Celebrating Centuries of British Coffee Culture

Our team is fresh from the 2021 London Coffee Festival, where we had the chance to share our chai with 20,000 visitors and co-host an afterparty with our friends from Climpson & Sons and Happy Happy Soy Boy.

We are so excited and thrilled to be a part of the UK's thriving coffee scene, and to keep the energy up (hot on the heels of #InternationalCoffee Day) we wanted explore the history of the world-renowned coffee metropolis London is today. To help us, coffee writer Lani Kingston has shared an extract from her book, London Coffee.

Coffee in the 17th Century

The twenty-first century coffee drinker has developed a taste for single origin and light roasts; we’ve come to learn terms such as terroir, crema, microfoam; we read tasting notes and understand what different roasting profiles actually taste like in the cup. 

But while each generation of coffee consumer embraces the developments, technology and taste preferences of their time, what is often forgotten is the century spanning, all-consuming romance we’ve enjoyed with coffee. It is interesting to note that while Britain is often perceived as a nation of tea-drinkers, it was Britain’s coffeehouses that introduced tea to the nation. London’s first coffeehouse opened in 1652, but the brews enjoyed there were a far cry from the finely tuned, perfectly roasted coffees of today. The seventeenth-century English poet, George Sandys, described his first experience of coffee as blacke as soote, and tasting not much unlike it’.

But the taste of the coffee itself was almost a sidenote – their caffeinated fervour was the main drawcard. Packed with intellectuals, writers, businessmen, dissidents and spies, these were meeting places, hothouses of debate, community gathering places. Books were read and written, deals struck and businesses begun (and failed). All over a cup of water infused with the seeds of a fruit from Africa.

The New 'Tavern'

Coffeehouses were nicknamed ‘penny universities’, as men from all walks of life shared stories and knowledge, and anyone could take part for the penny it cost to visit. Many coffeehouses became known for being ‘clubhouses’ for those sharing a specific interest. These regular gatherings of those interested by science, literature or politics led to the development of many of these coffeehouses into completely different, non-coffee business – some of which are still around today.

A coffeehouse near London’s docks visited by sailors and merchants doubled as an informal shipping insurance broker, eventually growing into the now global institution of Lloyds of London. The London Stock Exchange, too, started as a group of coffeehouses where merchants and brokers would meet, peruse detailed lists of market prices and make deals.

Sir Isaac Newton is said to have dissected a dolphin in a coffeehouse frequented by members of the Royal Society; the modern newspaper was born in another; and a coffeehouse was also the scene of the ballot box’s worldwide debut, when it was introduced to settle hearty disputes about the morning’s news.

The Post War Boom

In the 1950s and 1960s, Britain experienced another coffee boom, the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But, this was the era of espresso, and a lot of it was focused in Soho – brought in by Italians who revived the bomb-damaged area after the Second World War. The story goes that they were appalled at what passed for coffee in England at the time (it was often padded out with chicory or made from a reconstituted extract, the forebear of today’s instant) and set about bringing the machinery, coffee beans, drink styles and those friendly neighbourhood cafés from their homelands.

These cafés became musical hubs, home to jazz and rock ’n’ roll and dark, sweet, intense brews. They revived a war-tired city, and thrived until the 1990s, when the second wave coffee movement swept in from America. This was the British coffee drinker’s introduction to a whole new variety of coffee options – the now-ubiquitous latte, for one. This time, at least, they were familiar with the basics, so it wasn’t long before the concept spread like wildfire.

The Coffee Scene Today

London is now home to one of the world’s most exciting coffee industries. Development happens here at a breakneck pace, meaning the city is now seen as a global leader. With roasters and cafés now spread across the capital and country, they need to innovate to stay relevant, while meeting customers’ high expectations of quality.

As the coffee scene changes, the introduction of sustainable and ethical practices as a force for good, or simply the development of new brewing methods, machinery or logistics, are all ways in which new thinkers are guiding an impassioned and proactive industry into the future. Instead of growing competitive as the industry expands, the coffee scene and the people who have built it are community driven, passionate about social issues, and excited about the future. 

Once-small artisan roasters have now grown, and yet maintain their ethics and philosophies: many now offer their facilities to newcomers to help them roast their own beans. Both private and public funding is directed towards London scientists, enabling research into sustainability and climate change in coffee growing regions. In the coffee shops and roasters within this book, we meet the likes of tech superstars who are using their skills to create methods for mass distribution of speciality coffee UK-wide and baristas working with farmers and scientists to create the ‘perfect milk’ – ethically and in terms of taste – for coffee.

Despite all of this innovation, the London coffee scene is not just about futuristic concepts. Scandinavian coffee bars sell warm cinnamon buns and black coffee in minimalist interiors; Italian espresso bars fill little ceramic cups with deftly pulled shots the same as they have since the 1950s; family-run Ethiopian restaurants bring coffee rituals from their homelands to their guests in the UK.

It’s a diverse, inspirational and exciting scene – no wonder it is the birthplace of some of the world’s best coffee concepts, equipment, competitions, festivals and barista champions. Competitors from the UK have brought home the World Barista Championship twice in the past decade, alongside an equal two wins each for well-known coffee countries USA and Australia. It can’t be denied – the UK is the world’s newest coffee darling, and London is the crowning jewel. 

A Chai for the Specialty Coffee Industry

Prana Chai was born in a third wave specialty cafe in Melbourne Australia. Wanting to offer a specialty chai that matched the specialty coffee experience, we began hand blending and mixing our sticky chai - just to serve at our cafe.

It was an immediate hit, with other cafe and coffee shop owners asking to buy and serve our chai in their cafes too! Over a decade later, we are now blending our chai in the same way we always have - but it's now served in the best cafes and restaurants worldwide. Coming from the coffee industry, we know what our cafe partners are looking for, and we are constantly innovating and expand to serve our F&B partners better. Looking for a non-coffee option to serve in your cafe or drink at home? We've got you covered when you're not drinking coffee.