British Coffee: The British Imported Coffee Culture

Not British coffee – on a windowsill in San Francisco
Not British Coffee

The British have a strange relationship with coffee. On one hand, they have an overwhelming love for hot beverages. Only here will you be offered a cuppa during a break from gardening in hot sunshine. You will have a hot drink during family visits, dinner parties, and any time when it is not virtually impossible to hold a mug. All in all, this is fantastic. I happily join the gathering round the kettle when it’s less than boiling outside. I tend to ask for tea, because British coffee is usually instant.

The other side of British coffee is the British Imported Coffee Culture (BICC). BICC can be found in high-street chain shops. each takes an ever-so-slightly different angle on Seattle/Italian café chic. Most of the coffee from these shops seems to come from the same bean and machine combination. The atmosphere is identical, with a dominant shade of maroon, brown, blue or green making the walls the only distinguishing mark. To the consternation of Brits the country over, each has its own opaque size system, designed to confuse and belittle the customer who inevitably ends up asking: “But, which is the small one?”

It’s as if the BICC cartel, gathered at some point in the early 2000’s and set down some industry guidelines on preparing British coffee.

First, because the British palette has been evolved around the flavours of milky tea and biscuits, BICC beverages must avoid shocking customers. Aim to be essentially flavourless. Any foreign smart-arses asking for espresso will be greeted with a small glass of burnt tea leaves suspended in hot dishwater.
Second, all baked goods (which are mandatory at a proper British coffee house) shall be supplied from a limited BICC-approved list of bakeries. Pastries shall be huge, greasy muffins and strangely contrived cake combinations like apricot and prune biscotti brownies. The more creative and unlikely combinations will be considered for annual prizes.
Third: wherever possible, a smattering of faux-Italiano shall be displayed and worked into the jargon of serving staff (i.e. baristas), to cover any coffee blunders with embarrassing cultural ambiguity.
Finally, because this is all imported and frightfully expensive-sounding, we shall be setting the prices for beverages, baked goods, and sandwiches at just below the cost of the weekly shopping. The business logic for this last point, as you can see from the infographic, is that aspiring people will gladly pay extortionate cultural tariffs to appear coffee-literate.

Thus it was that the executive classes of Britain were won over to incredibly expensive milk, with the small addition of highly-addictive coffee made with impressive-looking but fully-automatic espresso machine monsters.

Not happy with their strangle-hold on Britain’s purchasers of pin-stripes, however, British Coffee Culture soon began infiltrating more reputable establishments. I know that the transformation of Imported Coffee Culture is more or less complete, now. I was recently offered a “mochacino-latte” at a seaside chip shop. (After seeing the BICC-branded instant beverage machine behind the counter littered with polystyrene cups and a suspicious powder, I declined). These shops and places of amusement have opted for a lighter touch, however, and have begun simply calling it “froffee coffee”. The froffee coffee is a uniquely British coffee-like drink made mainly from powdered milk sprayed through a plastic nozzle into a brown concentrate. The resulting chemical reactions produce a strangely petroleum-flavoured foam atop an instant-coffee. If you’d like to make it a “somethingcino”, you simply add a few tablespoons of powdered drinking chocolate to the foam, cup, napkin and surrounding customers.

As far as I can tell, most Brits are still impressed by a cafetière, or anything which can be labelled “proper coffee”. Proper coffee, like the froffee coffee, is a British sobriquet for any coffee not made by adding boiling water to brown granules. I suspect that in some households, the granules placed in a coffee pot rather than directly into a mug qualify as proper.

Making proper, British coffee

I have decided, as a public service, to challenge the BICC, the Froffee Coffee and the proper coffee by outlining a few simple ways to experience bliss.

  • Beans
  • Grinder
  • Cafetière/coffee press

It’s dead simple, really. Buy some beans, and don’t cry when you pay for them. A bag of Britishroasted beans will set you back about the same as a single, higher-priced drink at your local BICC establishment.

Buy a coffee grinder. I’ve encountered the myth that grinders are incredibly expensive. I think the only power behind this is that no one seems to own one, making them seem rare and exclusive: here’s one for just over a tenner.

Finally, a cafetière, or coffee-press. As my family in the US calls them: French Press – possibly now the “Freedom Press, but I can’t be sure because I don’t watch Fox News.

Grind the fresh beans (don’t keep them longer than a fortnight) until they’re coarsely ground. The grounds should look like sand, not flour. Boil the kettle, and pour a bit into the cafetière to warm it up. Pour this out and add the grounds. You’ll want 4-6 good-sized tablespoonfuls of grounds for a four-cup press. Add the off-boil water and stir it so all the beans are nicely wet. Put the lid on, and wait 4 minutes. Plunge and serve.

That’s it. Proper coffee that tastes wonderful.

Update: a podcast with Union Hand Roast’s Jeremy Torz can be found here.

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7 Thoughts

  1. In general I couldn’t agree more, although I personally think an espresso machine at home is worth it for when you want a treat (but you really need espresso ground coffee – either a decent grinder that will go to very fine, or buy espresso grind.

    Actually, despite the love of ‘hot drinks’ in the UK, we behave just about as badly towards tea – if you go into Cafe Nero, or Starbucks, then at least they’ll be using loose, ground coffee to make it – try finding a high street cafe that uses loose tea.

    And finally, the thing I really hate – instant coffee. I just don’t think they should be allowed to call it coffee. The problem is when you go and see someone and they offer you coffee – is it rude to check ‘is that instant coffee’?

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    1. You’ll know as soon as you taste it, for sure. Also I find it hard to believe that a grinder would be considered expensive. Mine was less than 10 bucks.

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      1. It’s not that grinders actually are expensive, it’s that they’re seen as an extravagance. When most people buy coffee in a jar and the only kit needed to prepare it are a mug, spoon and kettle; the perception of actual coffee prep can be slightly distorted.

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  2. Coffee doesn't bring joy only to our office but also to our health. Coffee gives us heat when we feel cold and it always keeps us warm. I couldn't agree more on this article.

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  3. modern british history breaks down into 2 distinct phases:

    1945 – 1985 was post war. we made food from packets (vesta curries, birds trifle) and drank drinks from jars. we still kept up appearances by making “real tea” from “real leaves”. as the moldy old stones said, “she buys an instant cake and she buys a frozen steak and goes running for the shelter of her mother’s little helper”. or something like that. there were a few false dawns with psychedelic e-types on carnaby street and safety pin wearing punks. but don’t be fooled! they all ate from packets

    1985 – now was post thatcher. and marked the arrival of the now ubiquitous “BICC cartel”

    sitting quite alone between the 2 was michael caine. 1965, the ipcress file. britain was still mainly bombsites and instant coffee. but michael caine wore good suits, made love (really rather roughly) to beautiful women and got up to scramble eggs and grind post-coital coffee beans

    apparently it was just some product placement but to the average post war brit with nhs glasses and nhs teeth it was about as sophisticated as any brit was ever likely to get

    just check the posters: http://keesstam.tripod.com/trivia.html

    if you’re gonna blame anyone, blame michael. he gave us ideas above our station 🙂

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  4. We just got back from travelling all over GB, and the coffee was abysmal everywhere we went. I don’t think they even know what an arabica bean is.

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  5. Nice blog post.
    I think Michael summarises it well, and his 1985 date is probably a could marker (on what is a slow evaluation  not an over night thing).
    I’m trying to remember when I first saw a Cafetiere/coffee press – it was probably that time or later. Before then instant coffee WAS coffee – in the same was as a tea bag was tea. But this followed a general trend in British food, pasta was new to me in the 80s, always spagetti, always with bolognese, always dried. It was only years (decades?) later that I discovered fresh pasta.

    We’ve come along way.

    The second point i’d make is our lack of independent retailers. For example in the states from what I’ve see (admittedly from movies in the main) there are road side dinners (especially on long dusty roads… umm again mainly from the movies!), which seem to be independent. In the UK with have little chef (for those outside the UK think McDonalds, with seat service and a few curtains on the windows, and stupidly high prices). 

    As you note, the coffee shops are so utterly generic. And not particularly pleasant: long slow queue, fairly basic service, often cramped messy seating. Oh and massive ugly mugs and terrible food.

    Brighton is lucky (especially near me) that we have many, many independent cafes. Many serve good coffee (I’m no expert, especially compared with most people I follow on twitter) in original surroundings, nice staff and at table service.

    Best coffee
    http://www.yelp.co.uk/biz/coffee-33-brighton

    Another great cafe http://www.metro-deco.com/ (in Kemp town, where there were quite large protests to try and stop a starbucks opening).

    But for most of the UK, we are stuck with three main chains, with identical – poor – offerings. I’m sure there’s a market in many towns across the UK for people to open unique and independent coffee shops and cafes!

    Finally, a couple of years a go I realised that most drinks we call coffee are actually Hot Milky Drinks with a hint of coffee in there. I tend to drink Americano now when I am out (Expresso drinkers feel free to tut).

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