Wake up and smell the convenient tie in – it’s UK Coffee Week! Which, before you scoff macchiato up your nose, is a charity initiative raising money to bring clean water to coffee-growing communities in Tanzania, Rwanda and Ethiopia.
But even without the goodwill incentive, it’s an easy sell. Because we’re all coffee connoisseurs these days, aren’t we? New figures show Brits now consume 55 million cups of coffee per day. We’re blowing our beans over cold-brew and single origin roasts and instead spending all the cash we should be filtering into our Help to Buy ISAs on cups of coffee, to carry 30 steps to an office that already has coffee in it.
I am sitting in a coffee shop as I write this, naturally. Only I’ve moved onto herbal tea because too much caffeine tends to make me feel as though my brain has turned into popping candy. Things About Coffee Shops no.1: they’re not really about the coffee.
Of course the coffee comes into it; if it wasn’t for that complex, fruity java you might not keep going back to the same place with the rude barista and the wooden benches that splinter your tights when there’s a perfectly sanitary Starbucks two doors down. But it’s more about the vibe. The glamour. The promise that somehow coffee shops equal creativity and introspection, like we’re all suddenly Jean-Paul Sartre because we’ve had a flat white with a swan on top.
Back home for the Easter weekend, I spotted a hipster coffee shop on the local parade of bookies, charity shops and launderettes near my parents’ house and did a double-take in the car. “THERE’S AN ACTUALLY TRENDY COFFEE SHOP,” I gasped. “WITH HESSIAN SACKS STAPLED IN THE WINDOW. IN WORTHING.” The next day I walked in expecting it to be a cruel mirage to trick Down-From-Londons into a new branch of Gregg’s. But reader, it was real.
Back in the city, coffee shops are a barometer for gentrification. We like to curse the bitter-breathed bean-counters for ruining our neighbourhoods and driving up property prices at the same time we’re handing over £4.50 for a thimbleful of cortado. But while it might be true that we’re being priced out, bit by bit, every time some twat installs a Gaggia in the corner of their bike shop, the truth is that coffee shops have long been places of aspiration.
In the 17th and 18th century, London’s coffee houses were the hubs of debate for intellectuals, writers and politicians like Samuel Pepys, the young urban creatives of their day, while the swinging Italian coffee bars of Soho in the 1950s and '60s were haunts for hip teens. Swap the jukebox for Macbooks and suddenly it doesn’t look so different.
Maybe it’s just caffeine-addled pop philosophy, but I think we love coffee shops because they offer Somewhere Else To Be. Not home, not work, just a port in the storm. That used to be what pubs were for, but more of us than ever are shying away from looking for solace at the bottom of a bottle or pint glass. Clean-living millennials are drinking less than previous generations, clubbing has been thrown out of the Office for National Statistics’ basket of goods in favour of Nespresso pods – and so coffee shops are overtaking the traditional boozer as our favoured place of escape.
Besides, pubs demand a certain mood: you’re either supposed to be celebrating or drowning your sorrows, and not on your own unless you’re over 60 and wearing a flat cap. Coffee shops, on the other hand, are a place just to sit and exist for an hour or five. You can be alone in a coffee shop, without anybody casting you as a tragic figure in their mental screenplay. You can find company in solitude. Plus, they smell bloody delicious.
Right now I’m warm and cosy in a coffee shop about 500m from my house, which I walked to through the pissing rain because I knew I’d be more productive here. In lieu of an office to call my own, I can rent a table for the price of a hot, strong beverage and eavesdrop on the couple arguing next to me. It might not make me the next Samuel Pepys, but some days it’s all you need.