Takeaway coffee wasn’t really a thing when I first moved to London, fifteen years ago. Starbucks had arrived in the UK in 1998, of course, after buying out the British “Seattle Coffee Company” to do so. But as I remember it, these coffee houses were all about sitting in: big comfortable sofas and massive, soup-bowl sized mugs. They were somewhere to rest while shopping or to meet friends for a chat. Takeaway coffee was sold like takeaway tea, in polystyrene cups, and it was gritty and boiling hot. It was sold to people who wanted to warm their hands. It cost less than a pound.
By the time I left university, three years later, takeaway coffee had become a thing. It felt treat-y, slightly exotic. I would clutch a big paper cup, with both hands, and walk down the street pretending I was in Sex And The City, my reference point for what it meant to get takeaway coffee: glamorous and a bit American. By this time, the coffee would usually have been hyper-sweet, flavoured with syrup, and maybe topped with whipped cream. In the summer it would be iced and blended and served with a straw.
Coffee culture in Britain has changed a lot since then, of course. In 1998, a BBC report observed that Starbucks “hopes to capitalise on the growing attraction of coffee houses in Britain, where customers pay up to £2 ($3) for a cappuccino or mocha latte.” These 1998 prices—that the BBC remarked upon with such interest—now seem absurdly cheap; with inflation, a shift towards better techniques and higher-quality ingredients, and increased demand, the price of a cup of coffee has risen exponentially. But it’s odd: as takeaway coffee has become more quotidian, something far more people are far more willing to spend money on, it has also become more luxurious, more expensive, and more of a treat.
Because this is Britain, this shift is deeply steeped in class and social identities. Of course, coffee has always been political, an imperial product that the British developed a taste for alongside colonial exploitation. And coffee houses were historically sites of political intrigue and seditious meetings. But coffee today is political in a different way. It’s a signifier, and it’s a sign.
In part, this is because our default drink is tea. Lots of people prefer coffee, of course; we drink 95 million cups of coffee a day. But tea comes as standard. I like Yorkshire, which is the more expensive bagged variety, though if you’re a real connoisseur, you might drink loose-leaf. And you would never offer Earl Grey to a builder, who are important in our national relationship to tea: “builders’ tea” is hot and strong and milky, and probably very sweet too, since the more sugar you have in your tea, the more working class you are, for some reason. I don’t make the rules, but that’s what they are.
Coffee is different, because everyone secretly drinks instant. I didn’t realise until recently that instant coffee–beloved around the world, north and south of the equator and as popular in Australia and India as it is in Glasgow and London—isn’t very common in North America. In Britain, a jar of instant coffee is an extremely normal sight, in offices, common rooms and homes. “Would you like a cup of coffee?” will be followed, as formulaically, by “it’s instant, is that okay?” And it is, for most people. You wouldn’t demand that someone made you fresh coffee in their home, and you wouldn’t expect offices to have fresh coffee (even if, increasingly, they will and would). Instant coffee is why the takeaway coffee of my childhood was so gritty, why it was best with milk and sugar, to take the edge off.
Because instant coffee is the standard, filter coffee feels hipster, as a variety of pour-over contraptions find their way into people’s homes and hearts. “Proper coffee” is ground coffee, in all its forms; it is “proper” because it is “real,” but also because, I guess, it is what we imagine coffee to be like in countries with a “coffee culture.” In Britain, that’s mostly looking across the Channel to France, or Italy; “proper” coffee comes in a cafetiere or from an espresso machine.
This is where coffee becomes political. The “flat white” – a sort of short latte, with less milk, imported from the antipodes – quickly became a signifier, first of hipsters, and then (more nastily) of a sort of metropolitan elite: the out-of-touch, the establishment, those people who voted “Remain” and live in North London and read The Guardian. And so, flat whites are a dangerous game for politicians, better avoided. Even a cappuccino or latte is a risk. That frothy milk is not very serious, and correctly pronouncing the name gives you away as the sort of person who takes city breaks in Europe, and maybe even speaks the language too. And so, during his leadership fight with Jeremy Corbyn, we found Owen Smith asking for a “frothy coffee” during a campaign interview, only to reassure the interviewer that “it is the first time I have ever been given little biscuits and a posh cup in here.” (He would “normally” be given “a mug,” he said.) In such infinitesimal differences are class identity constructed.
(Smith went on to lose.)
The problem with all of this, of course, is that these frothy coffees, these posh drinks, are cheap and available throughout Britain, widely purchased for very little cost. Cappuccinos have been available in Britain for decades; we all know how to say it by now. Greggs, a popular bakery chain that has itself become an important signifier of class identity, authenticity and down-to-earth values (even as it has introduced a vegan sausage roll), sells a flat white as part of its breakfast meal deal. McDonalds markets them with images of hipsters, but they sell them too. Every town in the country has a Starbucks or a Costa or Caffé Nero, as well as countless independent cafes and coffee shops and bakeries with their shining espresso machines.
In short: everyone knows what a cappuccino is, and we know it; only politicians pretend that we don’t, and pretend that this pretence is authenticity. For some reason, we let them get away with it.
A bitter, interminable discourse around what it means to be really working class is always close to the surface in Britain. With the collapse of industrial employers and the rise of precarious service industry jobs, class identity is much less rigid, even more up for grabs as it becomes more and more precious. Social mobility, too, shifts the way we think about identity: people capitalize on their modest upbringing without acknowledging how their circumstances and lives have changed since then, something almost as tedious as when middle- and upper-class journalists and politicians police what “real” working class behaviour is, what they “really” eat and drink and watch and laugh at and love and hate. And so, instant coffee is authentic and working class; proper coffee is elitist and intellectual; frothy coffee is fey and metropolitan; and flat whites are for hipsters.
I grew up on a housing estate, often on state benefits, but my mother would never have instant coffee in the house; perhaps because she is half-German, I’m not sure, we had a stove-top espresso maker and a milk frother and a glorious Teutonic coffee pot. Now I’m undoubtedly middle class, with a PhD and leather shoes, and I’m powered by instant coffee as I sit and type for a living. Class identity in Britain is a shifting ethereal ghoul that drifts behind you for your whole life; how you grew up never leaves you, but clinging to your former status won’t save you, either. Class is there in everything, not just in how much you earn or where you were educated, but in how you speak, how you hold yourself, how you see the world. And how you take your coffee.
Charlotte Lydia Riley