London coffee culture

Avalon School

Coffee shop terrace in Central London

For a nation better known for its love of tea (we’re third in the world for consumption, behind Ireland and Turkey) the UK has a long and interesting relationship with that other hot, brown, caffeinated drink: coffee. We still don’t drink half as much of the stuff as the Dutch, but with the number of chain cafés more than doubling in the UK since 2010, there’s been a marked change in British hot drink habits. In fact, London’s West End is now home to more Starbuck’s branches than the whole of Australia. So have that, Australia.

The beginning

A historical point to kick off. As you’ll find in almost any blog article about coffee and the UK (and in much of the marketing blurb on café websites), the UK didn’t start drinking coffee in 2005. In fact, by the late seventeenth century the coffee house was already established as a vibrant, rowdy place where people (men) from across the social scale from bootblacks to bankers could catch up with the day’s news, exchange gossip and fuel up on extremely strong, gritty coffee.

When the first coffee shack was opened off Cornhill in 1652 (by an enterprising Greek) coffee’s energising benefits were quickly recognised and it gained in popularity as a drink to make you, ‘fit for business’. The taste, however, was not universally admired, with early comparisons drawn to ‘syrup of soot’, ‘shoes’ and, ‘shit’. Nevertheless, the social inclusivity of the coffee house, and its ubiquity in the city (some contemporary accounts number them at over 1,000 by the 1700s) has led to the claim that they played a critical part in social, economic and political reform in the 19th century.

The freedom to associate in numbers (some coffee houses seated up to 90), low cost of entry, and ease of access (‘lords sat cheek-by-jowl with fishmongers’) acted as catalysts for public debate. You could even go as far as to say that coffee houses were to 18th Century London what social media was to the 21st. A pretty heady achievement for a hot drink.

Sign outside London’s first coffee house

A Mythology of Coffee:

But drinks aren’t just drinks any more than a wedding dress is just to keep you warm. To understand the current boom in popularity of coffee, we should look at what it means in our society by attempting a mythology of coffee, after Roland Barthes.

There is a good trick known to burglars that no one will ever question a man in a high visibility jacket, especially one holding a crowbar and a ladder. Similarly, if you want to give the impression of breathless productivity in the workplace, people should see you consuming large amounts of coffee. This is unlikely to make your work any better –coffee stops you sleeping, it doesn’t make you smarter- but your coworkers will have their subconscious inundated with television images from 1990s Manhattan and LA.

You’ve got a takeaway coffee in a big white cup because you were too busy being productive to stay there in the cafe and drink it. You’re on the street with your big coffee, rushing to the big meeting. You ace it over coffees. You’re a success! Call your mum and say: ‘I’m in a big city with a big coffee, Mum! It’s happening!’. And you have coffee to thank.

This significance is integral to its marketing. But coffee isn’t just an energy drink, it is sold to us through messaging based on three further ideas.

1. CRAFT: It’s extremely difficult to make. So, well worth £3.10.

This has led to ‘coffee art’, self-referential events like the International Barista Championship, long blog articles on brew ratios and the general fetishization of the consistency of froth. This also speaks to current social expressions of creativity and technique. The fact is that making a coffee is pretty simple. The machine does the work and the barista is little more than a button-pressing bystander. But by giving the appearance of skill and creativity, the vendor not only increases the perceived value for the customer, they also convince the barista this form of semi-skilled labour is better than working in a warehouse. ‘Bored making coffees? Do a picture in it!’

Coffee art in paper cups

2. TERROIR: It’s the distilled soul of some tropical place. So it’s like travel, but a drink.

Gives us questionable and sentimental images of smiling straw hatted farmers on packaging. Think about it: there isn’t a picture of the guy who mined the coltan for your phone on its box.

Possibly because he’s dead now.

3. AUTHENTICITY IN PREPARATION: This way of having it is the proper way of having it. Not the other fake ways.

This has led to a kind of future dystopic social currency in how you have your coffee. Cortados, Lattes, Just-black-please, Stumpies, Flat Whites etc. carry as much social significance as your choice of newspaper. Children and the unsophisticated have whipped cream and syrups, for them this is another welcome vehicle for sugar. Pretentious aesthetes drink only it black, both to match their clothes and their ascetic avoidance of pleasure. Those either afflicted by or aspiring to lactose intolerance rely on increasingly improbable milk substitute design.

In earlier centuries social status, rank and even profession were signified through a system which regulated and controlled which fabrics could be worn in public. Looking at a Renaissance painting, we probably don’t notice the subtle differences in dress which would have been very significant to contemporary eyes.

In the same way, I’m sure in 500 years looking at an image of street life from 2018, viewers won’t know the difference between a Costa Mocha and a Monmouth Espresso, they’ll just wonder why everyone drank it out of paper cups.

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