/ Food & Drink

Are we a nation of coffee addicts?

Coffee cup with heart shape

It’s UK Coffee Week – ‘the nation’s biggest celebration of coffee’. And its most high-profile event, the four-day London Coffee Festival, starts today. Are you one of Britain’s addicts to this innocent-looking beverage?

Featuring a host of talks, barista demonstrations, and opportunities to drink cups of the stuff, the London Coffee Festival is testament to our passionate affair with the world’s most-celebrated type of bean.

Its popularity has grown so much in the past few years that it’s now the world’s most traded commodity after oil. It’s also developed a cultural cachet that the humble cup of tea just can’t compete with. So what makes this hot drink so alluring?

Coffee chain reaction

Much of the recent growth can be attributed to the rise of chains like Starbucks and Costa. Grabbing a latte on my way to work is so much a part of my daily routine that it’s strange to think that no-one really did this in the UK a decade or so ago. Even knowing the difference between a cappuccino and an espresso was unusual back then.

Whether our love of coffee led to the growth of chains, or the growth of chains led to our love of coffee is hard to pin down. What’s more certain is that our new-found coffee culture has made us more discerning when it comes to buying coffee (Arabica over Robusta, if you please). And it has led to the rise of fanatics across the country, with espresso machines taking pride of place in thousands of kitchens.

The cultural attraction

I’m especially sensitive to caffeine, so a proper brew any time after noon is normally a ticket to a sleepless night. But, despite this, I’m still drawn to it like a moth to a flame, and will often forego a good night’s sleep for a ‘hit’. I’ve tried to find an alternative, but no other drink has quite the same allure.

The addictive properties of our nation’s favourite bean have been well documented. But our love is surely more than just a chemical addiction; it’s a cultural phenomenon. Many of us want to love the liquid. It’s not just about the tantalising flavours and – for me – unbeatable aroma; it’s also tied up with the drink’s long-held connections with socialising and ‘culture’.

William Burroughs once wrote that ‘Kerouac opened a million coffee bars’, referring to how the Beat poet Jack Kerouac, often found scribbling away in coffee shops, propelled 1950s coffee culture because people wanted to emulate him. And I know my own experience has been partly influenced by its romantic associations.

The simple pleasure of drinking coffee

Advertising has played its role too. Who of my generation, which came of age in the 1980s, wouldn’t want to align themselves the drink of sophisticates (according to the Nescafe Gold Blend adverts)? To me, it held more allure than tea, the drink of chimpanzees (according to PG Tips).

And in these financially testing times, our habit provides us with a comparatively cheap pleasure that I, for one, wouldn’t want to give up. But how much of our consumption is to do with the drink itself, and how much is it about its culturally-charged image?

Are you a coffee addict? What’s the allure for you? And have you become more discerning in recent years?

Which of these hot drinks do you like (multiple choice)?

Tea (24%, 809 Votes)

Coffee (24%, 801 Votes)

Hot chocolate (16%, 556 Votes)

Mulled wine (8%, 270 Votes)

Herbal tea (8%, 267 Votes)

Malted milk (eg Horlicks, Ovaltine) (7%, 246 Votes)

Bovril (5%, 180 Votes)

Hot toddy (4%, 125 Votes)

Mulled cider (2%, 74 Votes)

Other - tell us in the comments (1%, 42 Votes)

Total Voters: 1,084

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I have been drinking rather more coffee than recommended since my days as a student. I have not tried giving up so I don’t know if I am addicted, and it does not seem to have done me any harm.

I am not sure what ‘Horlics’ is, in the survey above. Maybe best served with Special K. 🙂

As I said last time round I’m not sure we like coffee that much. Coffee shops but not coffee. I read somewhere that to go into Starbucks you need a pram and to think that coffee is a sort of tepid milk shake, which is about right.

I like coffee but would not pay the price, on a daily basis, that specialist coffee shops charge for a coffee. Their coffee is not usually strong enough for me, unless I have an extra shot of expresso. I like to drink real filtered coffee at home and either instant coffee, or soup in work situations. From time to time I only drink cold drinks like water and fruit juice, but only hot drinks are covered in the poll.

When I was a youngster growing up overseas in addition
to coffee, tea, malted milk, there was an imported beverage
from the US…. the American mid-west, quite palatable
stuff, whose name I seem to have forgotten.

The Milo beats Ovaltine on price and flavour every time.

I would have picked ‘green Tea’, not that black stuff.

I’m Janice and I’m addicted to coffee. I didn’t realise it until I tried to give it up. By lunch time on the first day of going without caffeine I had a really bad headache, and by the end of the day I’d decided I was definitely going to give up giving up!

Never again. I have now accepted I’m an addict – and I only drink a few cups of instant a day.

I had always habitually drunk coffee for breakfast until two years ago. After realising that actually it didn’t do much for me and it was nothing special, I switched to tomato juice instead; I just don’t see the big attraction.

What I dislike even more is the US-originated coffee shop culture that is spreading all over the world. I would much rather go to the pub than go to these coffee chains with their overpriced drinks that don’t even appeal to me. The French have got it right; their cafés cater equally for coffee drinkers and alcohol drinkers as well as proper food. I find it particularly annoying when people in London invite me to a US coffee chain for a business meeting!

Richard Norman says:
26 April 2013

The craze for coffee houses is not new. It took Europe by storm in the 17th and 18th centuries. Listen to Bach’s Coffee Cantata, for instance. The French Enlightenment was born in the coffee houses of Paris. What’s new, perhaps, is the democraticisation of the fashion – it’s not just for a cultural elite. But the other striking feature of the modern phenomenon is the exorbitant prices – which raises the question of where all the profits go. Has Starbucks started paying its taxes yet? And how much of what we pay actually goes to the primary producers – the coffee farmers? Whenever you go into a coffee shop, insist on Fairtrade (and don’t be fobbed off with pale imitations like Rainforest Alliance)!

par ailleurs says:
26 April 2013

Coffee is one of life’s great pleasures to me. And speaking as one who grew up in 50s and 60s England I really appreciate the choice we now have. However, with coffee, like much else in life, comes responsibility. I seek out supplies that are fair trade, rainforest friendly and anythying else that says it might have been produced as ethically as possible. Out and about good old M & S cafes do the best tasting and ethical coffee. Starbucks is for people who like the idea of coffee but not its real taste. What on earth is a tall, skinny latte other than a mildly coffee flavoured, hot milk-shake?
If you want to appreciate the true taste of coffee, learn to like espresso. Short measure with a big hit of flavour and caffeine. Perfect!
While we’re on the subject of coffee, why not start a campaign to re-label instant coffee as ‘coffee flavoured beverage’?

Your comment made me laugh, par allieurs, because I only really like instant coffee! I’ll very occasionally have a latte (hot milkshake) when I’m out and about, but for me you can’t beat a mug of watery brown coffee-flavoured stuff. I think I just prefer my drinks bland, and can’t cope with the stronger brews, but I’d be happy for it to be renamed, if only because it’d stop people repeatedly telling me that what I drink isn’t really coffee.

Darren Tagget says:
26 April 2013

Great blog and well said Richard Norman.

One of the problems with coffee today is that, on the whole, people don’t know good coffee from bad. The major roasters – like Nestle and Kraft – have something of a monopoly over the ‘mainstream’ market, despite the fact that coffee experts widely agree they make poor quality coffee, relying on savvy marketing for their dominance.

Let’s hope coffee festivals like this can open people’s eyes to what quality coffee is about. That way people may start to associate good coffee with origin, rather than the mainstream roasters’ blends, thereby shifting where the value is to the farmers (rather than the roasters).

I am definitely a tea addict. I’m sitting here, drinking my fourth of the day and it’s only 3pm. I never used to drink hot drinks at all, but when I was dieting, I found that tea helped me to stave off the hunger pangs.

Now, I get very antsy if I don’t get a cup of tea first thing! I average about 5 – 6 cups a day.

You’re in very good company. Bertie Wooster couldn’t rise until Jeeves had shimmered in with a cup of tea – so efficacious at restoring the tissues and getting the noddle up to speed.

Might I just say that two of those four teas were made by myself.

I’m an equal mix of tea and coffee. I used to hate coffee, but I’m starting to enjoy it more – even the ones you get out of machines. I’m weighing up whether to buy myself a snazzy capsule coffee machine, or to keep it to the filter coffee I’ve become accustomed to.

Matt N says:
26 April 2013

I can definitely relate to what Anna says about the allure of coffee culture but I still like to associate our country most closely with tea. The Nescafe and PG Tips adverts sum it up for me. Somehow tea culture seems more in keeping with Englishness – it’s a bit quirky, it’s down-to-earth, we like to have a cup after a hard day’s work or whenever there’s a blitz on and monkeys drink it. Coffee culture seems more sophisticated, somehow a little lacking in humour, far more French or Italian than it is English and, at its worst, a little pretentious. Don’t get me wrong, some of my best friends drink coffee, but for me we’ll always be a nation of tea addicts.
Great blog.

Cath Martin says:
26 April 2013

Interesting thinking about how much the drink itself has to do with the allure and popularity of coffee. Could another drink, such as tea, hold the same position in societies if it had the same associations and cultural history as coffee now has? Perhaps part of the reason for the popularity of coffee is down to the myriad ways that it can be served, though theoretically you could probably adapt any kind of drink in this way – so perhaps it is all about the image – in particular the association with Italian culture (espresso, macchiato and so on).

Victoria Wood recently presented an interesting programme on why tea is so popular in Britain, with some genuinely believing that this warm milky drink helped us win the war. I think Wood put it well when she observed that a drink in England could only become really popular if fat and sugar were added – which perhaps we need with the frequent terrible weather we have.

Maria Hamilton says:
26 April 2013

Good coffee (preferably sustainably sourced and responsibly produced); has 3 things going for it – if comparisons are to be made – and they always seem to be given the ubiquity of both – that tea doesn’t have:

1. CAFFEINE. Well, tea does have it, but not as much and let’s face it – coffee gives you a kick and a rush that tea could never match. It stimulates, makes you feel alert and gives you the energy you need to get on with your day. A “nice cuppa” has its merits, but works more on a comfort level; reassuringly cosy, like a favourite armchair…(bring me my slippers!)

2. SMELL. Nothing we eat or drink beats the gorgeous aroma of freshly ground coffee. Newly baked bread perhaps comes close; but coffee is peculiarly powerful. It excites an anticipation of pleasure in the drink itself that sometimes, can exceed the actual experience of drinking it…(how clever is that!)

3. STYLE. Is it any coincidence that the different ways to take a cup of coffee: espresso, macchiato, cappuccino etc… are described by words that are Italian? This is a nation with an appreciation of the good things in life and flair for looking good written into its DNA. Drink tea, and you might get a taste of la dolce vita. Drink coffee, you live it!

Wholeheartedly agreeing with Richard Norman’s comments above, I’ll leave the last word to the man he referred to. who wrote The Coffee Cantata:

“Without my morning coffee I’m just like a dried up piece of roast goat.”

– Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) The Coffee Cantata

Here, here!

I certainly agree about the wonderful aroma of coffee. I do not know a nicer smell.

I am probably one of the few people who has never been in Starbucks. Although the US has given us many fine things, I do not like their large food and drink chains. I avoid McDonalds etc. too.

Dusty Fanthorpe. says:
28 April 2013

As a woman the growth of coffee shops that offer comfortable safe places to meet with ones friends has been a real plus for me. Not only do some offer good social spaces but also a place to study, draw and relax. Classical music and paintings on the wall, particularly running exhibitions of local artists, also enhance the experience. Strong coffee doesn’t agree with me so the choice of milder drinks, cappaccinos, lattes etc suits me. Coffee venues that specialise in poetry and have open mike sessions are appealing and I hope will grow. Pity about the monopolies – in the future let’s hope for many smaller places springing up. However would always choose a coffee house over a pub to meet friends in and certainly find much more congenial on my own. Paper cups destroy the whole experience and the furnishings, amount of space and so on make a huge difference. Hurrah for coffee shops.

When I worked in the west end of London in the 1990’s, I used to love meeting with friends in Italian cafes in the back streets surrounding Oxford Street. The coffee served there was to die for, not to mention the ambience. You could also have a decent roll or sandwich or even a pasta dish if you were really hungry. With the popularity of the new wave of coffee houses, many of the old family cafes are now closed, never to return. I can’t think of anything worse than having open mike sessions going on whilst I’m having a nice coffee and chat with friends.

When I have a cold, hot lemsip Max with 2 sugars and a fresh lemon squeezed in it just before bedtime does the trick.

Umm no, no we are are not (all addicted to coffee as a nation.

We olde skool chaps know this to be true, because we have seen trends come and go before y’know.
Tis true.

-Coffee shops have replaced pubs
-Yuppies had wine bars
-Indeterminate yoofs had cocktail bars
-Beatniks had coffee bars
-Lyons had tea rooms post war
-Even the Victorians had tea rooms
-Before that we are talking opium dens and tea at Claridges for the Laydees; but even I am not that old.

DJF says:
22 May 2013

You mention OXO in the list. A cheap invigorating hot drink similar to Bovril but in my humble opinion, better.