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Will coffee one day supplant tea as Britain's hot beverage of choice?


On Wednesday, I had a small hit of life going back to normal. My favourite local independent coffee shop reopened – serving coffees and home-baked cookies out of a makeshift window hatch.

The owner has adapted somewhat to keep afloat, by delivering cookies in the local area at the weekends while practicing social distancing.

Seeing him in the shop, making my flat white after a catch-up, was genuinely a little emotional. Knowing it had survived gave me just a little slither of optimism about small businesses and the future.

Coffee magic: The rise of he coffee shop on our high streets has been well-documented

Coffee magic: The rise of he coffee shop on our high streets has been well-documented

The last time I had seen him was mid-March, my first day of working from home and me stating: I’ll be back every day you’re open for my caffeine fix.

Then lockdown happened and the shutters came down. Commentator’s curse.

Having that coffee this week made a small part of me feel the finger on the pandemic pause button had been lifted, albeit gently. 

It appears I’m not alone in missing my takeaway coffee fix, with social media awash of people happy to see their local barista back in action. 

A survey of 4,000 consumers by Allegra revealed that going to coffee shops was second only to seeing friends and family as the most missed social activity since coronavirus lockdown began.

Consumer Trends

This is Money assistant editor and consumer journalist, Lee Boyce, writes his Consumer Trends column every Saturday.

It ranges from food and drink and retail, to financial services and travel. 

Have an idea or suggestion? Get in touch:

lee.boyce@thisismoney.co.uk 

Travelling and making day trips came third, restaurants fourth and pubs fifth, with respondents given a list of 17 social activities they missed most.

But sometimes when I reach for my Clipper organic instant coffee out of the cupboard over the Yorkshire Tea, I feel a twinge of guilt. Of un-Britishness. Tea is our go to hot beverage, isn’t it?

In the film Dunkirk, based on the D-Day landings, the returning soldiers are depicted as being given a nice hot cup of tea for a pick-me up once back in Britain, not a soy latte.

Got a problem? We’ll stick the kettle on and have a nice brew, not a skinny macchiato with sprinklings of fairy dust. 

Will the latte luvvies like me soon outnumber the tea tribe in Britain? Consumer Trends takes a look.

Once a tea boy, now a coffee man

Growing up, it was always tea for me. In my teenage and university years, it was with milk and one sugar – until I ditched the sugar halfway through uni, a luxury I could no longer afford.

Then starting work as a journalist, it was all about the tea. Mugs and mugs of it.

One holiday (remember them) changed all that. In November 2014, my wife and I went for a long weekend in Perugia, Italy.

We stepped inside a real local coffee spot, and I watched as people stood at the bar, sipping coffees, reading newspapers.

We decided to join them – when in Perugia and all that – and I ordered a cappuccino. 

I had bad connotations with coffee. Namely, when I was growing up, my mum drank realms of the cheap instant stuff. It put me off for years.

I sipped at that frothy little delight and that was when I first started to cheat on tea. Then it became a full on affair before eventually, it became my main hot beverage choice.

First sip: Here I am drinking that first cappuccino in Perugia in 2014

Exciting news: Here is my most recent coffee purchase on Wednesday - with a cookie to boot

First sip, last sip: On the left, I am sipping my first ever cappuccino in 2014 – on the right, the coffee I bought in excitement on Wednesday when the local independent shop opened

During lockdown, I am getting my way through six instant coffees a day. I hardly reach for the tea caddy – maybe once a week, at a stretch.

I don’t think I’m alone in the huge uptick in caffeine consumption to get through a whole lot more time stuck at home – especially with a teething toddler who often likes to wake up before 6am. 

Households are brewing an extra 195million teas and coffees at home each week according to data – up by almost a quarter since the lockdown started.

The extra 27.9million hot drinks per day at home means the UK consumed 7.6billion cups in the first seven weeks of lockdown, adding £27million to the nation’s energy bills as people put on kettles more often.

Nationally, households are consuming an average of 5.6 hot drinks a day, according to Energy Helpline.

Coffee shops have been missed

Part of this surge in home coffee drinking has been, of course, down to coffee shops and cafes being closed.

More than nine in 10 coffee shop operators temporarily closed all or some venues, according to Allegra.

As they begin to wake from their slumber, the sight of people slurping coffees on the go in takeaway cups – or preferably reusable ones – will become a familiar sight once more. 

For me, one takeaway coffee, from a handful of my favourite independent shops, a few days of the working week is a real treat. Something to look forward to. 

It has been much-maligned as a frivolous millennial endeavour, spending a few quid on a coffee you can make easily at home.

Except, you can’t. Not really. To make one that rivals a coffee shop, you need expensive equipment that can be a pain to clean and upkeep.

Coffee from a café is much nicer than what most can make at home. Tea from a café is, on the whole, disgusting compared to what you can make at home – I think it is mistreated, bashed out quickly, with scolding water spoiling the taste.

Britons are believed to drink around 165million cups of tea, according to research in 2018. This compares to 95million cups of coffee – quite a gap.

However, this is up from 70million coffees a decade earlier and it is likely the gap has closed further still – but indicates that not everyone, like me, has made the swap. Many are also likely to simply consume both. 

What do coffee shops do for the economy?

There is that general feeling of: oh look, another coffee shop has opened on the high street. 

My feeling is: at least something other than bookmakers and charities shops are thriving in our much beleaguered and neglected high streets.

Allegra World Coffee Portal’s report on the UK café industry, reveals the market was worth £10.5illion last year, up £400million on the previous year.

By my calculations, that is nearly £200 of spend for every adult in Britain a year in coffee shops. 

Every year in the last two decades have seen growth, but that is set to end thanks to coronavirus.

The report shows there were nearly 26,000 coffee shops in 2019, a combination of branded, independent and non-specialist operators.

Three years ago, I went to one of Britain’s coffee roastery epicentres – Basildon – where Costa invested in a state-of-the-art facility.

Giorgio Fioravanti, the production director, told me at the time that Britain is just the 44th biggest consumer per capita of coffee in the world.

‘Britain is still a nation of tea drinkers, but the tide is turning,’ he said. 

Three years on, and with an explosion of interest in coffee, both from visiting shops to trying new blends in fancy gadgets, this comment stacks up in my opinion.

Britain is the fifth largest consumer market for coffee in Europe, according to the the Confederation of British Industry.

Each British person consumes around 3.3kg of coffee per year, compared to 5.4kg in Europe.

It says: ‘The UK has traditionally been a nation of tea drinkers, but coffee is starting to win over more and more British consumers.

‘Compared to most other countries in Europe, consumers in the United Kingdom favour instant coffee, especially among older generations.

‘However, the consumption of (higher quality) ground coffee and single-serve pods is increasing significantly among millennials.’

Tea pain: Although there has been a rise of coffee shops, Britons still on the whole prefer a good old cup of tea - whether it be PG Tips, Tetley, Yorkshire Tea, or something else

Tea pain: Although there has been a rise of coffee shops, Britons still on the whole prefer a good old cup of tea – whether it be PG Tips, Tetley, Yorkshire Tea, or something else

What about coffee gadgets?

One friend invested a tidy three-figure amount on an all singing, all dancing Smeg coffee machine delivered during lockdown. 

It grinds the beans and makes ‘shop’ quality coffee, he assures me.

It is likely this type of coffee making purchase has been made by a number of Britons, keen on getting an authentic fix of the black stuff.

I’ll stick to the Freetrade, organic instant at home, and an occasional coffee out as a treat over having to constantly cleaning the machine and descaling it, living in a hard water area.

Having now ticked one, two and three off the mist of most missed social activities according to study mentioned above – seeing close friends and family, while socially distancing; grabbing a takeaway coffee and taking a day trip or two for walks a little further out than we’ve been used to, I’m looking forward to four and five.

A fancy restaurant quality meal out and an ice-cold, draught beer, preferably on a sunny day in my favourite pub beer garden.

One thing you can say about lockdown is: you realise just how much we take these simple pleasures, whether it be spending time with family, a frappe or trip to the forest, for granted.

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