coffee

Is Coffee Really More Popular Than Booze Now? I Went to a Coffee Festival to Find Out

Pubs are closing every week in Britain as cafes take over our high streets. At London Coffee Festival, I spoke to baristas, latte artists, and coffee shop owners to find out whether lattes can ever replace lager.

by Amy Walker
18 April 2017, 11:27am

"I've just roasted this coffee and I've ditched some booze out of this whisky and I've put the coffee in it and I've shook it. It's about an hour old, it's an experiment."

I'm speaking to Mike, a coffee roaster from Tilbury. He has just offered me a questionable looking shot and is listing its ingredients, shouting to be heard over a brass band cover of "Sexual Healing" that plays from the speakers. We're standing in a room full of picnic tables at London Coffee Festival, held in the Old Truman Brewery event space on Brick Lane. I'm here to try and work out whether coffee is becoming more popular than alcohol.

Because Mike is far from being the only one hopped up on java. Britain has gone coffee crazy while social drinking seems to be on the wane. Studies show that students nowadays prefer flat whites to cheap beer and sales of traditional brown tea are down as people develop a taste for artisan coffee.

This newfound coffee obsession is having an impact on alcohol sales. Local Data Company figures analysed by the BBC show that between 2011 and 2016, the number of bars, pubs, and clubs in our town centres fell by about 2,000. Although there are still more pubs than coffee shops in the UK, the number of cafes, fast food outlets, and restaurants has risen by 6,000 across the country. Pubs, on the other hand, are closing every week.

A demonstration stage at London Coffee Festival. All photos by the author.

When I ask Mike whether he thinks the popularity of coffee shops has had anything to do with the decline of traditional boozers, he points to the smoking ban.

"Everyone had to smoke outside, then you could smell everyone's farts inside, then all the pubs became restaurants, then the restaurants became coffee houses," he says. "There's been an explosion, but it just peaks in waves."

Right.

London Coffee Festival undoubtedly sits at the peak of Britain's coffee mania wave. Spanning four days, it includes tasting cupping sessions, tasting sessions, barista competitions, talks from industry experts, and stalls selling beans, AeroPress filters, coffee grinding machines, coffee roasting machines, and countless other pieces of barista gadgetry.

Plus, everyone here knows their shit. When I tell a marketer from a Swiss coffee tech company that I usually get my caffeine fix from Pret or the Nespresso at work, her reaction manages to convey pity and disgust all at once.

A table of alcohol-free shots.

London Coffee Festival also features entertainment you'd expect from a more traditional festival, with live DJs and music running throughout the four days. One key difference, however, is the lack of booze. Aside from a small coffee and whisky pairing demo and a few espresso martinis, the event is an almost entirely sober affair.

Not that anyone seems to mind. The majority of the people here are genuinely excited at the prospect of attractive young salespeople flogging coffee filters, although this could just be an artificial buzz from all the caffeine.

Barista Luke Shilling gives a latte art demonstration.

When the speakers start pumping out "Lose Yourself to Dance," I decide it's time to say goodbye to Mike and head towards the Latte Art Live workshop, in which Australian barista Luke Shilling is showing off his coffee foam drawing skills. As the audience gazes on, he pours vegan lattes topped with an assortment of flowers and hearts, assuring audience members that they too can achieve such artistry with a little practice (and the right almond milk). The whole thing feels a bit like a QVC segment but the lattes are free to drink and in all honesty, taste way nicer than the ones I get from Pret.

After the show, Shilling tells me that his most famous latte design is a semi-erect penis, which he began drawing when he owned a coffee shop in Australia and "coined it the 'cockacino.'" Phalluses aside, he says that the rise of coffee over social drinking has been happening in Australia for years. Places like Melbourne and Sydney fostered the customer service- and quality coffee-driven cafes that are now popular in the UK.

But for Shilling, the artisan coffee shop's main appeal over the pub is that it's accessible to a wider demographic of customers.

"If you're a 15- or 16-year-old, you can't go to the pub for a drink can you? But you can catch up with friends over a coffee," Shilling says. "The cafe environment is more acceptable and it doesn't have same social repercussions that alcohol does."

A tea tasting session in progress.

Already several coffees down, I can feel myself getting the shakes and decide to leave Shilling for one of the festival's tea tasting events. Here I meet Tadeáš, a guy in his mid-twenties from the Czech Republic who tells me that his country has also seen a coffee shop boom—and at the expense of traditional drinking establishments. Tadeáš runs a cafe and came to London to learn more about specialty coffee.

"Italy is more traditional. It's the past," he says. "But London's more current and looking towards the future."

At this point that I forget that we're at a tea tasting event, so when I'm passed a small jar of white tea, I down it in one, rather than huffing it to smell the "aroma" like everyone else seems to be doing.

Not wanting to expose myself as an amateur any further, I head over to an alcohol-free bar, where a young woman is singing soulfully to an audience too busy sipping soda and coffee cocktails to notice. I start chatting to two women in their 50s, both on a break from manning their speciality coffee bean stall. As two people directly profiting from Britain's growing thirst for caffeine, I ask why they think coffee has become so popular. 

"Tomorrow it will be rammed with people who will spend half an hour talking about coffee," one of them muses. "But I have no idea why."

You're not the only one.