Last updated on October 7th, 2023 at 09:39 pm
Britain has had an affection for tea and coffee for a similar length of time, but despite (apparently) 95 million cups of coffee being drunk every day in the UK, it is ubiquitous good tea that it is famed for, rather than coffee. It is a different story just across the Channel and throughout mainland Europe, where a decent cup of coffee can be had in pretty much any café or bar. It usually comes with a little biscuit or chocolate, too – not that I particularly need a biscuit or chocolate with my coffee, but it demonstrates a certain panache and pride in presentation that we often lack. You can probably get a decent cup of coffee in a French pet shop. However, French tea seems to be universally awful. You can’t have everything, can you?
I drink loads of tea, but do love a proper cup of coffee. I adore the aroma, and delight in savouring it. Good coffee, I feel, is best sipped rather than gulped. Like a favourite sin – good alcohol, good cheese – you should take your time, if you can, with good coffee. However, getting a decent cup of coffee in Britain can be a bit hit-and-miss; and, boy, can it be complicated.
First, let’s get a bit of background.
A brief history of coffee
Coffee has a fascinating, and sometimes dark, history. One popular legend of its beginnings is that a 9th Century Ethiopian goat herder noticed his animals becoming particularly frisky after nibbling the fruits of a particular bush. He took the beans to some handy priests, who consequently discovered a new way to keep themselves awake and pray longer. Arabs and Turks refined the product over the centuries and, thanks to their efforts, drinking coffee eventually reached Europe. The first coffee house in Britain opened in Oxford in 1651. The first coffee house in London opened in 1652 “at the Sign of Pasqua Rosee’s Head”, now the Jamaica Wine House, in St Michael’s Alley, Cornhill. The fashion caught on with coffee houses springing up in major cities, like Bristol, Norwich, Edinburgh and Glasgow. Other new drinks, such as tea and chocolate, were available; it was safer than drinking the water. Coffee houses became places of conversation, where business was transacted and politics debated. They were places of idle gossip and rumour, too – the Facebooks and Twitters of their day. Benjamin Disraeli referred to ‘coffee house babble’. Charles II viewed them as a threat to the monarchy and wanted to supress them. Some establishments were unashamedly bawdy and some developed around particular interests. Edward Lloyds’ coffee house in London’s Tower Street, for example, became popular with ship owners and captains returning from overseas. Boxes (tables) were rented out to entrepreneurial businessmen, who collaborated to sell ship owners insurance against the risk of their valuable ships and cargoes being lost. Thus began Lloyds of London, the unique insurance business. Jonathan’s Coffee House in Change Alley became the principle meeting place for London’s stockbrokers and helped create the London Stock Exchange. Francis White’s chocolate house was frequented by aristocratic gamblers and evolved into White’s Club in St James’s Street. Coffee was not an egalitarian beverage. By the 18th century, Britain had thousands of coffee shops, predominantly the preserve of reasonably well off men. By then, of course, coffee was a crop produced in bulk by slaves working in the plantations of Europe’s colonies. (Appallingly, according to this article, coffee can still be produced by forced labour).
The number of coffee houses in Britain declined in the 19th century. Tea became far more popular and coffee houses became more exclusive members’ only clubs. There is even a theory that coffee houses were viewed as making men more effeminate. Fashions change. Skipping forward to the 1950s and ‘60s, the coffee bar scene was an important part of Britain’s youth culture. Somewhere along the way, however, something happened to the drink itself.
The joy of instant coffee
In the simpler days of youth (just a few years ago), coffee was usually a very modest drink. A spoonful of instant powder or granules in a cup, filled with hot (but not boiling) water, with a splash of milk if that’s your thing, and there you go. Until mum and dad splashed out on a coffee percolator, that was the ‘coffee’ mostly consumed at home and available at the kind of restaurants we could afford to go to. Instant coffee was easy; the only complication was whether you wanted it with milk – and it was always assumed that you did, so you had to specify if you wanted it ‘black’. Even then, you would occasionally be asked, “Would you like milk with that?” Sometimes, I still am. The one thing to bear in mind about instant coffee is that it is not the real thing and only vaguely tastes like coffee. I still drink it at home, though, because it’s cheaper. The genuine stuff is produced when entertaining all the wealthy visitors we have, or when a sharp intake of caffeine is required.
The coffee comeback
By the 1980s, good espresso was obtainable from a small bar at British Railway stations. A double shot before a difficult client meeting was always useful. By the 1990s, coffee chains were opening branches the length and longth of the land, so high street cafés were forced to offer a respectable alternative to the traditional cup of Nescafé. These days, coffee is everywhere; even some pubs have it on the menu. Yet it can still be tricky to procure a really good cup of coffee in Britain. When you find one, it is a joy. I remember buying a particularly ghastly cup at a motorway service station. I suppose it serves me right for thinking it would be OK. The stuff was so bad that I was moved to take it back and say, “I’m sorry, but I must tell you that is the worst cup of coffee I have ever had.” The chap behind the counter promptly apologised and offered me another one; and then seemed genuinely surprised when I fell about, laughing.
In our quest for reliably good coffee, we must look at the coffee chains. So far as I am aware, the three leading chains in the UK are Café Nero, Costa and Starbucks. Café Nero, in my experience, is consistently the best by a long mile. Their staff tend to be more on the ball and nicer, too. With Costa (currently a subsidiary of Coca-Cola), you’re never quite sure what you will get: both quality and service range from excellent to wildly indifferent. Starbucks coffee just tastes like insipid chocolatey mud and the last time I was in a branch the staff were more interested in each other than their customers. Of course, I normally avoid generalisations. Oh, and they all sell overpriced biscuits and cakes; but, again, Café Nero comfortably wins on quality. The last time I sampled a pastry from Costa, I had to fight an urge to try bouncing it across the room.
Starbucks has a particularly irritating habit of asking for your name when you place an order. To be fair, some people meekly accept this bizarre procedure. I guess in some cultures calling out people’s names to a room full of strangers would be considered friendly – and it might help avoid confusion on the part of the simple-minded over who has ordered what. However, being English, emotionally repressed and valuing my privacy, I find it intrusive, undignified, alien and plain silly. Do you give your name to Tarquin at the Olde Rupture Ducke when ordering a pint of Throat Tickler? Of course you don’t. To avoid an argument with the perfectly innocent server, the way round this is to use a false name. My suggestions include ‘Adolf’, ‘Little Susie’, ‘God in Heaven’ and ‘I think I’m going to be sick!’ On one memorable occasion, when Mrs Britain allowed me out and treated me to what passes for coffee at Starbucks, the usual ritual ensued:
Serving assistant, marker pen poised menacingly over cup: “What name was it?”
Me (thinking): “Why do you want a previous name?” And out loud: “Don’t tell ‘em, Gwendolyn.”
Serving assistant looked confused. Mrs B tried to look cross and blurted out her real name.
Why is it so pretentious and complicated?
There is a worrying degree of pretentiousness and hyperbole in modern Britain; just look at some of the food menus. But why do we have to put up with odd-speak when buying a simple coffee? What’s with the ridiculous names for different cup sizes? Tall? Grande? Venti? What do they mean? What’s wrong with small, medium and large – which, to be fair, is I think what Costa offers? Then, there is this barista business. This is nothing to do with the legal profession – I am advised that a barista is the person that makes your coffee. As a cup of coffee normally consists of a combination of ground coffee and hot water, I’m not convinced this is a particularly skilful trade that demands an extravagant label. That said, I happily accept that it takes a certain touch to make a good cappuccino; but as you exceptionally experience that in Britain anyway (mostly, it’s just milky coffee with froth on it), must we pretend?
It is, of course, all part of the corporate claptrap that permeates society these days. Give something a fancy name, preferably not vernacular English, and people will think it is superior and pay more for it. Some of you may say, “Ah, but these are Italian terms and good coffee comes from Italy.” To which I would counter: 1) It is perfectly reasonable to call things by their original names (eg I believe cappuccino, espresso and spaghetti Bolognese originated in Italy); 2) Yes, Italian style coffee can be very good, but it is not grown there; 3) We are not in Italy; 4) The top coffee-producing nation in the world is Brazil. Unsurprisingly, Italy is not even in the top 10. For reference, support the greatest coffee producing nation in the world and next time you venture into a branch of Starbucks or Costa, just for fun ask: “Me trás um café por favor?”
Unless you know your stuff, buying coffee these days can be seriously complicated. There is a bewildering amount of choice and it is rarely possible to order a simple cup of decent black coffee. The choice is often between espresso (which I normally enjoy but, like so many things in life, it is all too brief) and something called ‘Americano’ – which is watered down espresso and, unless you stop the little barista before he fills the cup to the brim, perfectly disgusting. I’m not sure whether it is worse than the filtered coffee left on a hot plate for too long in some hotels and laughingly referred to as ‘fresh-brewed’. Recently burned would be more accurate. Then there are creations called ‘latte’ and ‘flat white’ (I want to ask for a rumpled one). Both, from what I can make out, are types of very milky coffee. Yeuch!
Did you know that Costa claims to offer ‘hand-crafted’ drinks? Will you tell them, or shall I?
It doesn’t even end there. Many places now offer the options of various additives, including flavoured syrups, to mask the taste of your beans. I see that Starbucks is currently advertising ‘pumpkin spice’ coffee, which sounds revolting. Why would you do that to coffee? I can only assume that caffeine, even in the small amounts in Starbuck’s coffee, is now widely consumed by children. Wake up and smell the fruit.
I took a group of elderly (ie older than I am) people into a branch of a coffee chain. It was their first experience of one and it was a little like herding cats. Used to a time when buying coffee in Britain was very easy and almost universally unsatisfactory, they were completely overwhelmed and bewildered by the choice and terminology. Helpless – or perhaps reluctant – to intervene, I allowed them to quaveringly interrogate the terrified barista as the queue behind them built up and snaked its way out the door. Had it not been time for their nap, they would still be there.
It is a long way from the 17th century coffee house, where the product was simply beans (and not very fresh ones having been shipped half-way across the world in a sailing ship) ground using a mortar and pestle, and cooked in water. Imagine a bewigged gent from those days walking into a branch of Starbucks. “Zounds!” he might remark. Or even “Gadsbudlikins!”
So – where can you go to get a proper cup of coffee today? It is – of course – a matter of personal taste. I have mentioned Café Nero, but more often than not find that the answer will be in a small independent café or bakery, where the owner takes a pride in the business and its products.