The rise of the coffee shop is an interesting phenomenon and as a nation our love affair with coffee seems to go from strength to strength. Why? I suppose that the availability of good coffee has helped. As someone weaned on and scared by Camp Coffee, a disgusting tincture like abomination (with chicory), in my formative years and then brown but grey Maxwell House instant coffee powder I find our appreciation of good coffee a welcome and remarkable transformation.
I've sat in one or two coffee shops in recent times and pondered on their success. I think I'm starting to understand their appeal. Obviously one of the big attractions is good coffee, but it's more than that, although many people do now appear to be addicted to the stuff, it is a drug after all. I suppose the advantage coffee has over alcohol is that it gives you a buzz without impairing one’s senses. For me and I'm sure many like me alcohol dulls the senses and generally has a soporific effect whereas coffee at least short term heightens the senses. Teenagers can drink it without being challenged about their age. For teetotallers it offers a social drinking experience without the fear of being enticed or exposed to the demon drink. I’m a big real ale fan and I will often cite the rise of the coffee shop as a good example of why pubs are closing. Pubs aren’t closing because of the rise of the coffee shop or because of cheap booze being sold by supermarkets. Pubs are closing because all too often they are shit at marketing; the rise of the coffee shop has come about because the concept has been well marketed. They have given customers, by and large, an experience that customers like. Compared with the cost of good coffee bought in a supermarket and consumed at home the prices in a coffee shop are very high, but people are prepared to pay. And they are prepared to pay for it because they get that it's about the overall experience and not just about a vessel of brown liquid.
From the frontispiece of Ned Ward’s satirical poem Vulgus Brittanicus (1710)
Sadly today's coffee shops are a far cry from the London coffee houses of the 17th and 18th centuries when people went there not only for coffee and the social side but to get the news of the day and to debate the politics and concerns of the day. Coffee houses were often a hotbed of discontent and talk of revolution. Sadly in today's coffee chains you rarely hear of sedition with a skinny latte or a rebellious ristretto! We can only live in hope that the revolution is only a double espresso away. Costa la vista baby!