Sunday 23 January 2011

Coffeshop? Coffee Shop? Cafe?

Britons are perceived to be a nation of tea drinkers and I am happy to be included within the generalisation. What is more refreshing, in any season, at any time of day or night, than a cup of tea? What is the one thing that is always missing on holidays beyond British waters? The typically idyllic (but generally fallacious) view of an English town always includes one or more tea shops serving leaf tea in bone china cups accompanied by crustless cucumber sandwiches and a three-tiered array of sweet delicacies.

However, over the past decade, the proliferation of coffee shops – note the two words, not to be confused with the Dutch single-word, and slight misnomer, ‘coffeeshops’ – has marked a change in the British hot beverage appetite. Looking at the companies’ histories, Costa began spreading its tendrils throughout the UK in 1995 when it was acquired by Whitbread, and Starbucks started appearing on every other street corner in 1998. Despite Costa having been retailing in the UK for longer, it seems to have been the American style Starbucks that led the nation’s change of heart.

I remember several years ago being in a Starbucks in the US and gawping at the incongruity of people sitting with laptop computers, or books, or a pad of paper and pen, working. Yet, I am now sitting in a Costa writing this in long hand (a strange experience in itself), watching people come and go with their cappuccinos, lattes, and sickly flavoured coffees; despite making my coffee last for nearly two hours, I have yet to see any of the British public with a pot of tea.

Being a weekend, most people seem to be coming in to relax, meet friends or to read the newspaper, but during the week, I have seen business meetings take place and exchanged the silent acknowledgement of solidarity with other people working and monopolising a seat for more than the twenty minutes it takes to drink a massimo coffee. While I have been scribbling, a teacher has just taken her seat: she has, like me, bought a combination of school work and personal reading and the obligatory bucket of coffee.

Apart from the increase in coffee as the drink of choice, the blurring of the boundaries between the spaces of work and home and the public and private is interesting. (Eavesdropping, I learn that she is also a secondary English teacher.) While people have always brought work home, the concept of bringing it home to take it out to complete in public feels indicative of the exhibitionist lives that many of use now lead online when we tweet our every move or regularly update our statuses. Through the internet’s democratisation of society (more blurred boundaries) we seem, as a nation, to be slowly losing our stiff-upper-lipped, tea-drinking identity. But are we becoming more European with our café (a word deriving, of course, from the French for ‘coffee’) culture? No. We are becoming more American with our adoption of the coffee shop as a space for working and thereby losing more of both our personal, and previously private, space and identity.


  1. As I began reading this entry, I asked myself why I have started to prefer drinking coffee. As a child I grew up in a tea household, and I still drink it often (mainly in the afternoon), but once I hit my twenties I began to actually like and prefer coffee. When I read the first couple of paragraphs, I already had my comment in mind: "I think it is an exoticism, drinking coffee makes one feel more continental and thus more 'chic'", but you're right, the coffee that Britons are drinking is not European coffee, far from it, it's Americanised, stylised coffee. Designer coffee for the modern working person.

    Personally, the flavoured coffees of Starbucks and their ilk make me feel physically ill afterwards. There is nothing better to me than the coffee my Italian friend makes, simple cappuccino in the mornings, and espresso in the afternoons for digestion. Not the dirty water that Starbucks and Costa flog :)

  2. Interesting post. Is working in cafés that weird, though? Surely a symbol of European cafés is to have an absolutely tiny coffee whilst scribbling down a whole novel on a 10x15 Moleskine?
    But yeah I agree with you - coffee shops are definitely an American thing. (Unlike K though, I hate espresso and I can't digest capuccinos. The bucket of aptly named Americano is the only one for me.)
    But Starbucks and Costas have something that European cafés don't - comfort. They're vast. They have huge armchairs, big tables, not too much noise. They have Wi-Fi. They have cupcakes (the American sort...). You don't order and pay at the table. They're just a very different experience and perhaps it's a bit mistaken to try and compare the two. After all, Britain never had anything like French or Italian cafés in the first place.
    Regarding tea, since I arrived in England 5 years ago I've been surprised at how little the English seem to deserve their reputation of picky, tasteful tea-drinkers. Most people I know use teabags constantly, even putting them in teapots. Shocking! Maybe I don't hang out with the right people :)

  3. If Costa or Starbucks served tea in pots I would oblige. Whenever I get the opportunity, in reputable tea shops that serve it properly, I will have a pot of tea for two or more with just one cup and will sit pondering life, the universe and nothing, staring into and contemplating the clear nectar, occasionally breaking off to jot some curious notion that has occurred to me into one of my several notebooks...