A short history of coffee culture

9 Dec 2021


Ever wondered how coffee became such a key part of socialising, meetings, and culture in general?

Coffee is more than a beverage, it’s a cultural phenomenon. From brewed drip coffee in America to cafe au lait in France, it’s impossible to ignore the presence of coffee around the world. Whether we think of coffee as an early morning staple, an offering for guests, or a workplace pick-me-up, there’s one setting that’s inextricably linked to the rise of coffee as we know it today — the coffee shop.

As one of the world’s most highly traded commodities, coffee has a long and rich story to tell, but for us, it all starts with coffee culture. A social setting where relationships are formed, novels are written, and chance encounters change lives, a mesmerising history lies behind the doors of the coffee shop. We can’t wait to spill the beans…

Latte in a coffee shop

The first coffee house

Though coffee houses first appeared in the Middle East, historians believe that the first European cafe (or ‘kafana’) opened in Serbia in 1552. It wasn’t until 1660 that cafes started to appear further west in Italy and France. Eventually, in the 19th and 20th centuries, coffee shops were commonplace — and attracting a varied clientele.

As popular ‘any-time’ meeting places away from the home and workplace, artists, businessmen, and intellectuals soon swarmed to local coffee houses, like moths to a flame. Finally, this was a public space where people were free to share ideas, conduct business, and meet other like-minded individuals.

After the first English coffee house opened its doors in Oxford in 1650, other entrepreneurs soon followed suit. As you might have guessed, tidy profits quickly came to those keeping their finger to the wind. The 17th century saw a great increase in the number of coffee shops. And the ‘coffee house’ concept even acquired a status of particular importance.

Why? Coffee shops had an exciting reputation. They were places of debate, where politics played out, and where lectures were delivered to eager crowds. They were even referred to as ‘penny universities’ thanks to the students and scholars who frequented them. Everyone wanted to be around these new hives of activity, and were sure to miss out if they stayed away!

More than a cup of coffee

From the get-go, coffee shops had more going for them than simply coffee — they offered culture, too. Where else could you have casual conversations, listen to a live musician before they reached stardom, and trade stocks and shares all under one roof?

As distinct coffee cultures started to emerge from different countries, the art of coffee brewing was uniquely honed. So too was the task of creating an inviting atmosphere. As the popularity of coffee shops surged around the world, and in particular, across the United States, eager businessmen were on the lookout for good ideas — ideas that are now a reality.

One local coffee shop owner from Seattle was so taken with the vibrant community found in Italian espresso bars, that he embarked on a quest to bring that same ‘homely feel’ back to the States. Favouring smoother, stronger espresso over standard filter coffee, he opened the very first Starbucks in 1971. Whether Starbuck’s 30,000 plus global stores have achieved the desired ambience is certainly up for debate. But we can’t ignore the fact that this mega-chain changed the game.

And more were to follow.

Baristas in a cafe

The modern coffee shop

In 2021, Coffee is so popular that it’s the second most-consumed drink in the world, ranking only behind water. Coffee culture was once crucial to the very idea of the coffee shop. But now, speed and convenience have become increasingly valued in our fast-paced world. This hasn’t been the end for smaller cafes, but it has made life harder. With large coffee chains enticing customers away with cheaper grab-and-go drinks, local shops are losing out on prime locations and would-be visitors.

Still, it isn’t all doom and gloom. There are now more coffee shops than ever before, and vibrant independent coffee scenes are flourishing in places like Melbourne, Taipei and Havana. With the rise of remote working, people flock to coffee shops for their daily dose of camaraderie. And in the same spirit as the original coffee houses, cafes continue to provide a homely public space for people from all walks of life. Whether you want to access some WiFi, snuggle up with a book, or host a business meeting, you’ll find a warm welcome and the smell of a fresh, aromatic brew.

There are also more coffee options than in the past, giving people the opportunity to discover the nuances of coffee like never before. One-pot filter coffee had its time in the sun. Now, most cafes serve everything from lattes to cortados — and with a wide range of milk options. Take a trip to a particularly trendy part of town and you might even encounter coffee shops proudly displaying their ‘guest roasts.’ Some also offer the likes of Aeropress and V60 brews.

Interior of a cosy coffee shop

Rabot 1745

If you happen to be around the Borough Market area of London, why not pop into our Rabot Cafe and Restaurant? We’ll introduce you to our fabulous coffees and you can even sample our delectable afternoon tea. With a hushed ambiance, rustic iron bar, and contemporary feel, it’s the perfect setting for meeting old friends, new work clients, and cherished family members. We’ve taken what we love about the old coffee houses, and made ours our own.

Bringing coffee culture home

At Hotel Chocolat, our favourite thing about coffee culture is that it brings people together. So, whether this is happening in coffee shops, offices, or homes around the world — it’s a great thing in our books! Indeed, since March 2020, people have been spending much more time at home. This led us to realise — you should still be able to enjoy barista-grade aromatic and ethically sourced blends in the comfort of your own home.

To help coffee lovers bring the coffee culture atmosphere into their kitchens, we created our innovative Podster and five exquisite coffee blends. Each blend has its own unique personality and finely tuned flavour profile. Whether you grind your own beans or want to try our coffee in pod form, we’ve made it easy to become a home barista.

When we think about the future of coffee, we feel strongly that it needs to become more ethical and sustainable. We can trace each and every bean back to our partner farms. Plus, we work with farming communities and cooperatives around the world to improve the lives of those who grow our beans. Learn more about our love affair with coffee, our Podcycler solution to recycling coffee pods, and our detailed company-wide Planet Pledge.

If coffee culture has taught us one thing, it’s that coffee is a fantastic excuse to sit back, relax, and steal away some lovely moments with friends and family. Saunter down to your local coffee shop or whip up a soothing homemade brew — you might want to take a peek at our advice on the best way to make coffee at home.

Woman reading and drinking coffee at home