For most of Britain's history, coffee was an unknown commodity; the product of a tropical plant grown thousands of miles away that – like chocolate, granulated sugar, tea and so many spices – was only discovered by those who ventured forth to distant lands.
All that is a far cry from today, where there seems to be a coffee shop on every street corner and various blends available in the supermarkets, imported from a myriad of countries.
Coffee comes to Britain
The 17th century was the first time Europeans – including the British – were able to regularly drink coffee. Explorers from Britain, The Netherlands, France, Spain, Portugal and other nations were not just busy discovering and colonising, but were also keen to introduce the food and drink of far-off lands to what was occasionally a sceptical west.
At this time, however, all coffee came from Arabia; it was yet to be found and imported from elsewhere. When it was brought back to the west, it occasionally caused controversy due to its Ottoman origins. This caused a debate in Italy where some priests argued against its consumption – until the pope tried some and approved it.
In Britain and elsewhere, the coffee house became an increasingly common feature in towns and cities the length and breadth of the land, making the drink familiar to millions.
Spreading the beans
The desire of the colonial powers to grow and consume more coffee was met by the handy fact that many of the lands they conquered were ideal for growing the plant. Arab attempts to maintain a monopoly were dashed as Europeans obtained seeds and found they were able to grow the commodity in their empires. Thus many places in Asia, the Caribbean and South America became coffee-growing nations.
Coffee versus tea – how a disease changed Ceylon
In the British case, however, there was one major factor limiting the growth of coffee consumption – tea. One reason for this was the increase of import taxation in the 18th century, making coffee costlier to drink. Another was that countries conquered by the British were not always able to produce the beverage.
A good example of this was Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), a country first colonised by the Portuguese and then the Dutch, apart from the hill country in the centre. In the late 18th century, the British took control and eventually managed to penetrate into the hill country.
These hillsides had been growing coffee for centuries. The Dutch had been the first to cultivate it, but they were not the ones who had introduced the crop. With the island having been visited many times by Arab traders in previous centuries, they may have been responsible for its arrival. The British set about expanding the industry and, for a time, Ceylon coffee was a highly successful industry and exported in large quantities.
However, the 1860s brought catastrophe, when a fungal disease arrived and started to damage the plants. By the time the severity of the problem was realised, it was too late. The coffee industry of Ceylon was wrecked.
With the British East India Company (EIC) promoting tea as an alternative, this soon took over as the nation's favourite hot drink. Sri Lanka today is now far more famous for its Ceylon tea, grown on plantations established by the British in place of the diseased coffee trees. Its emergence greatly increased the availability of tea in Britain by the early 20th century.
Coffee remains popular
The 19th and 20th centuries did not, however, see coffee eliminated from Britain's drinking habits, despite the best efforts of the EIC. Plantations remained in Africa and the Caribbean and, while tea was number one, there was still demand for coffee.
Although Ceylon had collapsed as a coffee producer, production in other countries was growing rapidly, notably Colombia in the first half of the 20th century. The US and Europe have long been major export markets, where the high quality of the country's product is much appreciated.
Britons and coffee today
Coffee remains to this day one of the most popular, commonly consumed hot beverages. Its persistence may be for any number of reasons – for example, its flavour, smell or even caffeine content, with people living increasingly busy lives and often burning the candle at both ends.
According to the Mintel Coffee UK 2008 Report, Britons were consuming 70 million cups of coffee annually by that time. It may not traditionally be the number one tipple in the UK, with many favouring a hearty brew, but it is certainly a very strong second.