The History Of Coffee In The UK: How Coffeehouses Transformed British Culture


Key Takeaways

  • Coffee first arrived in the UK in the 16th century from Turkey and North Africa, leading to the opening of the first coffeehouses in Oxford and London. These places quickly became hubs for lively discussions among intellectuals, traders, and politicians.
  • By the 17th century, London boasted over 3,000 coffeehouses that served as key social spaces for debate and community gathering. Notable establishments like Lloyd’s Coffee House played significant roles in various industries including maritime insurance.
  • The popularity of tea overtook coffee as Britain’s national beverage by the 19th century due to factors like tea trade monopolies and changing social customs. This shift led to a decline in coffeehouse culture.
  • The late 20th century saw a revival of interest in specialty coffee with the emergence of chains such as Starbucks and Costa Coffee along with independent artisanal roasters. This movement has transformed cafes into “third places” that are not just about drinking coffee but also about engaging with community life.
  • Today’s UK coffee scene continues to grow with an emphasis on quality and sustainability while cafes evolve beyond traditional offerings to become key informal gathering spots within communities.

The Introduction of Coffee to the UK

In the 16th century, coffee arrived in the UK from Turkey and North Africa. The first coffeehouses emerged in Oxford and London, initially met with wariness by the British population.

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.

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

The Spread of Coffee houses Across the UK

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

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

UK Coffee Chain Market Overview

ChainNumber of ShopsNotes
Costa CoffeeOver 2,400Leading coffee chain in the UK
StarbucksJust over 1,000Among the top three, despite being a global leader
GreggsN/ASurpasses Starbucks with its in-store facilities, though primarily known for its bakery items
Tim Hortons65 (Plans for 105 by end of 2023)Notable for its drive-thru expansion and focus on regional locations outside London
Blank Street Coffee14 (Plans for 25 by end of 2023)Rapid expansion in London, targeting smaller format stores
Source: Coffee Affection (Statista 1), World Coffee Portal​ (Coffee Affection)​​ (World Coffee Portal)​.

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

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.

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 Shop Visitation Habits in the UK

Weekly coffee shop visitors80%Cite greater availability of specialist coffee drinks and convenience
Daily coffee shop visitors16%A significant portion of the coffee shop-going population
Millennials visiting coffee shopsHighestMost likely to visit weekly, multiple times a week, daily, and multiple times per day
Source: Coffee Affection​ (Coffee Affection)​

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.


1. Who introduced coffee to the UK?

The introduction of coffee to the UK is attributed to Pasqua Rosée, an employee of the Levant Company. He opened the first recorded coffeehouse in London in 1652, bringing coffee to the British public from its origins in present-day Yemen. This marked the beginning of the UK’s long-standing relationship with coffee.

2. Why did King Charles II try to shut down coffeehouses?

King Charles II attempted to close coffeehouses in 1675, viewing them as breeding grounds for sedition and slander. He feared these establishments were places where his subjects conspired against him and spread false news, potentially undermining his authority. This led to a public outcry and the eventual withdrawal of the proclamation.

3. How did coffee impact British business practices?

Coffeehouses played a pivotal role in shaping British business practices. Establishments like Lloyd’s of London began as a coffeehouse, evolving into the center of the marine insurance industry. Similarly, coffeehouses fostered the development of the London Stock Exchange by serving as informal meeting places where businessmen could gather, exchange ideas, and conduct transactions.

4. Did any global events affect Britain’s access to coffee?

Yes, global events significantly impacted Britain’s access to coffee. The Haitian Revolution, for example, was one such event that disrupted the supply chains of European colonial powers. This upheaval affected the availability of commodities like coffea arabica plants and java coffee beans, prompting shifts in trade routes and sources.

5. What role did Greenwich play in Britain’s history with tea and coffee?

Greenwich played a crucial role in Britain’s maritime trade history, influencing the country’s engagement with tea and coffee. As a hub of maritime activity, Greenwich’s proximity to the docks facilitated the shift in British trade preferences. After diseases devastated Arabica coffee plantations, Britain increasingly turned towards cultivating and importing tea from Ceylon, which became a staple British beverage.

6. Can you explain how gourmet coffees evolved in Britain?

The evolution of gourmet coffees in Britain reflects a growing appreciation for specialty coffee and a desire for diversity in coffee experiences. Influenced by Italian espresso innovations and the introduction of a variety of coffee beans by Dutch traders, British consumers began exploring beyond traditional coffee brews. This quest for refined tastes has led to the emergence of artisan coffee shops and the popularity of single-origin coffees, highlighting the sophisticated coffee culture in modern Britain.

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