Britain's caffeine boom: Why can't we wake up without smelling the coffee?

We now spend more on coffee in a year than we do on our energy bills – and as the price of beans rises, we respond by becoming ever more fussy about our drinks.

John Walsh
Tuesday 23 August 2011 00:00 BST

In the classic science-fiction novel The Space Merchants by Frederick Pohl and CM Kornbluth, published in 1952, an overpopulated Earth is run by giant multinational companies, the population is kept in ignorance of its parlous state by giant advertising agencies and the workforce is fed on slices of synthetic protein called Chicken Little, washed down by something called Coffiest.

In this blandly zomboid future-world, everyone drinks Coffiest, day and night. It's mandatory. And it's addictive. Let the book's protagonist, Mitchell Courtnay, explain: "...each sample of Coffiest contains three milligrams of a simple alkaloid. Nothing harmful. But definitely habit-forming. After 10 weeks the customer is hooked for life. It would cost him at least five thousand dollars for a cure, so it's simpler for him to go right on drinking Coffiest – three cups with every meal and a pot beside his bed at night, just as it says on the jar."

Can you imagine being so addicted to a warm beverage? So hooked that you drink it all the time, several times a day, at home, on the way to work, at the workplace, at lunchtime, at tea...?

Oh no, hang on, we're doing just that already. We're now drinking coffee as never before. Every week, across the UK, we consume 511 millions cups of coffee – almost half of them in the franchises that dominate the nation's high streets and shopping malls.

A few years ago, Starbucks ran a TV commercial that encouraged coffee-lovers to think of their high street outlets as a second home – somewhere to relax, read the papers, meet your partner or write a novel on your Vaio laptop. Now the coffee lover has a second, third and fourth home in which to kick back. If Starbucks loses its charm, he can transfer his laid-back allegiance to Caffè Concerto, Caffè Nero, Costa Coffee, Coffee Republic or Caffè Ritazza.

Visitors to Westfield, the giant shopping mall in west London, can choose between eighteen different outlets, that include two Starbucks, a Ca'puccino, a Love Coffee, an Apostrophe and an Espressamente Illy. You think there are too many? The Commons Speaker's errant wife, Sally Bercow, recently went on Radio 4's Today programme to discuss the fate of high street clothing shops. "They should wake up and smell the coffee," she said, darkly, "because they'll all end up being coffee franchises sooner or later."

How did we become so enslaved? We all know people who proclaim that they cannot face the world, cannot think straight, cannot recognise elementary shapes, simply cannot operate until they've had their first hit of Taylor's Rich Italian Dark Roast in the morning. We're used to seeing the Starbucks Claw phenomenon – the hand of an otherwise ordinary-seeming mortal, clutched around a carton of skinny latte (or whatever) as he or she wanders dazedly down the street, like a large baby unable to leave off sucking a teat.

I've lost count of the people on Desert Island Discs (Sir Simon Rattle was one, John Cale of the Velvet Underground another) who've asked for an Italian coffee machine and grinder as the greatest luxury they can think of.

Why do we queue at Starbucks for hot milky drinks which have only traces of caffeine in them? Because we're addicted to the whole procedure behind the Costa bar; the steaming, the percolating, the drip-feed of richness, the warm milky smoothness of the result, the fugitive aromas of vanilla, caramel, honey, nuts and chocolate. Like the Lotos-eaters in Homer's Odyssey, we enter an altered, milk-fed state, forgetful of friends, home and all sense of urgency.

And we seem to be heedless of its alarming cost. According to research, coffee gourmets spend £2,000 a year on the stuff, while merely everyday drinkers spend £450 a year – more than they shell out on the average person's domestic electricity bill.

And it's not just some yoof-culture phenomenon: the over-55s ladle an average of 15 cups a week down their gullets. You'd think the mature drinker would know better. But then, we've always been a bit excessive when it comes to Coffea arabica.

The first people who tried roasting coffee beans in liquid were Sufi mystics in 13th-century Yemen. The wine they drank at religious ceremonies made them sleepy and they needed a substitute that kept them awake and able to handle the long hours of prayer: coffee was a perfect solution. From Yemen it spread across the Middle East and North Africa, borne by Muslim pilgrims and dervishes. English travellers in antique lands noted sourly its prevalence among the unwashed: Anthony Sherley wrote in 1599 about meeting "damned infidels drinking a certaine liquor, which they do call Coffe". European historians have long disputed which country first played host to the noble bean. According to Alan Davidson in The Penguin Companion To Food, France was the true pioneer. The first coffee shops sprang up in Paris in 1672. At the fabulous parties thrown in the late 1680s by the Turkish ambassador, the city's grandes dames were served "the choicest Mocha coffee in tiny cups of eggshell porcelain, hot strong and fragrant, poured out in saucers of gold and silver, placed on embroidered silk doylies fringed with gold bullion" by "the black slaves of the Ambassador..."

A far cry from Caffè Nero, isn't it? The UK's first coffee house was opened in Oxford in 1650 by a Turkish Jew called Jacob. The first of a million London coffee houses was opened two years later in the City of London by the east-European Pasqua Rosee. The London Stock Exchange started life as Jonathan's Coffee House in Change Alley, where merchants and entrepreneurs used to meet to talk finance. By 1675, there were 3,000 coffee houses in England – despite the hostility of King Charles II, who suspected they might be hotbeds of sedition and tried to remove their licences (but there was such an outcry, he was forced to withdraw his plans).

Now there are 14,022 coffee shops in the UK and they brought their owners £5bn last year. That's a year-on-year increase of 12.9 per cent.

This trend can't continue, can it? Oh yes it can. More and more branded coffee franchises are scheduled to open. There were 4,645 Costas and Starbucks and Republics and Ritazzas in the UK last year. By the end of 2013, it is conservatively estimated that there will be 5,719 of them. And there are two other trends that should give the everyday coffee drinker pause. One is price and the other is sophistication.

The price of coffee beans has increased alarmingly and will continue to do so. It virtually doubled in the last 12 months – and nobody quite knows why. They're lost in the murky depths of global commodity markets.

Coffee drinkers (and growers) found they had an unlikely champion in the shape of Howard Schultz, chief executive of Starbucks, in May this year when he publicly denounced the price increase. "The price of coffee is at a 34-year high," he told Channel 4. "We're seeing a hundred per cent rise. I could understand it if there were some supply and demand issue, or some climate problem, but we don't see any. I've had conversations with people who grow and export coffee and it seems that what's driving these record prices is speculation. We don't [know] which hedge funds and index funds have been engaged in this speculation because there's no transparency. But there will be a ton of money made here and the people who most deserve to profit from it – the coffee farmers – won't get it."

Starbucks decided it would be harmful to its customers to raise prices across the board, so it didn't; then again, it is already charging £3.45 for a venti white caffè mocha. But it knows it cannot hold out for long, because the world's demand for coffee is increasing.

Last year, global consumption went up by 2.5 per cent. It can only increase further, because of a crucial change in the world coffee market: China and India have woken up and sniffed the Java. The number of coffee houses in China will triple in the next three years. Tea consumption in India has declined ever since the subcontinent's population discovered the lure of the bean, the roast and the cafetière.

As demand rises, traditional suppliers in Brazil and Columbia will struggle to match it – and the price to the coffee shops will consequently rise and rise. The Costas and Starbucks which buy the beans won't be able to maintain their old prices without cutting into their profits, so the cost to coffee drinkers will rise exponentially. We will, in other words, pay much more for our caffeine-based addiction in the future. And will we cut down on our coffee consumption? Will we hell.

The other trend will fit in nicely. It's a new culture of coffee sophistication that's now commonplace in America and will be joining us shortly. From New York to Los Angeles, there's a new breed of coffee snob, who looks with disdain on "foamed-milk beverages" and aspires to being a connoisseur of Pure Coffee. He (or she) can discourse airily about "single estate" coffee, made with beans from a single country or a single farm. Cafédirect, the UK's first (and largest) Fairtrade drinks brand, has recently brought out an appealing range of single-origin coffee, from Machu Picchu in Peru, Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and Mayan Palenque in Mexico.

The new coffee snob also has passionate views about the benefits of light, medium and dark roasts and the long, unfolding aftertastes they can give you. Try reading the ecstatic posts about Pure Coffee on foodie websites such as ("Blue Bottle was nothing like anything I'd tasted before – deep, intense, surging with crazy flavours. Long, enormous narrative tails – multi-minute-long aftertastes, with wild trips through citrus flavors, spice flavours, funky meaty flavors... Madness, insanity, depth, beauty and wonder in a cup") and you glimpse a new world in which coffee varietals will be soon be treasured – and bought and sold – like first-growth claret or single-malt whisky.

Coffee – it's the new Chateau Margaux; the new Macallan.

A month ago, I sat having breakfast in a Los Angeles restaurant and idly picked up a "Coffee List". It went on for pages. It encouraged you to select your choice of bean. Then – get this – to choose which brewing method you wanted: aeropressing, French oppressing, vacuum pot, drip and a few others. The lady proprietor hovered like a sommeliere, anxious to steer me in the right direction. Weak from jetlag and a gnawing desire for bacon and eggs, I said: "I'll just have a cappuccino, thanks." Wordlessly, but with a look that suggested I was wasting her vast expertise, she flipped the pages to the front, to reveal that there were at least a dozen frothy-milk breakfast beverages for the amateur coffee-drinker to choose from. I felt about three inches high. That's how much coffee has conquered the world. It's not enough just to be addicted to it. You have to worship the stuff, as well.

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