This Side of the Pond – April 17

By Sarah Pridgeon


If there were ever a perfect example of how our two cultures rely on one another, it’s to be found in a simple cup of coffee. The method by which the English make our morning wake-up brew was first introduced to us by our American cousins – but it’s we Brits who kindled your coffee culture in the first place.

Despite the advent of the coffee shop and a Starbucks in every other building, the British still rely on the method that was a staple of World War II: instant coffee. These simple granules of freeze-dried beans are spooned into a mug and covered with just-boiled water to rehydrate them. The granules dissolve, the milk and sugar are added and the coffee is ready to drink.

Instant coffee first appeared on English shores in the ration packs of U.S. troops as they arrived to fight in the war. It was apparently invented as a side effect of trying to high-vacuum things like penicillin and blood plasma for the military.

This tells you all you need to know about priorities back then – and who could argue? Our own soldiers were packing teabags with them wherever they happened to go.

For the American troops, instant coffee was a way to stave off the cravings. America has always been much keener on coffee than England (because we can only fit so much of it in between all the cups of tea) and I can only imagine that the idea of fighting the enemy was less frightening than the concept of coffeelessness. Those brave warriors knew that there would be little chance of a fresh brew once they hit European waters, so they brought enough supplies to see them through.

For the Brits, it was an innovation worthy of great excitement. We hadn’t really got the hang of coffee up until that point and it would be a while before Italy shared its cappuccino secrets.

The English first experienced the joy of the caffeine hit in the sixteenth century, thanks to the coffee houses that were used as meeting places for cerebral and enlightened discussion. These, however, were a luxury rather than an everyday treat – and women weren’t allowed into them at all.

Suddenly, we had access to a whole new world of beverages. It didn’t take long to realize that instant coffee could be used in cakes and desserts, so it entered the world of British baking at the same time.

I can’t claim that instant coffee has quite the flavor or depth of its café counterparts, but for some reason we’re still addicted to the stuff. A whopping 77 percent of the UK population has a jar of instant squirreled away in the cupboard and only drinks the kind of coffee that comes in a cardboard cup when they’re out, about and a bit too far from the kettle.

By comparison, only seven Americans in every hundred still drink instant coffee and the rest of Europe is even less keen on it. In Italy, the home of the latte, just one percent of the population buys instant coffee.

Over here, drip filter coffee is the mainstay of every home and office, but the Brits have only ever seemed to make a pot as the closing course of a dinner party. Even that custom is now fading – these days, we’re more likely to fidget about with a home espresso maker than fetch the filters for a social occasion.

I should note that instant coffee has become something of a guilty pleasure. You certainly wouldn’t find it on the menu of a restaurant or café but, if you had occasion to visit the chef’s home, I’d lay a bet that you’d find a jar sat next to the teabag pot. It’s still the quickest and easiest way to make a cup of coffee and, for many of us, there simply isn’t time or energy enough to play the barista.

And how did the English help to create your coffee culture in the first place? Well, if we hadn’t had a tiny falling out just before the revolution, this nation might have turned out to be as reliant on teabags as my own.

After the Boston Tea Party, drinking England’s refreshment of choice was understandably regarded as unpatriotic, although the general opinion on giving it up seems to have been a sense of regret. Founding Father John Adams even wrote a letter to his wife that lamented the need to embrace coffee, so keen had he always been on a cup of tea.

Because it’s hard to get through the day without a warming drink, most Americans swapped to coffee instead. Fortunately, the early colonists had followed in English footsteps by emulating the coffee boom of the 1700s and coffee houses had already been established in the bigger cities.

Now importing beans from much closer destinations, these coffee houses were well equipped to welcome a rush of citizens back through their doors. Thus an entire industry was born and, a century or so later, America would return the favor by giving England a fascinating new coffee idea.

So next time you stop at a café to buy your morning latte or wander into the kitchen to switch on the coffee pot, I hope you’ll take a moment to smile. This symbiosis of cultures is not just something that’s happened since the world started getting smaller – our two countries have been growing up together all along.