April 4, 2014 12:06 pm

Coffee culture: wake up and smell the chatter

‘Like the much-envied ‘café culture’ of France and Italy, British coffee life increasingly revolves around conversation’
Illustration by Luis Grañena of two men drinking coffee©Luis Grañena

A few weeks ago, a little late for traditional New Year stocktaking but in line with George Osborne’s Budget, I decided to work out how much money I was spending on coffee. I estimated an average of four coffees a week, at about £2.50 each for, let’s say, 48 weeks a year, which works out at about £500. Not great but no worse than the money I’ve burnt in huge pyres on disappointing sandwiches. When I considered the cost of a decade’s coffee, however, the thousands rather than hundreds started to look caffeinated in the worst way.

I know I’m not alone, as I see everyone else on the morning trains clutching their flat whites just as dearly as I cling to mine. But whatever national habit we’ve picked up with coffee, it’s not as far advanced as you might think. According to analysis by Quartz of data from Euromonitor International, coffee consumption measured per capita was only 0.389 cups a day in the UK last year. Decidedly wimpy when compared with the coffee leaders, the Netherlands, where people were downing 2.414 cups a day.

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These figures seem counter-intuitive. Coffee shops are self-seeding in high streets, railway stations, motorway services – anywhere in Britain that has a decent footfall. It is hard to imagine how “coffee culture” could get much bigger in the UK but there is a social change at work too.

I returned to my school town in Monmouthshire recently to find its retro old caff, Steeples, banished into the smokes of time (there were a lot of cigarettes in there) and, in its place, a new breed of coffee shop dotted at regular intervals up the high street. There was even a Costa, which for this small market town was a bizarrely modern sight.

But coffee here has answered a need. I put my head round the door of each café and saw adults talking to each other. The ghosts remained of the chain-smoking teenagers who were once the town’s dominant customers but this was now very clearly a place for grown-ups too. Like the much-envied “café culture” of France and Italy but taking place under cover from rain and pigeons, British coffee life increasingly revolves around conversation. Even Amazon, a company that relies on remote customers, has made a show of installing an independent coffee bar, Workshop, smack in the middle of its new London headquarters.

This point about conversation was even truer of the original coffee boom in 17th-century London. Matthew Green, a historian of London who runs The Coffeehouse Tour, focused on this period, notes that the British were at first “suspicious” of coffee as a hot, gritty drink from the Levant. But they quickly saw its boiled benefits: “You only drank Thames water if you had a death wish,” he notes. The fact that coffee houses were so social was also frowned upon. “A bit like Facebook and Twitter today, people said that coffee houses were a distraction and were making people idle.” But the acuity that caffeine brings was soon a fashion in itself, and coffee houses became talking shops for news and business. (They had their fads too. In 18th-century Clerkenwell, Green says, a Latin-speaking café was opened – and promptly closed eight months later.) No risk of overspending, as you drank as much as you wanted and stayed as long as you liked – you just had to pay a penny when you left.

We may be catching up with our caffeinated forebears but in our increasingly social coffee habits we are still behind our old foes, the French. I recently spent a long weekend in Paris, and the city’s famous spring was printed out very clearly in the rows of café chairs, crammed with people, tables busy with espresso cups.

It is a great spectacle from the street but, from the café itself, the French don’t use their terraces as viewing galleries. They go there to meet friends, discuss life over a petit café or, equally possible, stare with blank misery into their drink (see Degas’ “Le buveur d’absinthe”). They don’t care so greatly for whatever human theatre passes on the pavement; that is a game for tourists. And what do you really see on the street but faces, bikes and cars? The best people-watching is in the other direction, towards the café, where you see conversations and relationships, going badly and going well.

And while it may be better to save the money on something else, at least I can go to a coffee shop if I choose. Women in the 17th century didn’t cross the threshold of the coffee houses, according to Green, since men were busy in there, doing the important work of thinking and talking. At least that is one aspect of the British conversation that should be left in the past.

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Natalie Whittle is associate editor of FT Weekend Magazine. natalie.whittle@ft.com; @nataliewhittle

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