Updated January 2022
Today it’s time to talk about the history of London coffee houses, from the very beginning to how coffee has evolved until it’s reached the third wave coffee and beyond. The London speciality coffee wouldn’t be the same of today without all that happened since the 16th century.
Before getting through today’s coffee industry, we need to give some background.
Let’s get back to the History of London coffee houses.
Coffee Houses London history
London coffee houses 17th century
Great Britain has been associated mostly as a nation of tea drinkers. In fact, coffee was introduced into the country quite at the same time as the tea but it didn’t get much success; the majority of the people used to drink tea with just a small part of it drinking instant coffee (coffee started to be appreciated around 19th century).
Anyway, coffee was introduced in the UK in the 16th Century via the Middle East (mostly from Turkey).
There are different accounts about when the first London coffee house was opened.
Oldest coffee house in london
According to John Aubrey, the first London coffee house “was in St. Michael’s Alley, in Cornhill, opposite to the church… around 1652 (in the same year in Oxford, Angel, the first English coffeehouse, was established by a Jewish called Jacob).
By 1700, there were more than 3,000 thousand coffee houses in England with 2,000 just in London. In those places, intellectual discussions and commerce ones took place: they were open to everyone but actually, only the nobility could take part.
The coffee houses were also called by the nickname “penny universities” as with one penny you could afford to drink a coffee (and to have the admission) sitting around a long big table along with writers, poets, politicians, mathematicians, students and so on.
Women were usually unwelcomed to enter a coffeehouse and the main reason was that men believed they didn’t need them as part of their discussion. Bear in mind that at that time a pound for a coffee was affordable only for a few people as any unskilled labourer earned just eight pence per day.
18th century coffee houses
This period has been associated with the decline of the London coffee houses. The truth is that we don’t know what has led into this but different sources pointed out different scenarios. Most of them refer to the increased demand for tea due to the increased competition of the coffeehouse throughout the rest of Europe.
This has pushed the trade of the tea which then became popular at court and in tea houses. As Bramah (a renowned tea expert) said in 1972, the rising of the tea was also associated by the ease-of-use of making it. Bramah said that “to brew tea, all that is needed is to add boiling water; coffee, in contrast, required roasting, grinding and brewing.” So, with the increasing demand for coffee, the British East India Company moved its interest into tea, which was much more convenient to trade than coffee.
See related here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_coffeehouses_in_the_17th_and_18th_centuries#cite_note-84
But it was not only about this. With the advent of the gardens (with no charge for admission), London coffee houses were less frequented: in the gardens, they started to serve other drinks such as ale, wine and liquors. And not to forget that also women could get there, enjoying what they liked the most, a cup of tea. That’s why the gardens were also called “tea gardens”. At that time there were four most famous gardens which were Vauxhall, Cuper’s, Marylebone and Ranelagh.
See related here: http://cluesheet.com/All-About-Coffee-X.htm
The 19th Century
With the decay of the London coffee houses, the consume of coffee moved and increased at home especially for breakfast or late dinner (afternoon still favoured for tea). The first wave of coffee brought coffee to the people.
British used to drink instant coffee, a ready-to-drink coffee that still today comes in a can on the shelves of any grocery. It’s already been grounded and stored in this air-tight container, ready to be brewed just with hot water. So, the consume of coffee increased especially because it was more affordable also for the middle class.
The 20th Century
Instant coffee still was the main caffeinated drink for the British habits with someone adding milk and sugar to sweeten it up a bit. But some new coffeehouses started to operate in London as the iconic Bar Italia in 1949 that opened in Soho (and still running).
At that time, plenty of Italian-style coffee shops open their door with Gaggia as the main brand for commercial coffee machines. But in the late 1990s, it is thanks to American giant like Starbucks that London coffee house was “reinvented” and started to serve coffee of better quality with dark roasted Arabica beans and single-origin ones.
Lattes and cappuccinos became popular very soon for the Brits that felt in love with the Mermaid brand. Along with them, there were other Italian big chains such as Costa and Café Nero that gained the attention of the country. Although their questionable quality of the coffee they served, coffee started to get more “respect”: drinking coffee was everything but something to wake up.
The 21st Century
Nothing changed more or less until the advent of the third wave in which the industry understood that coffee needed more focus on the entire process that starts from the farm and ends to the cup. It’s 2005 and some speciality coffee shops appeared in the country, thanks to the Australian influence and, later on, of the Scandinavian one.
From that time on, speciality coffee started to be served in a way to highlight its distinctive flavours: coffee it’s now lightly roasted, brewed mostly as an espresso-based drink.
This was until 2009. From that time on, about twenty speciality coffee shops are opened in London, serving not only espressos but also a few of them serving milky beverage and pour-over coffee such as V60, Aeropress and Syphon.
It’s 2020 now, and no matter on which coffee wave we are, but London is probably one of the best speciality coffee scenes in the world, surely the best in Europe.
I am an Italian coffee lover that pushed for the love of this “amazing drug” decided to come to London to study about coffee and its different extraction procedures and tastes.
1 thought on “The engaging History of London Coffee Houses”
It’s understandable how tea could be easier to brew, in turn making teahouses more prevalent than coffee houses. Never thought about the economics behind their popularity but it makes complete sense. I love visiting the UK and learning about its history. I recently read Henry Mayhew’s London’s Labour and the London Poor and it discussed street vendors like people who sold baked potatoes and fish fries. I’d like to learn more about coffee houses in London, which just happens to be one of my favorite cities.