Full Of Beans

27th August 2010

Craving a Cappuccino?… Longing for a Latte?…

Heather Harris charts the rise in the popularity of frothy coffee.

At least we’ve beaten Portugal at something – although, sadly, the only cup it involves is of the beverage rather than the trophy variety. According to official statistics, the UK consumes 1.76kgs of coffee per person per year, compared to Portugal’s dehydrating 1.37kgs. Surprisingly, top of the caffeine consumers are Finland, Denmark and Sweden (must be all that wind chill factor), drinking almost 12 times as much as we do and three times as much as the Italians – who first invented the frothy coffee and so spawned a million Starbucks…

The energy-inducing elixir that is coffee was, in fact, first sold in European pharmacies in 1615 as a medicinal remedy – by the very profession that is now telling us to cut our consumption down! It was originally known as ‘Arabian Wine’ because of its origins as an alcohol replacement in this abstaining area of the world.

Quite when the skinny-decaf-latté-with-vanilla-syrup-and-cinnamon-sprinkles-to-go was invented is not recorded, but froth first appeared on an Englishman’s upper lip in the 1960s.

As Nick Wheeler, Chief Executive of the Specialist Coffee Association, explains, “In the 60s, as Italians came to settle in London, they set up coffee shops. They soon became the hip meeting places. But they died out in the 70s as the nightclub scene grew, and pubs suddenly offered music and meals to draw the younger generation in.”

As Britain turned to bitter shandy and pork scratchings for sustenance, it was the turn of the Americans to ‘wake up and smell the coffee’.

In an effort to improve the facilities at US Colleges (and sell more coffee…?), the top beans in the hot beverage world devised the ‘College Coffee Programme’, which involved opening decent coffee shops on each campus. Suddenly, all the hot jocks, cheerleaders, prom queens and other American stereotypes were swapping their root beer for espressos and their lemon popsicles for lattés.

Starbucks rapidly saw the potential and dipped its first spoon into the market in 1971. World domination quickly followed, and by the 1990s the company was opening a new café every working day, reaching London in 1998.

“The TV programme Friends helped boost the popularity of coffee shops as well as the Rachel hair cut,” says Nick, from the SCA’s base in Chelmsford (not the first place that springs to mind when you think of coffee…). The organisation represents the coffee industry in 70 different countries across the world, from Turkey to El Salvador.

“It soon became all about the ‘15 minute experience’. Coffee customers didn’t just grab and go in the 90s because drinking in the street was still unacceptable. They sat down and enjoyed the ambiance,” adds Nick admitting, with a hint of something approaching shame, that the industry also found itself to be recession proof.

As Ben Price, finance director of Caffè Nero, explains, “It’s about a coffee being a regular daily treat for people today. This change of habits over the last ten years has been sustained through the downturn”.

In fact, the six big multiple chains, including Caffè Nero, Starbucks and Costa Coffee, are positively bubbling over with success, increasing their combined shop numbers by 47% last year.

“Places like Costa offer incredible value for money. For a couple of pounds you get a decent cup of coffee and 45 minutes peace and quiet in a nice environment, and you can even use Wi-Fi for business meetings,” says John Derkach, managing director of Costa Coffee, adding that the average person spends £3.70…

…but also puts on an equal amount of pounds in weight, if the recent Which? Survey is anything to go by. Researchers tested coffee products – ranging from Mocha with Chocolate Flake to Flat White and Iced Latte – from three of the leading chains. “One coffee grabbed on the way to work may contain 400 calories – that’s up to a fifth of your daily recommended amount” was their headline finding. “It’s a meal in a cup”, Which? reported, adding that a burger would be a healthier option. Stark news indeed – although you wouldn’t need much more than a bean for a brain to have worked that one out for yourself.

Consumers were advised to go for a skinny cappuccino with more froth, less milk and only 27 calories, or an Americano with just 17 (as long as they don’t reward their abstemiousness with one of the ‘healthy’ fruity flapjacks to dunk, which weighs in at 423 calories!).

And as well as clogging up our arteries, there’s also the criticism that the big chains are clogging up our High Streets.

“They’re erasing individual cafés from the UK. It’s happening at an incredible rate and it’s a sad situation,” says Adrian Maddox, author of Classic Cafés.

Simon Robertson, owner of Leoni’s Coffee House in Malton, Yorkshire (and three times the UK National Barista Champion), agrees. “They’re selling a lifestyle not coffee. As brands they are so visible that people head straight for them without thinking”.

But Nick Wheeler argues. naturally, that the statistics show otherwise. “By encouraging spend on coffee, the big chains have actually grown the whole market and independents are in fact also on the increase.”

And coffee-drinking journalist James Thompson, from The Independent newspaper, agrees, reporting that individual cafés have grown their overall share of the market by one per cent to 70 per cent last year.

But whether your cup overfloweth for the big chains or you have the hots for your local personalised café, the fact remains that we are no longer a nation of tea drinkers.

In the morning at least…

Thankfully, the great English tradition of Afternoon Tea continues to bubble along nicely. Sales of coffee peak before lunch, but drinkers worried about a bad night’s sleep turn to tea bags as evening approaches.

So the Tetley chimps can rest easy in their beds. We may be full of espresso love, but there will always be times when all we really want is to put the kettle on and have a great British ‘builders’ brew and a digestive biscuit.

The Scandinavians don’t know what they’re missing…

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