The history of coffee in the UK

A couple of years ago I was asked to put together a presentation of a topic of my choosing.  Naturally, I chose the history of coffee in the UK.  Two years down the line, it seems worthy of putting on the blog.  From Lloyd’s Coffee Shop in London through Seattle Coffee Company to the present day.  This is the UK’s coffee history.


My name is Dan, and I have a confession to make. I love coffee.

Love it.

Good, premium coffee, though, not the type that gets vended from a machine and has large globules of black mess floating on the top.

This is a blog post about coffee. More precisely, it’s a brief history of coffee.  Regular readers will know of my love affair with Costa Coffee.

My passion for coffee extends back a long way. As a child, I was never the adventurous type. Growing up in a single parent family with no siblings, and with a mum who drank only tea, coffee was a rarity.

Don’t get me wrong, there was always a jar of Nescafe or Gold Blend in the cupboard, but make no bones about it, the DannyUK household was a PG Tips abode above all else. On the rare occasion when coffee was served, I was always enchanted by the smell.

The rich aroma seemed to fill the room as the boiling water hit freeze-dried coffee and to this day, catching a whiff of it takes me back to my childhood kitchen, complete with memories of smurf stickers on the fridge, and the occasional Scooby Doo-based congratulatory sticker from the dentist.

When it came to trying new things, though, I was almost backwards in coming forward. I hated new foods. I religiously stuck to orange juice as I detested other flavours, and I grew up hating fizzy soft drinks.

Tea, however, I could drink. Coffee? Well if it tasted as good as it smelt, I would definitely enjoy that, right?

Mum, naturally, did her best to keep me away from the stuff. Who would want a junior school child bouncing off the walls with caffeine?

Eventually, though, through persistence on my part, or perhaps just sheer cunning from my mum, she agreed to let me try some of her coffee that she’d happened to have made that morning.

I can still remember it now. Served in her favourite black mug with flowers painted on the side – a present I had bought from my own pocket money a year or two earlier – she slid the drink over the table to me.

“Don’t drink it all!” she warned, a sly smile forming as she continued “I don’t want to have to get up and make another!”

I flicked a couple of fingers around the handle, manoeuvring the mug round slightly, before picking it up with my right hand. The coffee smelt good.

I couldn’t place the smell, or pick out the subtle fragrances that danced across my nostrils, but it smelt like the coffee she normally made, and that was good.

I blew on the top of the drink, the steam shooting away from me as I did so. Bringing it closer to my mouth, I took a sip. Not too much. I didn’t want to burn my mouth. I rolled the coffee over my tongue and swallowed.


It was disgusting!

Eurgh! How could adults drink this stuff? It was bitter, acrid and just plain nasty.

“I told you that you wouldn’t like it!” my mum chimed. I’m pretty sure she hadn’t said that, though every sinew of me now wished that she had.

I ran to the sink, trying to spit out the few droplets I hadn’t excitedly swallowed, before drinking a large glass of water.

I had learnt something. Coffee was disgusting! I’d never drink it again. Ever. Though I had to admit, it still smelt great.

Dan as a toddler

Me, as a toddler. I pulled this same face a few years later after my first sip of coffee.

In 1994 a new American comedy hit the screens. It was based around six friends living in New York, it ran for ten years and to this day is cited as one of the best comedies to have been on TV.

That comedy show was, of course, Friends.  One of the central locations for the sitcom was Central Perk – a coffee shop where the six friends would meet, chat, drink coffee and somehow always manage to snag the best seats in the shop.

The iconic image of Ross and Rachel’s first kiss took place in that same coffee shop where Rachel was working at the time, and so the idea of coffee shops as a social hangout slowly became etched into the identity of a generation.

Ross and Rachel first kiss

*that* kiss, which took place in a coffee shop, of course.

Not that coffee shops as we know them today owe everything to Friends.

Starbucks buys Seattle Coffee Company

With TV being what it is, however, nothing is original. Starbucks also opened in 1971 in the US and were well established by the time Warner Bros had received the first draft of the sitcom, much less commissioned, filmed and broadcast it.

After an expansion in the mid-1980s, Starbucks lost money for several years until finally serving up a profit in 1990. By 1994 the company was ubiquitous, and its branded coffee cups were often seen being carried by celebrities who were photographed by paparazzi.

Starbucks entered the UK market in 1998 with a multi-million-pound takeover and rebrand of 65 Seattle Coffee Company stores. It’s fair to say that the UK hasn’t looked back.

Starbucks buys Seattle Coffee Company

Starbucks buys Seattle Coffee Company, entering the UK market in 1998.

Costa, the UK’s number one coffee shop in terms of outlets was set up in 1971 as a coffee roaster, branching out into retail in 1978, though it is noticeable that the company was bought by Hospitality giant Whitbread just a year after Channel 4 broadcast the first Friends episode.

Lloyd’s Coffee Shop

That’s not to say that coffee shops are a new phenomenon, as they can be traced back to the 14th Century in Turkey. In the UK we can certainly go back at least 300 years ago. In 1688, Edward Lloyd opened Lloyd’s Coffee Shop in the City of London.

It proved to be a popular haunt for sailors, merchants and ship owners, all of whom were made welcome by Lloyd with reliable shipping news. The eponymous shop, which relocated after three years, grew to become Lloyd’s of London whose last accounts revealed a £2.77bn pre-tax profit in 2012.

Lloyd's Coffee Shop / Lloyds of London - Coffee history in the UK

Lloyd’s Coffee Shop (later to become Lloyd’s of London) - Central to the history of coffee shops in the UK

This growth wouldn’t have happened had the coffee shop not been a social hub, as the shipping industry community frequented the place to discuss insurance deals among themselves.

A recent survey by Allegra Strategies shows that the top three coffee shop brands in the UK are Costa Coffee (1,821 outlets), Starbucks (824) and Caffe Nero (590).

These three brands alone only accounted for an estimated 18.3% of the total UK coffee shop market in 2013 in a sector which grew 6% to £6.2 billion in the same year.

That figure is only set to increase, according to the same survey, which predicts that the total UK coffee shop market will grow by a further 4,000 outlets to exceed 20,500 outlets and a turnover of £8.7 billion by 2018.

Allegra forecasts that the branded coffee shop segment will be worth £4.1 billion across 7,000 outlets by 2018 which would see the number of branded outlets more than double from today. It estimates that the UK has the long-term potential to “comfortably” host more than 9,500 branded coffee shops.

There is obviously a growing customer base.

Coffee in Chelmsford

In my home city of Chelmsford, there is a colossal choice available. In the city centre alone we have five Costas, two Starbucks and a Caffe Nero, as well numerous independent shops.

In the sixteen years since the first branded coffee shop opened there, the number has only risen, and despite Starbucks recently closing high-rent stores in the UK, both stores in Essex’s only city (and the place I call home) remain unaffected.

Coffee in Chelmsford

Coffee shops in Chelmsford - Dominated by Costa, with two Starbucks and a Caffe Nero.

Even through the global recession which took hold in 2008 and saw profits drop for the majority of coffee shops, the market overall continued to grow. This can be attributed to the “lipstick indicator” which shows that consumers will shun expensive purchases when money is tight, but continue to buy smaller luxuries such as lipstick and premium coffee.

With franchise opportunities such as Esquires Coffee and new, corporate-backed chains such as Tesco’s Harris + Hoole the future is bright for the entire industry.

However, marketing, pricing and location can only take an industry so far. The ongoing popularity of the coffee shop offerings indicates that at a base level there is a constant and growing need for coffee shops.

One factor could be the addictive nature of the main product. Caffeine is well known for being a stimulant, the effects of which I’ll cover later.

But if addiction is the sole reason for retail success, we would see pubs and bars increasing in volume, whereas figures from 2013 reveal that the UK has the fewest pubs open now than at any time in the last century, with CAMRA reporting that pubs are closing in the UK at a rate of 18 every week – in other words, at the same rate that coffee shops are predicted to grow. This shows a trend away from alcohol and towards coffee.

The main attribute for this growth is the coffee shop culture that has been adopted by Britons, along with a previous lack of a similar cafe-style culture which has prohibited the performance and growth of Starbucks in Australia.

The UK coffee shop market

The most popular business model in the UK coffee shop market is that which encourages comfort for those choosing to sit in, as reflected by the large armchairs and comfy seats offered by most chains.

Another feature to encourage customer loyalty is the offer of free wifi, which is embraced by all ages, as can be seen by business meetings where everyone is crowded around a laptop, to students working on their iMacs through to the average mum who is browsing Facebook on her phone.

The whole ethos of a coffee shop these days is a relaxing environment which encourages social contact, whether that is online with social media or offline with friends. With a range of food which covers both breakfast and lunch, as well as snacks such as donuts, muffins and biscuits, the layout and designs are such to encourage people to stay.

Everything about a successful coffee shop screams social. The open plan stores are designed so that people can be seen. The tills and barista equipment are laid out in a line to ensure smooth movement of the queue from front to back and allow customers to see the internal layout as they queue.

The blogger formerly known as DannyUK - 8)

When Starbucks forgot my name, I became 8) aka The blogger formerly known as DannyUK

Starbucks’ habit of asking for your name when taking your order is done purposely to strike up a conversation between customer and employee (or “partners” as Starbucks call them, again keeping the warm feeling alive). You’ll rarely find a table set out with a single chair either, as again, they are deliberately positioned in pairs, facing each other, to encourage conversation.

The music in coffee shops is chosen so that it is recognisable to customers, and played at a volume which is loud enough to hear clearly over low murmurs, but soft enough not to drown out conversation. Some brands are even beginning to drop their names from their logo, in a move which has been rumoured to make customers feel even more at home.

The coffee itself has also moved on from the drip-coffee that adorns many a movie’s highway restaurant. These filter coffees, which were a real life staple of American restaurants, were generally watered down, bitter tasting versions of the premium coffee that we know today. Hence the reaction to any 60s movie star that takes a swig on film and grimaces before making a caustic remark about the poor taste.

It was only the adoption of the Italian roast coffee beans that stemmed the tide of poor quality, with the higher quality Arabica beans being picked over the former first choice of Robusta beans.

Robusta typically produced at lower altitudes, is more disease- and pest-resistant (partly because of its higher caffeine content – twice as much as Arabica beans), and it typically produces a larger crop than Arabica.

Caffeine amount and the difference between Arabica and Robusta beans

The caffeine amount in Arabica and Robusta beans

In the U.S., following a Brazilian frost in 1954, Maxwell House began blending Robusta to lower their costs. Others soon followed. U.S. coffee consumption fell from 75 percent of American adults drinking three cups a day in 1962 to less than 50 percent drinking fewer than two cups a day not so long ago.

These lower-cost, lower-quality blends became the reason for the premium coffee sector. As premium coffee has developed more and more over the last 40-plus years, consumption has begun to increase.

Nowadays almost any coffee available is made exclusively in the case of coffee shops, and primarily in the freeze dried supermarket replicas of Arabica beans (though it should be noted that the lower-quality taste of the latter can be attributed to the insistence of using the poorer quality Robusta beans mixed in with a higher quantity of Arabica beans).

If the “Premium” tag hadn’t already given it away, the reason for the higher cost is simply that Arabica beans are better quality.

But enough about coffee beans. The main effects that people can cite about coffee are caffeine-based. Caffeine increases alertness and reduces fatigue. However, many people are not aware that caffeine improves performance on vigilance tasks and simple tasks that require a sustained response.

Regular caffeine usage appears to be beneficial, with higher users having better mental functioning. By the way, have I mentioned that I try to get to a coffee shop every day?…

Many studies show the greatest benefits were observed in those who drank coffee for a long period in their lifetime, showing a benefit to sustained caffeine consumption.

Also, coffee consumption is associated with a lower risk of cancer and reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes.

Health effects of caffeine

Health effects of caffeine

It seems pertinent to address caffeine myths, too – As the effects of caffeine consumption are noticeable, people often expect the withdrawal of caffeine to be equally as seen. Interestingly, in contrast to the intake of caffeine, withdrawal has few effects on performance.

I’ve also read in several places that tea contains more caffeine than coffee. This is true, but misleading. Only by dry weight. A typical serving of tea contains much less caffeine than coffee as tea is normally brewed much weaker.

And of course, I should touch on the negatives - There are reports that have demonstrated negative effects when very large amounts of caffeine are given or sensitive groups (e.g. patients with anxiety disorders) were studied.

In this context, caffeine has been shown to increase anxiety and impair sleep. Overall, though, the evidence clearly shows that levels of caffeine consumed by most people have largely positive effects on behaviour.

Therefore… it’s safe to say that coffee in moderation is good, and by moderation, we mean 3 large cups or less. If you’re not sure whether to believe me, just try drinking three large Costas in a day and judge how you feel in the evening, and then project that over a longer period!

If you’re not sure whether to believe me, just try drinking three large Costas in a day and judge how you feel in the evening, and then project that over a longer period!


I’m going to make myself sound old now. When I was a lad (!) I started work aged 16 as an apprentice. Even into my early twenties, which was the late 90s, it wasn’t uncommon for business meetings to take place in pubs.

I’d often be dragged (not always unreluctantly, as a late teen, it had to be said) to a pub for meetings, encouragement or general work purposes. It was an aid to building colleague relations, and holding a metaphorical hand out to customers who wanted to do business in the same place. It seems strange to think that was less than two decades ago now.

The same actions are, of course, still taking place, though far less occur in pubs and bars than back then. If you are a fan of people watching, as I am, you’ll notice more and more of these meetings happening in coffee shops.

I’d be hard pushed to say when I was last in a coffee shop in late morning or early afternoon when there wasn’t a job interview taking place at a nearby table, or colleagues discussing tactics, successes, and upcoming events.

Not only is drinking coffee a positive step, which can be seen by the sudden increase in productivity in the hours after an impromptu coffee run, but it promotes the social aspect again.

Social aspects may well already be rife at work, but no harm is ever done in fanning the flames of social interaction, and when that is powered by a caffeine kick, a collaborative environment is fostered with increased focus and concentration and reduced fatigue.

Let’s not forget that premium coffee is a bespoke product. The range is immense and there really is something for everyone.

Away from an office environment, coffee shops offer a neutral but familiar environment, making them ideal for 1-2-1s with team members, brainstorming or general liaisons with colleagues and meetings with customers.

There are even drive-thru coffee shops springing up, taking coffee on the go to a whole new level.

Drinking premium coffee is a socially acceptable norm, embraced by many, and positive to your health and well-being and should be encouraged in others and undertaken more by ourselves.

That’s why I consider myself a coffee fan. If there are no questions I suggest we all make a visit to Costa Coffee in Chelmsford?

by DannyUK


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