The Surprising History of Coffee in the UK.

The UK has a reputation globally as a country of avid tea drinkers, but we thought it was time to challenge this stereotype and see just what history the UK has with the world’s other popular hot beverage, coffee.

This article explores the history of coffee in the UK while also sharing some interesting facts about Britain’s coffee drinking habits.

When was coffee introduced to the UK?

Joe, java, jitter juice, or however you recognise the drink formally known as coffee, first landed on British shores towards the end of the 16th century. The first record of it being sold to the public from a coffeehouse was in the year 1650, in an Oxford building now known as The Grand Café. Not long after, in 1652, London’s first coffee shop opened in St Michaels Alley, starting an industry which now sees London boast more than 3,000 coffee shops, roughly a quarter of the total number across the whole of the UK.

For the next hundred or so years, London coffeehouses became the de facto meeting place for the wealthy and influential, the most famous example of which being Jonathan’s Coffee House – a significant meeting place for stockbrokers which was to eventually be renamed as the London Stock Exchange.

However, the humble beginnings of the UK’s now multi-billion-pound coffee industry, were under almost immediate threat – in 1672, ministers for King Charles II proposed a ban on coffee houses, fearful of their use as centres of political dissent and conspiracy to commit violence against the monarchy. Just two days before it was due to come into effect it became clear that the proposed ban would be practically unenforceable, as well as being wildly unpopular with the British people, and the ban was reversed.

Coffee consumption continued to grow in the UK throughout the remainder of the 17th century, driven in large part by the efforts of the British East India Company and Dutch East India Company as importers of luxury goods from countries on the Indian continent.

In 1771, Britain invented the first form of instant coffee, referred to as compound coffee, an invention which would eventually lead to an American variant, and a Japanese variant which you would recognise as today’s form of instant coffee. Though not prominent at this time, instant coffee would become big business in the UK in around 200 years.

The fall of coffee and rise of tea in 19th century UK

Throughout the 1800s, coffee fell out of favour with UK drinkers, and tea rapidly took hold as the drink of choice. This relatively sudden demise was due in part to a view held by some in British society of coffee as a challenge to the British working man’s productivity and wealth. Hard-working men were turned off by the negative associations of drinking coffee on their masculinity and stopped frequenting the previously bustling coffeehouses.

This trend continued over the first half of the 21st century, with tea remaining the preferred drink throughout both World War One and World War Two. The popularity of coffee in the UK during World War Two was so low that the UK government opted against rationing coffee products, whilst tea was rationed for a total of twelve years from 1940 to 1952.

When did instant coffee come to the UK?

From the late 1950’s, attitudes towards coffee in the UK started a slow and gradual shift. Coffee manufacturers began to push new messaging to consumers about the great taste and smell of their instant coffee products, as well as highlighting the substantial cost savings of brewing instant drinks instead of ground coffee.

Nescafe, released by Nestle in 1938, was now a well-established brand and played an important role in enabling easier and more cost-effective coffee consumption across the continent, with few competitors until the late 1960s when brands such as Maxwell House made their way across the pond and onto the shelves of UK stores.

With the rise of one product often comes the demise of another, and in the 1970s and 1980s, the buoyant market for instant coffee products forced many coffee shops around the UK to permanently shut their doors, unable to beat the cost and convenience of home-brewing.

Costa Coffee was founded in 1971 by Bruno and Sergio Costa, initially as a coffee roastery, but became the first coffee shop in the UK to sell Espresso in ceramic cups with the opening of their Vauxhall Bridge Road site in 1981.

The emergence of coffee chains in the UK

Arguably the biggest shift in British drinking habits came in the 1990s, with the arrival of popular US TV shows including Friends and Seinfeld, with central characters spending much of their on-screen time sat in coffee shops like Central Perk – young British TV audiences fancied a slice of the metropolitan lifestyle they’d seen on their screens and demand for pleasant coffee shop environments rose dramatically.

Brands such as Starbucks made the hop across the Atlantic, joining Costa Coffee, Caffe Nero and café chains like Pret a Manger in transforming the dynamic of British high streets over the past quarter of a century. Starbucks and Costa Coffee now operate almost 4,000 sites between themselves in the UK. Combining the coffee consumption of coffee chains in the UK together with home and office coffee machines, Britain consumes more than 98 million cups of coffee every single day.

By 2021, the Nescafe range of products was being regularly consumed by more than 13 million people in the UK, with more than 20 million British people regularly consuming any brand of instant coffee product. Coffee has now become an important part of the average Brit’s daily life, with each of us consuming between 2 and 3 cups a day, be it at home, work or in one our favourite coffee shop.

Facilities managers and business leaders are now pushing the UK’s coffee history into its next phase, with workplaces offering great quality brews from commercial coffee machines in an attempt to retain and recruit staff.

If you’re interested in purchasing or leasing office coffee machines, reach out to one of our vending experts to arrange a call or site visit.