4 October 2021
What has been your experience of drinking coffee? For me, coffee has been a somewhat random affair. Below I chart How Coffee Became Popular In the UK , as I saw it, and how I’ve found my perfect cup of coffee.
I’ve been drinking coffee for some time now – However, I was never a coffee aficionado.
In fact, for a long time, I was not too fond of the taste of coffee, and my abiding memory of it got linked to an embarrassing encounter at a coffee near St Pauls, London, in the late 70s.
I just avoided it for years, even though I got offered it a lot, everywhere I went, as part of my job.
While no one ever said it, I did feel like being the odd one out, always refusing coffee. People probably thought I was crazy.
Aside from this, I felt the same way about tea, but the reasons were different, and in those situations, I similarly felt like the odd one out.
So I went through my early years, neither drinking tea nor coffee. I recall drinking no hot drinks. Thinking about it now, it seems crazy.
I don’t remember exactly when things changed. But my memories of coffee following that time were of my mother offering me a “hot” drink (instant coffee, I should add) by creating a coffee and milk mixture into a thick paste before adding hot water.
I loved it, and that was when coffee became a thing for me.
Shortly after that period, I travelled and worked away a lot. I began to alternate between tea and coffee, drinking it almost everywhere.
For example – at airports waiting for planes, at stations waiting for trains, on trains via the in-aisle trolley service, in hotels at breakfast time, breaks at work – All during this time, I didn’t enjoy coffee much – the taste seemed a rather hit-and-miss affair.
My mother’s mixture was still the best.
However, there was one event that emotionally scarred me.
Around that time, I went on jury service, and one of the other jurors invited me for lunch at a local Wimpy near St Pauls. We ordered coffee.
I took one sip and found it far too bitter and thought it dreadful. It seemed torture to drink. My companion thought the same about his.
When it came time to settle the bill, he created a fuss, asked for the manager and refused to pay for the coffee. He embarrassed both the manager and me.
I laid off coffee for a long time after this and only got involved again when Starbucks managed to turn it into a thing. I applauded them as they succeeded in making coffee exciting and worthy of conversation.
Here is a short history of the three biggest chains in the UK.
01- Starbucks – Howard Schultz
Starbucks opened its first store in London in 1998. According to their website, they responded quickly in the early days to what people seemed to like. They subsequently opened drive-thrus and extra seating for people who preferred to chat over a coffee.
Bulk coffee, tea and spices
Their history is fascinating too. Starbucks began not selling coffee as today but selling only bulk coffee, tea and spices. Working for another company Howard Schultz attended a trade show in Milan in 1983 and discovered perhaps to his surprise that the culture in Italy was very people-oriented.
They did it better in Italy
The coffee bars, rather than coffee houses, did more than merely sell coffee. People respected their baristas for the artistry they brought to their customers.
However, the critical takeaway for Howard, from his visit to Italy, seemed to be the realisation that the coffee places back home in Seattle needed to become more welcoming and warm places for friends to hang out between home and work, just like those in Italy.
Howard would have realised at that time that Italy had developed a coffee culture that is unrivalled and unequalled elsewhere in the world. And, outside of Italy, that culture got expanded and morphed into what we have today.
So Starbucks built on the inspiration of its founder from that visit to Italy. In 2018 Starbucks had around 28000 stores worldwide, all after visiting the Reserve Roastery in Milan all those years ago.
According to Wikipedia, Starbucks serves 83 countries, has 33,295 locations and a revenue of $26.5bn.
02- Costa Coffee – Sergio and Bruno
I don’t recall when I became conscious of Cost Coffee. They must have risen all through my coffee-was-dead-to-me period.
Their website details their early beginnings as far back as 1971. Brothers Sergio and Bruno arrived in London (presumably from Italy and inspired by what they say in Italy!).
They blind-tested 112 variations of coffee before finding one with a sufficient enough taste they turned into their signature blend – they called it the “Mocha Italia”.
They make it from Arabica and Robusta beans, slow-roasted, they say, for 18 minutes to ensure their flavour, aroma and taste.
Seven years later, in 1978, as they outgrew their premises in Fenchurch Street, they moved to a roastery in Lambeth, South London. There they remained until 2017, at which point they made their way to Basildon, Essex, just a stone’s throw from Tilbury Docks, ready for their international markets.
It is not apparent, but Costa Express operates over 4200 vending machines in the UK and interestingly, they opened their first international store in Dubai in 1999.
According to Wikipedia, in 2018, they had 3,883 locations worldwide, with revenues of £1.68bn and 349,000 employees.
Coca-cola owns Costa Coffee.
03- Caffe Nero – Gerry Ford
Last of the coffee chains, but not least, I came across Caffe Nero.
All companies have a history, and Caffe Nero is no different.
According to their website, Gerry Ford, in 1997, 24 years ago, set out to do two things.
- Serve high-quality coffee
- Become a local neighbourhood meeting place.
Independent Coffee Houses
But they first gained their expertise in the coffee business by improving local independent coffee houses, which they did successfully.
They then progressed to building an award-winning (their words) Roastery and coffee blend.
After this progress, they created an espresso training school for their Baristas. (Baristas, you may be aware, are specially trained, qualified individuals who prepare espresso-based drinks. Baristas are like artists and more so in Italy, from which the practice derived).
They now own over 1,000 coffee houses across Europe.
Their website lists the many accolades covering the period from 2002 to 2017, including awards like:
- Best Tasting Coffee
- Best Independent coffee brand
- Masters of Coffee Barista Champions
- Best Store and Best Menu
- and more
According to Wikipedia, Caffe Nero has 1017 stores, 5000 employees and revenues of £228m.
Don’t be fooled – it’s not just coffee houses or coffee chains that can make great tasting coffee. Coffee, as a thing, got emphasised by the likes of Starbucks, Costa and Caffe Nero.
However, the expertise has spread beyond these establishments, and you can now expect to encounter excellent coffee blends and tastes almost everywhere.
Not merely because some of these companies have ensconced themselves within other establishments but because they are incredibly good at figuring out what works, what people like and what changes to make to improve things keeping their ideas solid and fresh, just like their coffee.
Conclusion – How Coffee Became Popular In the UK
I still drink coffee, in generally three different ways.
- My mother still makes it her original way.
- My wife makes it similarly, with a dash of evaporated milk – Nescafe Azera Americano – instant coffee with ground beans. I like the taste. It’s not bitter at all.
- When I have more time at home, I treat myself to machine prepared coffee using a Bosch Tassimo model with a Costa Coffee Americano pod. I love that it is consistent in the way it gets made. I can rely on it, and I feel truly spoiled.
If you have any comments feel free to leave them in the comments below.