T-lab coffee
11th May 2018

A brief history of the UK coffee bar

It’s easy to see that the UK is in the middle of a coffee boom. No town or city centre high street is complete without at least one coffee bar – often a lot more.

It wasn’t always like this, in fact it’s really only happened over the last 15-20 years – so what’s happened to put the coffee bar so firmly back on the map?

Britain had its first coffee boom back in the 17th century. England’s first coffee house opened in Oxford in 1650. By 1675 there were over 3,000 nationwide (in a country with a population of just 5 million).

Coffee houses became sociable meeting places, where artists, writers, businessman and politicians could meet and discuss the ideas of the day. In fact they became so popular that Charles II tried to suppress London coffee houses as “places where the disaffected met, and spread scandalous reports concerning the conduct of His Majesty and his Ministers” The suppression didn’t work, and the public continued to flock to coffee houses.


Coffee houses weren’t popular with everyone however. Women in particular (women were generally banned from coffee houses) saw them as taking away their menfolk. Some politicians were wary of them, the church was suspicious of them and the ale houses didn’t welcome the competition.

As the industrial revolution took hold and social habits changed the coffee houses began to decline. Some of the more upmarket ones became gentleman’s clubs, some of the more downmarket ones reverted to ale houses. The new fashion of tea drinking, a drink that could easily be made at home, also contributed to the decline and by the end of the 19th century most British coffee houses had gone – although they remained popular in continental Europe.

Coffee houses, now called coffee bars, began their revival in the 1950’s. Rising post war affluence meant that young people had more independence, and they wanted their own space away from the restrictions of a parental eye. Coffee bars, particularly in London’s trendy Soho, provided the answer. Coffee bars once again became spaces for people to meet and socialise, although their increase in numbers was quite low.

The real push came later, from the US. Just like in the UK coffee bars had become meeting places for young people, often hosting musical events and open mic nights, with Bob Dylan famously starting his career in the coffee bars of Greenwich village.

Meanwhile, over in Seattle, three ex-University of San Francisco students were looking for a name for their new coffee bar. They settled on Starbucks. The first Starbucks opened in Seattle in March 1971.

Starbucks standardised the espresso bar format and exported it around the world. Italian in origin, the espresso bar format consists of a long coffee bar with an espresso beans-to-cup machine and display cases of pastries, cakes and biscotti. Coffee drinks are based around espresso shots, adding more milk, more foam, different flavourings etc. Starbucks added in soft furnishings and muted colours to make the surroundings feel more luxurious and the rest is history. There are now over 20,000 Starbucks branches around the world.

Starbucks arrived in the UK in 1998 and their instant success caused many people to sit up and take notice. Local rivals in the form of Costa Coffee and Caffe Nero soon sprang up as more and more coffee bars started appearing on British high streets. At the start of 2000 there were approximately 6,000 coffee bars across the UK. By 2018 their number had grown to over 20,000. (2024 update – now 22,000)

It wasn’t just the big multi-nationals getting in on the action. Small, artisanal owner-occupied coffee bars also began springing up. Often run by coffee enthusiasts, with their own preferred bean suppliers and their own unique roasting methods these smaller bars are helping to keep café culture cool and varied.

Why are so many people spending more and more time enjoying a coffee in their favourite local coffee bar? There’s no one overriding reason, rather a collection of smaller ones. It certainly isn’t just the coffee – that’s been around for centuries – although the quality of coffee on offer has increased enormously from the lukewarm weak brown stuff on offer in the UK not so many years ago.

The coffee bar has once again become a social hub. A place to treat yourself, meet friends, chat, have a mini-break and forget about your day-to-day worries. Other reasons put forward for its popularity include:

• Coffee bars are now designed as sociable spaces, not just somewhere to consume coffee, with more welcoming interiors, soft furnishings, and restful muted colours

• More female and family friendly than pubs

• A chance to work away from the office, with free wi-fi. Although some smaller independent bars have gone in the opposite direction and banned wi-fi, to make it a more complete break from the hustle

• Internet shopping means high street shoppers have more time to socialise and a coffee break has now become an integral part of many people’s shopping trips.

The coffee bar is firmly back on the UK map and although for some years now pundits have been asking if the UK has reached ‘peak coffee’, sales are showing no signs of slowing. Over the last five years sales through UK coffee bars have increased by over 37%, and current forecasts are for this rate of growth to continue with sales reaching over £4 billion pounds  a year by 2022.