The History of Coffee in the UK: How Coffeehouses Transformed British Culture

History of Coffee in UK

The Introduction of Coffee to the UK

Coffee first arrived in the UK in the 16th century, introduced by merchants and travellers coming from Turkey and North Africa. The first coffeehouses opened in Oxford in 1650, bringing this exotic black brew to British shores. Coffee then spread to London, where the first coffeehouse opened in 1652.

Despite initial wariness and suspicion towards this foreign import, the energising effects of coffee soon caught on in British society. By the 1660s, coffeehouses were thriving in London, serving coffee and providing social spaces for discussion and debate. The coffeehouse culture that took root in the UK would have an immense impact on business, politics, socialising and culture in the centuries to come.

The Rise of Coffeehouses in 17th Century London

In the 1660s, coffeehouses proliferated rapidly across London. At their peak, there were over 3,000 coffeehouses throughout the city. These establishments served coffee, tea and chocolate and functioned as important hubs for socialising, business and political debate.

The first famous London coffeehouse was Lloyd’s Coffee House, opened by Edward Lloyd on Tower Street in 1688. It soon became a popular gathering place for sailors, shipowners and merchants, who would gather to hear the latest maritime news and attend auctions. This was the original establishment that would eventually become the world-famous insurance market Lloyd’s of London.

Other notable early coffeehouses included the Grecian Coffee House, frequented by scientific luminaries like Isaac Newton, and Will’s Coffee House, a hotbed of political intrigue and gossip. The establishments were furnished with simple wooden benches and tables and offered newspapers and pamphlets for patrons to peruse.

Coffeehouses were open to all classes and became important places for sharing ideas and information. The energising effects of coffee allowed patrons to have vigorous debates and discussions for hours on end. This open exchange of ideas helped drive the Enlightenment in the UK.

Coffee House
Coffee House

Coffeehouses as Hubs of Business, Politics and Culture

Coffeehouses served multiple important functions in British society. They were places where people could conduct business, follow political developments, and discuss the pressing issues of the day.

For business, coffeehouses were important early financial centres. Merchants and tradesmen would meet to make deals and exchange important commercial information. Lloyd’s Coffee House was the centre of the marine insurance industry. Other coffeehouses were associated with stock trading, bookselling, and other commerce.

Politically, coffeehouses were places where people could criticise the government openly and debate ideas. They were centres of dissent during the English Civil War. Later, different coffeehouses became associated with various political factions like the Whigs and Tories. Politicians and their supporters would meet to coordinate strategy in these informal setting.

Culturally, coffeehouses were centres of education, literary criticism, and engagement with the arts. Poets, intellectuals, and artists frequented coffeehouses to discuss new ideas and works. Publishers would distribute pamphlets and newsletters there. Chess and other games were also enjoyed by patrons. This coffeehouse culture promoted the lively intellectual discourse that flourished during the Enlightenment.

The Spread of Coffeehouses Across the UK

While London had the greatest concentration of coffeehouses, the trend spread across other British cities and towns in the 17th and 18th centuries.

In Scottish cities like Edinburgh and Glasgow, coffeehouses took hold and became social institutions. Political economist Adam Smith reportedly wrote much of ‘The Wealth of Nations’ while regularly attending coffeehouses for intellectual discussion.

In Oxford, coffeehouses served students and professors around Oxford University. They became an important part of academic life for generations, serving as informal meeting spaces outside the university walls. The Queen’s Lane Coffee House, opened in 1654, is still operating today.

In provincial towns and villages, inns and taverns increasingly served coffee to travellers. This helped spread coffee consumption and culture beyond the major urban centres. Quaint, local coffeehouses sprung up in towns across Britain, providing gathering spots for the community.

So while London led the way, the bustling coffeehouse took hold as an institution across Britain, making the coffeehouse a touchstone of British social and cultural life.

Tea Overtakes Coffee as the National Beverage in the 18th Century

While coffee dominated in Britain in the 17th century, tea gradually overtook it as the national beverage over the 1700s. Several factors contributed to tea supplanting coffee in British tastes.

First, the British East India Company became the major importer of tea, establishing a tea trade monopoly in Britain. This helped drive down prices and boost consumption. Second, sugar and milk became more widely available, smoothing tea’s flavour and enhancing its popularity. Third, teatime and its associated rituals took hold across class lines. The upper class adopted afternoon teatime, while the working class drank strong tea with meals. Finally, the temperance movement promoted tea over alcohol, steering more people away from coffee, which was still associated with taverns.

Coffeehouses endured, but started serving more tea in addition to coffee. The teahouse also emerged as a fashionable venue. By the early 19th century, tea had become Britain’s national beverage, enjoyed across all levels of society. Coffee would eventually reemerge, but tea dominance was firmly established by the 1800s.

British East India Company Importing Tea
British East India Company Importing Tea

The Decline of the Coffeehouse in the 19th Century

While coffeehouses had once been central institutions in British society, they declined markedly in importance over the course of the 19th century. Several forces contributed to their diminished role.

First, increasing urbanisation and changes in city layouts meant less centralised hubs where people congregated routinely. Second, other gathering places like gentlemen’s clubs became popular, displacing coffeehouses as social institutions. Third, political repression made coffeehouses less viable venues for vocal dissent against the government. Finally, pubs surged in popularity, offering affordable alcohol instead of pricey coffee.

Though they served coffee, taverns and public houses drew greater working class patronage through most of the 1800s. Coffee was still available in other venues like hotels and restaurants, but the glory days of the coffeehouse were over. They remained as reminders of bygone eras, but no longer held the wide social function they once did. The next century would eventually see a revival of the British coffeehouse tradition.

The Coffeehouse Revival in the 20th Century

While coffeehouses entered a long decline in the 19th century, specialty coffee chains helped spark their reemergence in the 20th century.

In the late 1890s, the Aerated Bread Company opened tearooms across Britain focused on serving coffee, pastries and non-alcoholic beverages. This represented an early revival of the social coffee-drinking establishment.

In the postwar period, Italian espresso bars gained popularity and started influencing British coffee culture. Businessman Victor Sassoon opened the Moka coffee bar in 1952, London’s first espresso bar catering to a hip young crowd. More modish European-style coffee bars followed, signalling changing appetites.

But the real coffeehouse revival was fuelled by American coffee chain Starbucks, which opened its first UK location in 1998. Their mass popularisation of lattes, cappuccinos and coffeehouse culture primed the pump for renewed appreciation of specialty coffee. Independent coffee shops exploded in Britain in the 1990s and 2000s, bringing back the coffeehouse tradition.

Specialty Coffee and Coffee Chains Arrive in the UK

A major turning point for British coffee came with the influx of specialty coffee roasters and coffeehouse chains in the 1990s and 2000s. This “second wave” of coffee transformed coffee quality and culture in the UK.

Companies like Starbucks and Costa Coffee brought espresso drinks to the mass market beginning in the 1990s. Their coffeehouse ambiance evoked traditional establishments but on a bigger, commercial scale. Seattle-based Starbucks opened dozens of cafes throughout the UK, introducing new beverage styles and terminology.

Independent artisanal roasters like Monmouth, Square Mile and Workshop also emerged, focusing obsessively on coffee sourcing and extraction. They educated consumers about single-origin coffees and lighter roasting styles that enhanced flavour. Customers learned to appreciate high-quality, ethically-sourced coffee.

Finally, Britain developed a vibrant independent café scene, with unique, quirky shops offering a local alternative to the chains. Whether in cities like London and Manchester or small towns, new independent cafes showcased devotion to their communities and customers.

Coffeehouses
Coffee Houses UK 1980s

The Explosion of Coffee Shops in the 1990s and 2000s

The specialty coffee and café trend culminated in an explosion of coffee shops across Britain in the late 1990s and 2000s. Starbucks and Costa Coffee battled to dominate the high street, together operating nearly 2,000 outlets by 2005. Regional chains like Caffè Nero also grabbed significant market share, reflecting surging coffee consumption.

But the real growth came from smaller independents. In London alone, the number of coffee shops doubled between 1999 and 2008 to over 2,000 cafes. Coffee shops expanded into small towns, villages, and suburban hubs, becoming fixtures of everyday British life.

Several factors fuelled this coffee shop boom. The contemporary coffeehouse became a “third place” away from home and work. Younger generations in particular adopted coffee shops as places to socialise, work, and relax. The rituals of queuing, ordering intricate drinks, and checking-in on social media made coffee shops engaging spaces. Amidst this growth, Britain’s vibrant coffeehouse tradition was renewed for the 21st century.

Coffee continues to be an integral part of British culture today. New trends show its ongoing appeal and evolution.

Specialty coffee has gone mainstream, with discerning consumers wanting high-quality beans. Cold brew, pour overs and nitro coffee have joined espresso-based staples like cappuccinos. Coffee quality and ethics matter more than ever, with transparency about sourcing.

Cafes have diversified beyond just coffee, serving wine, beer, food and hosting events. Hybrid” eateries blend coffee, cocktails, and dining. Establishments stay open later, making them hang-out destinations all day long.

However, large chains face challenges from independent coffee shops with more local appeal. Many communities favour passionate neighbourhood cafes over bigger brands. Britons still enjoy their daily coffee fix, but now have higher expectations.

The Future of Coffee in the UK

Coffee has endured an up and down journey over four centuries in Britain, from exotic foreign novelty to mass consumption staple. Where will it go next?

Specialty coffee is likely to keep gaining devotees focused on origins and brewing. Cold brew and nitro coffee give coffeehouses new options. Sustainability and fair trade will remain important to discerning consumers.

Cafes will continue adapting as informal gathering places, blurring traditional distinctions of day, part, food, alcohol, and social space. Chains and independents will keep vying for business. Coffee consumption seems set to keep rising.

While tea remains the iconic British drink, the future is bright for coffee. After its 19th century decline, 21st century coffee culture is back in full swing. As the UK’s vibrant cafe scene shows, coffee is here to stay.