Coffee in Britain

Last updated on October 7th, 2023 at 09:39 pm

A bit of a grind

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.

Wake up and smell the coffee

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.

Cafe Nero is probably the best coffee chain in Britain

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.

Is Starbucks the worst coffee chain in Britain?

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?”

Getting a simple black coffee can be difficult in Britain

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.

Cup of Costa coffee

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.

National Trust cafes can be OK

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.

A nice cup of something

63 thoughts on “Coffee in Britain”

  1. That’s a great read! Informative and funny. And I agree with just about everything you say, including Cafe Negro….by far the best chain. I usually go for the Americano which is strong and flavourful accompanied by an iced water and a hot almond croissant. You will see I share your exasperations as I was impelled some time ago to write a post ‘Coffee shops – wake up and smell the coffee’ …… see here..

  2. I love this post for so many reasons; interesting, informative and humorous! Dividing my time between England and France, I have strong opinions on tea and coffee but where do I start? At home, in deepest Surrey, my preferred drink is tea, preferably what is commonly known as ‘Builder’s Tea’; this has to be Yorkshire tea. Recently, while driving down the A29, we stopped at a roadside café for a big breakfast and I was delighted that a mug of Builder’s tea was specified on the menu and that it lived up to my expectations. My husband, who drinks nothing but strong black coffee, requested three shots to acquire a cup with the required strength. When in France, I only drink tea at home, but I enjoy ‘un café’ when out and about. I have a friend, in England, who flatly refuses to order anything but a ‘white coffee’ and I must confess that I have a grudging admiration for his standpoint!

    1. Thanks, June 🙂
      I’m with you on the ‘Builder’s Tea’, but have found that supermarket red label is generally as good, if not better, than any brand. Asking for ‘white coffee’ seems to confuse many staff at the main chains: “Oh, do you mean an Americano with milk?”

      1. I must try red label , especially as I’ve just swopped to leaf tea. I’m thinking about writing a post about coffee culture in France, inspired by you!

        1. I reckon the coffee culture in France is far more elegant than that of the UK – especially as you are writing the piece, June! Red label is at the cheap end of the market, of course, otherwise I wouldn’t touch it 🙂

  3. That was a super post……loads of information and amusing at the same time…would have paid money to see the stout parties at Starbucks.
    During WWII mother met an american army engineer and used to take him home to be fed and looked after by her mother. On the first visit he was given coffee and looked as if he had arrived in the promised land….’proper coffee’, his first since being posted to the U.K.
    When I was young father liked coffee, an Italian brand he bought in Soho, and made in the percolator, so I was introduced to it and liked it. He insisted mother keep a bottle of Camp coffee, the one with the politically incorrect label, in the larder for visitors on the grounds that that was all they were used to…
    Here we have coffee galore…..but bewail the absence of any tea worthy of the name.

    1. I had to look up ‘stout party’ and the best reference seemed to be written by The Venomous Bead. Love the reason for keeping Camp coffee – but it seems a little hard on any odd visitor who might have been used to the real thing.

      1. Stout party comes from the aeons spent in a doctor’s waiting room as a child, perusing the stacks of antiquated copies of ‘Punch’, where the cartoons frequently dealt with surprises dealt out to the unco guid, described as stout both social respectability and physique.
        Father guarded his Italian blend like the crown jewels.

  4. All strikes a chord! When I was young coffee seemed to be made with hot milk not water and was a luxury drink, unless you could only afford the coffee and chicory Camp coffee. In cafes I always used to ask for black with milk which was logical to me but apparently confused the staff. Now you have to ask for Americano,which I believe Europeans consider a bit of a travesty. Watered down espresso!
    Does anyone know if Coca Cola bought out Costa Coffee for the alliteration?
    I can recommend Boston Tea Party, a small chain stretching from Devon to Birmingham.

    1. Ah – I’d forgotten all about Camp coffee! Didn’t spot the alliteration – wish I had. And will keep my eyes open for Boston Tea Party – hopefully I’ll be served by the sensational Alex. Tee-hee!

  5. Ah tea I love the stuff and drink gallons but it has to be Yorkshire tea for me. I went to the US a few times and they only had Liptons and their tea was like dishwater so I drunk coffee. Now a days I brew my own coffee in a peculator and have one each day though I don’t mind having one when we go out either

  6. This was an enjoyable read, Mike. You summed up how it is in Britain beautifully. Of course coffee in America is a staple. Starbucks, in my opinion, isn’t very good. It’s just popular because it’s trendy. They even have a ‘puppy cup’ for your dog, which is a cup of whipped cream. Dunkin’ is by far a better coffee chain. Watch what you order, as here in New England ‘regular’ is with cream and sugar. I learned the hard way, assuming that meant black.

    1. Thanks, Jennie. If I had a dog, I can’t imagine disliking it so much that I’d feed it whipped cream. I’ll look out for Dunkin’ over here – and tell them I’m not a regular kind of chap 🙂

  7. Well presented, Mike. I don’t like tea, but drink a good quantity of black cafetière coffee each morning and thereafter water. I haven’t tried Café Nero but don’t like the other two chains – particularly Starbucks. My one aberration is that I choose tea with a café fry-up. This is mostly historic from the days when you could only get instant in cafés – but the practice has changed my preferred beverage for such food.

  8. Michael Graeme

    Ah, I hear your pain. They tell us what the people want is choice, when all I want is just one thing that works.

  9. Colin Harrison

    An excellent piece, Mike. Amusing, entertaining and enlightening all at the same time! In a Geordie Ridley song, local characters are mentioned including ‘Coffee Jonny,’ who was a well-known former prizefighter around the Tyneside area at the time. Apparently he much preferred coffee to tea, hence the nickname.
    A little pedantry: I believe that the spelling is ‘Bolognese’. Sorry.
    Please keep these coming, as they are a bit like a secret pleasure for most of us I would guess!
    Thank you.

  10. Coffee, please. I like tea, but it is mostly something I have when I am cold, or have an upset tummy (which is very rare) – peppermint tea is good against that. For our Sunday morning breakfasts (usually taken at around lunch time), O.K. and I love a good mug of Earl Grey tea, but hours before, we’ve already had mugs of coffee in bed, with just a biscuit to go along.
    On work days, I have a large mug of coffee in the morning, made with my “Senseo” coffee machine from decomposable pads. It’s fair trade organic coffee, of course, and I would never go for one of those machines that make coffee from an aluminium capsule or pad – too much waste, too much money.
    In England, I rarely drink coffee anywhere but at our rented cottage, where it is either lazy instant coffee (usually some organic brand bought at the nearby Booths supermarket) or using the french press available at the cottage.
    Costa is rather good, in my experience, but I am no fan of Starbucks.

  11. The peak of coffee culture and safe, intelligent conversation came in the mid 17th century when coffee houses opened in Oxford, London, Norwich, Edinburgh and other cities – attractive spaces, fresh tasty coffee and good company (for men, at least).

    But culture rarely goes backwards.. it either stays constant or improves over time. So what on earth happened in Britain?

    1. Apparently, the coffee of the 17th century would have tasted fairly unpleasant to us. I’m not sure I agree that coffee houses were the idyllic places some think they were – certainly not if you were a woman. And, surely, whether culture improves is a little subjective?

  12. I used not to drink coffee, but I bought a mokka pot last year, obsessed as I am with all things Italian. I don’t drink coffee every day, or even every week, come to think of it, but I drink a lot more than I used to.

    I agree with you on the varying quality of coffee in the high street. I drink Americano and I’ve had some very bitter ones and some lukewarm ones.

    I’m afraid I have to take issue with you on a couple of points. Spaghetti Bolognaise did not originate in Italy, at least, not in the form that it’s known in the UK. Somewhat surprisingly, coffee is now grown in Italy. It’s a very recent development and I believe that it has taken years of experimentation. Italians take coffee drinking very seriously and, not surprisingly, Starbucks didn’t have much success when they first opened a shop there. I believe Italians found their coffee expensive and unpleasant.

    1. Frankly, I was relatively old when I realised that spaghetti Bolognese did not come from a tin. Apparently, it comes from a place called Imola? Interesting to hear that coffee is now grown in Italy. Hopefully, my article isn’t taken as seriously as Italians take their coffee drinking!

      1. I’ve just come back from a few days in Italy and I had one cup of coffee that was decidedly sub-par, so they don’t all take it as seriously as they might.

          1. Not at all. It was like drinking tea that hadn’t been made with boiling water. I’ve done that in Italy and France, so I drink coffee when I’m in those countries and it’s usually pretty good. This wasn’t.

  13. I visited Britain twice when I was very young. I have so many wonderful memories. I was thrilled that I wasn’t too young to drink tea, and eat all the wonderful tea treats.

  14. Haha… as an American reading this, I am amused because we have long given up our value of privacy and every cafe order (not just for coffee) requires a name. I used to toy with the idea of using a fake name but stopped because my name is on my credit card and it would be too obvious, and thus silly. Luckily we have plenty of spots for good coffee, if you don’t mind the larger volume of it.

    1. So far, thank God, Starbucks is the only place that asks for your name (as far as I’m aware) in the UK. Some establishments even still allow payment by cash – though beads were not accepted when I last tried.

  15. Oh how I agree with you. In July I wrote the following poem.

    I went out for a coffee
    To my local coffee house
    The girl who was serving me
    Smiled and brushed her blouse.
    “What would you like?” she said quite clear
    And then listed all the options near.

    “Americano, or flat white
    Espresso, Latte, that’s quite nice.
    You can have mocha, if you must
    Or cappuccino with chocolate dust.
    We serve iced coffee when it’s hot
    And Irish coffee when it’s not.”

    There was far too much choice.
    What were these she offered me?
    I was confused. I lost my voice.
    Once upon a time, you see,
    This was all you’d hear her say
    “Black or white for you today?”

  16. Utterly delicious, Mike. And laughable.
    I do not like Starbucks, for all the reasons you cite, but mostly for its ghastly abomination of coffee. And the name-on-cardboard cup nonsense. I suggest we all give Spartacus as the name, then when the barista (whose baptismal name is unlikely to be the name on his breastplate badge) calls out “Spartacus” everyone, in turn, stands and says “I am Spartacus!”

  17. How fascinating that Lloyds of London AND the London Stock Exchange have their roots in coffee houses! (“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.”) I drink coffee very rarely, although I drank a fair amount when I worked professionally as a child, especially when recording voiceovers. I liked it with milk and sugar. I think I consumed it partly to seem like I was a responsible peer to my adult co-workers. I agree with you about Starbucks. I did not know that Cafe Nero is also a worldwide chain. We have one in our town (along with two Starbucks). If I am ever hankering for coffee, I will go there. You write such delightful and educational blog posts, Mike — thank you for this one!

  18. Costa may be a subsidiary of C…. C…. now, but I remember the churning in my stomach when Whitbread, long since shed of its brewing responsibilities, sold its last pub and was now tail-wag-dog driven by its Costa subsidiary. Oh, and a tale of Starbucks. Hopwood Services, M42, somewhere around 10 years ago, early morning. It’s not yet 7am and I’ve driven up from Kent. I need caffeine. She’s just opening up and I am the first customer. Indeed, even by the time her machine has made my “Americano”, I’m still the only customer in sight. She scans the whole room, cup in hand, and shouts….”Americano for Phil!!”. Go on darling, take a wild guess at whose coffee it is…

  19. Brilliant and very entertaining post! Having lived in both UK and Germany (one usually makes good coffee, the other usually not) and having sampled coffee in many other areas of the world, I can definitely confirm that Starbucks coffee in the UK is uniformly awful. It tastes very different from Starbucks US or anywhere else I’ve tried it, so it must be “brewed” for what is believed to be the the UK market.

    The name thing is annoying and I’ve given names like Cinderella or Batman before. Most servers don’t even flicker as privacy laws have become more demanding and in most outlets in Canada (where I live now) the name thing is not a thing anymore.

    I am a dyed-in-the-wool coffee drinker and have my own great coffee apparatus at home, including grinder. Good coffee is absolutely wonderful.

    1. Couldn’t agree more with “great coffee is absolutely wonderful!” And I think I might try using ‘Cinderella’! I despair if my fellow country person thinks that Starbucks’ coffee is coffee as it should be!

  20. Who would have thought that coffee drinking, and not the nasty instant style would become such a thing in Blightie. Like you I still do make myself the occasional Nescafe at home partly for the nostalgia value. It is indeed interesting how coffee drinking differs so much from one country to another. What is also interesting is how perceptions of coffee drinking habits in one’s own country and of those in other countries vary. Perhaps the Brit inferiority complex in general culinary areas has carried over into assuming that the French and the Italians all make much better coffee. I’ve been about as often to the UK and to France and Italy in the last decade or so and I’ve usually been able to get a pretty decent cappuccino in all of those places. What I haven’t been able to find though is the equivalent of a coffee verkhuert (spelling?) that the Dutch serve. Usually served in a tiny cup, thick, syrupy and strong but not burned like the Greek or Turkish variants. Totally agree on the Grande, Venti nonsense. Mental note regarding Cafe Nero.

  21. I laughed and laughed on this, Mike. I don’t drink coffee; Rick does. But I’ll meet friends at the coffee shop and boy, is it ever pretentious. You nailed it. Especially about the coffee shop chains like Starbucks. All that and expensive, too. Well done!

  22. I great article Mike and it made me giggle a few times. I’ve never been a great coffee drinker, just one mug per day, but it’s long been a ‘thing’ that whenever I’m out and about I always stop somewhere mid afternoon for a latte coffee and cake, however I’m finding it increasingly difficult to find a really good cup of coffee to my liking, many of them being too strong or a bit on the bitter side so I’ve recently changed to hot chocolate. One of the best lattes I’ve ever had was in the cafe at the Hidden Gardens on Anglesey – Costa coffee is awful and I’ve never tried Starbucks – why do they write your name on the cup, what’s that all about?? – but on your mention of Cafe Nero might just persuade me to try one of theirs next time I’m out and about.

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