Here’s a gripe of traditionalists and pub staff alike: people ordering hot drinks, especially when there’s a queue at the bar.
Of course pub companies and breweries like offering hot drinks:
- It enables them to compete with Costa and Nero.
- The markup is good.
And, as drinkers, we’ve often found it handy when we’re with a designated drinker or teetotaler.
But only the Wetherspoon chain seems to have worked out how to handle it without disrupting everything else.
That is, by selling customers an empty mug and making them self-serve from that machine over there… no, further… keep going… Bit further…
We’ve been wondering about when coffee in pubs first became an option.
Our guess is that it started in earnest in the 1950s and became more common in the 1960s – but no doubt with odd outliers long before then.
Let’s test that assumption.
Espresso in pubs in the 1950s and 60s
We know from the research we did for 20th Century Pub that Italian-style coffee, and coffee bars, came to London from 1952 onward.
There’s even an entire episode of Hancock’s Half Hour built around this trend – ‘Fred’s Pie Stall’ from 1959.
But how early were pubs in getting in on the game?
Dipping into the marvellous British Newspaper Archive we instantly found an answer of sorts, in an article from the West London Observer for 6 June 1956:
“A coffee bar attached to a pub is something new in London life. But the Venetian (that’s the coffee bar) opened at the Royal Oak in Bishop’s Bridge Road, Paddington, seems, after only a few weeks, to be firmly established… There you can have just espresso coffee, a chocolate, a light ale or whatever ‘yours’ may be. They pass the drinks which are a bit stronger than coffee or chocolate through a hatch which connects Venice (the decor is so realistic) with London… When I dropped in there the other day I heard a queer round ordered: a coffee, a coffee and brandy, a chocolate and a glass of stout.”
Going back a little further we can find notice of the opening of this coffee bar in December 1955. It replaced what had been the ‘ladies’ bar’.
The moaning started early, too. On 7 August 1957 Arthur Eperon wrote a piece for the Daily Herald in which he mentioned The Royal Oak and a nameless pub in Cambridge as signs of the grim future of the pub: “They are going to make us sup our pints elbow-to-elbow with addicts of sundaes and coffee…”
In 1961 Maurice Gibbs, consultant surveyor to the Brewers’ Society, predicted there would be more coffee in pubs, as reported the Coventry Evening Telegraph for 5 July that year:
“Because of the high cost of building new houses. brewers are likely to seek ancillary sources of attraction and profit. It is more rewarding to sell either a cup of coffee, a bowl of soup or a sandwich than a glass of beer. and possibly a hairdressing shop in a pub would be popular if customers could enjoy any of these things while they waited their turn.”
But was he right? Did it take?
Well, not really. Scouring our collection of pub guides from the 1960s and 70s, we can’t find many examples of pubs with coffee as a selling point.
The Tiger at East Dean in Sussex, mentioned in Sussex Pubs from 1966 is an exception: “The house purveys… morning coffee freshly distilled from ground beans and not out of a tin…”
Green and White’s London pub guide, in its 1973 edition, lists all sorts of features of pubs, from drag acts to wine menus, but doesn’t mention coffee.
Pub Catering is a very boring but extremely useful book from 1986, edited by John Fuller. Among pages and pages of advice about spuds and gateaux it has two paragraphs on coffee:
“A number of pubs are now serving coffee, both as a separate service outside licensing hours and as an after-dinner drink. The publican must assess how this affects his sale of liquor…”
And, of course, we’ve got the evidence of our own memories to rely on here.
As recently as the mid-2000s, it seemed remarkable to us to see an espresso machine in a pub.
We also know that Wetherspoon pubs started selling coffee nationwide in 2000 and that St Austell launched its Brewer & Bean sub-brand in 2014.
So we can probably say it’s really a 21st century phenomenon – and almost certainly a reaction to the arrival of Starbucks et al from the late 1990s onward.