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…