Yesterday I ran an article on the history of tea in the UK and the US, the first of two to try and determine which of these drinks is the more popular in Britain today: traditional tea or the seemingly more modern coffee. Today we’re talking coffee.
With the rising popularity of coffee shop chains such as Costa, Starbucks, Cafe Nero and more, you might wonder: can the UK today even be considered as much a coffee drinking country as America, its long-associated home?
Believe it or not, coffee became a popular drink in the UK before tea did. The first coffee house opened in England in 1651, and they quickly became the most popular places to be seen in society. These coffee houses multiplied into chains of cafes, and become forums for discussion to the extent that they were dubbed “penny universities” (one penny was the price of a cup of coffee). At this same time, in a young and growing America, coffee was also gaining a strong commercial foothold. By 1668, coffee had replaced beer as New York City’s favourite breakfast drink, while in Britain, gin houses were beginning to suffer from lower sales thanks to the popularity of their coffee-serving competitors. Yet whilst it would remain most popular on the west side of the Atlantic, in Britain there would be a decline – see my previous article for more on that story.
Fast forward to today and The UK Tea and Infusion Association argue that, despite a huge surge in the popularity of drinking coffee in the last decade, the number of cups drunk in Britain every day is estimated at a mere 70 million, as opposed to 165 million cups of tea. However, coffee remains the most popular drink worldwide, with around two billion cups consumed every day. And despite the lesser actual consumption statistics, The British Coffee Association documents that in the UK alone, 80% of households buy instant coffee. The renaissance of coffee shop culture has seen s massive rise in consumption, with 80% of people who visit coffee shops doing so at least once a week, and 16% of us going on a daily basis.
Coffee grows in more than 50 countries and is the second largest export in the world after oil. Central and South America produce approximately two thirds of the world’s coffee supply, with Brazil contributing about 30% of the world’s total bean supply.
Putting our own coffee habit aside, you might be surprised to hear a few more statistics relating to America’s affection for it; Whilst the US has been linked to coffee drinking for hundreds of years, is it really as obsessed with it as we think? Research done by The Atlantic (https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/01/here-are-the-countries-that-drink-the-most-coffee-the-us-isnt-in-the-top-10/283100/) online newspaper in 2014 found that compared with Scandinavia and The Netherlands’ the US hardly drinks coffee at all! That year, the The Netherlands were drinking per-capita 2.4 cups a day, almost the same as the US, UK, Spain, and France combined.
It is hard to imagine Americans not drinking coffee, however. Such is the nation’s dedication to the drink that, also in 2014, their astronauts in the International Space Station were given their first espresso machine in space, meaning they could have a decent cup of coffee, even in space. And unlike here, over there you often get refills.
So overall the stats say tea is still our favourite drink. But as you often hear said, sometimes statistics don’t tell the whole story. It may be that one day coffee takes its place. As I hope I’ve shown, tastes and times change.
Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.