings in their nearest coffee shop, or even business people on their own tapping away at a laptop for hours while supping a string of Americanos.
These days I am more critical of these places, not least the food they sell – which is not as fresh as the coffee – though in most cases it is the coffee that attracts punters, and for the most part it’s pretty good and the baristas well trained, though veering on the hideously expensive. But they serve a purpose, and their popularity is undeniable.
Ah, but someday, when my boat comes in I will buy myself a proper expresso machine to make the real thing, luxury though it undoubtedly is. But not one of those capsule machines, where you have to buy the pre-packed coffee. Nope, it has to be a bean-to-cup machine, the Ferrari of the coffee-making world. And I will love and cherish it forever!
PS. Interesting article on why Brits love instant coffee here.