At the Quetzal Coffee Company stall in Salisbury market, Simon Stevens is doing a roaring trade. One couple want Indonesian coffee. “Java?” he suggests, but they’re more interested in the Sumatra—or was it the Sulawesi? Standing here it’s easy to forget that Britain is hopelessly hooked on instant coffee. Until, that is, Simon tells me about a customer earlier that day who mistook his white containers of coffee for paint.
No, we are definitely an instant coffee nation. For most people it’s a question of convenience. Freed from the grinding, boiling, plunging and pouring, Brits take pleasure in the simple preparation of instant coffee: a kettle, a cup and Nescafé. Some speculate that this ritual has its origins in television, when the short breaks between programmes left insufficient time for preparing ground coffee. Others think it came from the “coffee break,” a 1952 invention of the Pan-American Coffee Bureau that set the precedent for a quick fix at work.
But the convenience argument only goes so far in explaining our attachment. Why, for example, did the Americans, inventors of instant coffee and convenience kings, never give in? Only 7 per cent of Americans habitually drink instant coffee compared to around 75 per cent of Brits. Despite American troops introducing Britain to instant coffee during the second world war, most Americans deem it fit only for a camping weekend.
When instant coffee arrived in Britain, most people didn’t miss the ritual of preparing ground coffee. After centuries of drinking tea, pre-war coffee consumption was marginal. This was not the case in America, where 98 per cent of families drank coffee, almost entirely ground. The ceremony of preparing ground coffee, its smell, sound and taste, was deeply embedded in the American experience of coffee but had little resonance here in Britain. Unfamiliarity helped the British adjust to the taste of instant coffee in the 1940s and 1950s. Made with low-quality robusta beans rather than the more sought after arabica variety, it was often bitter and stale.
Through an alliance of consumption patterns with the imagined experience of America in war-weary Britain, the easy-to-brew army coffee came to be considered the height of sophistication. By 1950, coffee sales were already three times higher than before the war. The technology behind instant coffee was part of its charm: in the 1950s, Nestlé made constant reference to the mysterious “special Nestlé process” and enthusiastically advertised the preservative soup they engineered to stop the coffee going stale.
If instant coffee seemed to signal a new era, its appeal was especially strong for women. Like other modern conveniences, it promised to help reduce the domestic load. In one Nestlé advert a mother is busy on a typewriter when her son brings home a pot of Nescafé. “Made in an instant, right in the cup; no grounds, no bother,” the advert claims. Nestlé hoped that hooking women, the primary shoppers, would hook the nation—and it did.
Since the 1950s, instant coffee has been through different guises. In the 1980s and 1990s it took on a romantic image, thanks to the hapless suitors in Nescafé’s Gold Blend adverts. When they finally kissed in the final advert, the nation swooned and, of course, bought more coffee. It was understood that while you offered the builder tea, you drank coffee with the person you fancied. This image helped instant coffee overtake tea to become Britain’s most popular hot drink in 2005, with a market share of 33.5 per cent.
More recent evidence suggests our coffee habits are changing. Instant coffee’s association with the United States and with unfathomable factory processes—the things previously central to its appeal—are now its biggest weaknesses. New consumer trends prioritise the “real thing”: organic, fair trade and straight from the source. Many people are turning towards ground coffee. According to the think tank BritainThinks, the cafetière has become one of the defining symbols of Britain’s middle class. In a sign of this trend, is Nescafé entering the fray with their Dolce Gusto coffee machines, which use capsules of ground coffee.
The instant coffee market has not been left behind. Surprisingly resilient, it has created new brands that press the buttons of the cafetière-drinking consumer. Nescafé has introduced Alta Rica, which boasts “100% Arabica beans from the finest coffee regions in Latin America.” In 2010 Starbucks joined the race and promised to “reinvent the category” with the release of their instant coffee brand Via in the UK.
For now, the future looks bright for ground coffee. Propelled by its association with high street cafés and capturing the spirit of contemporary tastes, it is on the ascendant. But whether from convenience, canny marketing or habit, instant coffee will continue to be a fixture in British homes for many years to come. We may occasionally sip flat whites and frappuccinos, but most Brits are still content with a cup of instant. One spoon or two?