Mark Greene ponders on the phenomenal growth in coffee shops – now more numerous than estate agents on our high streets – and asks whether this trend is a friend or an enemy to community.

It’s a truism that different foods and different drinks have different meanings in different cultures. In most cultures chicken soup is just chicken soup but in the Jewish culture I grew up in, chicken soup wasn’t just chicken soup, chicken soup was the cure for all ailments, the universal panacea. And more than that, chicken soup was what your mother made you when you were ill. It was liquidised mother love. If you were ill and your mother didn’t make you chicken soup, the question was: did she really love you? It was a serious question.

Chicken soup had come to be imbued with some important values.

And the same applies to a whole host of beverages and foods, not least to the apparently shifting values of our two national drinks. Think for example about the difference between saying to someone, “Come for tea,” and “Come for coffee.” The latter sounds like it could happen any time up to and beyond midnight, probably wouldn’t last more than half an hour and carries no expectation of anything to eat. By contrast, an engagement for tea sounds as if it will last at least an hour, will occur during the afternoon, will certainly involve biscuits, might involve cakes (if you’re lucky) and might just possibly include dainty little sandwiches – whose primary reason for consumption has always seemed to me to be to justify the subsequent intake of large amounts of cake. Despite this vast difference in expectation, as products, tea and coffee actually deliver similar benefits. Both offer a slightly bitter taste, both are stimulants containing caffeine, both work well with or without milk, both can be drunk cold but the cultural significance of ‘tea’ and ‘coffee’ has changed radically over the last two decades. When everything stopped for teaIn the workplace tea was always associated with a prescribed period of rest. Indeed, the tea-break (remember those?) was not a time that you scuttled off to get a cup of tea to bring it back to your desk and drink it as you composed the last 1,000 words of your memo to management on work/life balance, it was a time when you downed tools, when everything, as the song goes, stopped for tea. But then along came the vending machine in offices and factories, obviating the need for tea ladies and trolleys and particular times when tea had to be taken. The vending machine also accelerated the nation’s growing taste for coffee, not primarily because vending machine instant coffee (a contradiction in terms to some) was so good, but because vending machine tea was to the palate what the rack is to the body – an experience that may be characterbuilding but is on the whole best avoided. And certainly not paid for. Employers wanted higher productivity, more people spending more time at their desks and more flexibility for workers to time their caffeine hit to their own bio-rhythms and ‘fatigue curve’. And in this they were aided by what one might call ‘the cultural values of tea’. Tea was about stopping work whereas coffee never was. Coffee was a stimulus to work and had somehow retained its connection with the intellectual fertility of the early coffee houses. Tea, though perhaps more significant in the early centuries than coffee, lost its connection with productivity. Coffee means activity, tea means leisure. Coffee makes work better. Tea is a pause from it. Coffee is an aid to workaholism, tea an antidote. Similarly, if you have had a terrible day at work, just discovered dry rot in your roof, subsidence in your kitchen, been abandoned by your spouse and knocked off your bike, your neighbour won’t offer you, “A nice hot latte” but rather “A nice hot cup of tea.” Tea, as my colleague Mike Elms put it, is about tea-l-c.

If coffee is about activity and adventure and tea is about rumination and comfort, no wonder church is associated with tea. At the same time, more and more churches are serving ground coffee, partly because more and more people have experienced ground coffee and are less content with instant. And partly because it’s simply nicer.

Smooching over a coffeeOf course, at root both beverages started out as being social facilitators, drinks round which relationships were initiated, fostered and celebrated. But again curiously no one, as far as I can remember, ever did any ads suggesting that tea’s social facilitation might veer into sexual facilitation. Conversely, there have been several ad campaigns over the years suggesting that the invitation to coffee is, if not exactly an aphrodisiac, certainly a potential sign of sexual or romantic interest. Compare those steamy yuppie Nescafe Gold Blend ads and those ridiculously sultry Carte Noir commercials with the ads for PG Tips that featured working class cockney chimps – males in overalls and females in hair rollers – about as romantic as an evening in a coalmine. Similarly, I’m reliably informed that, even in today’s liberated student world, inviting someone for coffee might easily be code for an interest beyond intellectual exchange. Tea, by contrast, is purely platonic. Out on the high street, the combination of coffee’s zingy image, the wide range of ways it can be prepared, and a decade of episodes of the cast of Friends sipping away in Central Perk combined to fuel the growth and growth of the coffee chains – Starbucks, Costa and Café Nero et al.

Indeed, a decade ago in suburban Northwood I used to complain that there was nowhere to go for a cup of coffee. Now the reverse is true: there’s almost nowhere to go for anything else but a cup of coffee. We have a ‘greasy spoon’, a slightly shabby independent coffee shop, a slightly chi-chi sandwich shop, a slightly chi-chi snack and beverage room, a slightly more chi-chi Portuguese light meals and coffee bistro, a Costa and yes, in case you thought I was living on the planet Zog, a Starbucks. Coffee shops now outnumber estate agents, though opticians are giving them a run for their rent, and are sprouting up like, like, well, like coffee shops.

While it is very easy to see the attraction of sipping one’s coffee round a reasonably elegant table of an afternoon, quite what possesses so many workers to stand in a queue for at least five minutes to pay more than £2 for a coffee in a cardboard cup that will almost certainly not be steaming hot by the time you arrive at your desk, take your coat off and settle down, is one of the great mysteries – unless of course the issue is not primarily to do with having a hot cup of coffee or even a good cup of coffee. After all, it’s quicker to boil a kettle and pour water into a cafetiere. No, this morning ritual is about treating oneself. Indeed, coffee at Starbucks and Costas is not really a breakfast beverage but rather a ‘breakfast dessert’ – all that warm milk, froth, chocolate dusting. Indeed, the number of people who order a standard black coffee or a coffee with milk seems, by my observation at least, to be remarkably small. In sum, the morning Starbucks may have far more to do with being kind to oneself, a little indulgence to help gird up one’s psyche for the battle ahead than anything to do with the superiority of Starbucks’ beans. In fact, in among all that milk, it’s quite hard to distinguish a Colombian Medellin from the high floral notes of a Kenya Double A. And if, you happen to live in the South East of the country, and can’t find a Starbucks or a Costa within twenty yards of your home, then ne’er fear, you can always stop by at the local petrol station or pop into a Borders or a Waterstones or an M S. Coffee implants are everywhere – coffee is the new adult impulse purchase. All of which begs the question of how we ever managed to go shopping without including a pause for coffee somewhere along the long and winding aisles. If the way we drink beverages away from home has changed, so too has the way we drink them at home. Once upon a time in England at least you’d go round to someone’s house for tea – and tea would be what you’d have. No offers of coffee, decaffeinated coffee, decaffeinated tea, camomile, or frog and nettle infusions. No, tea meant tea. Certainly no one would ask you if you preferred your lactic needs to be met in skimmed, semi-skimmed or full-fat form.

In those days of course, everyone would just have it – the same stuff from the same shared pot. But as far as beverages are concerned, the times they have a-changed. Not so long ago we invited a couple of friends for tea – complete with biscuits and cakes but without any unnecessarily distracting sandwiches. One wanted decaffeinated coffee, the other brought their own decaffeinated infusion, my wife had coffee and I had a cup of tea, courtesy of a teabag, unsqueezed I hasten to add, but still a tea-bag – the age of the shared pot might not quite be over but the days of loose tea are surely numbered – who needs all that mess? Oh, how we crave convenience and choice.

Coffee, community and choiceStill, it wasn’t particularly convenient for me, because quite apart from the mental challenge of remembering what everyone wanted and with what kind of milk, this plethora of preferences meant that it took me at least three times as long to give our guests a drink, confining me to the kitchen not only for the original preparation time but creating a considerable disincentive to offer them a second cup. “Would you like another cup of whatever it was you had last time? Yes? See you in half an hour then.” And apart from that, we lost something else – the sense of bonding that mysteriously but very definitely accrues from sharing from the same pot – one small act of community in a world of individualism. Still, who can stand in the way of the gods of choice?

So what does this do to our readiness to open up our homes to other people? Has the practice of spontaneous hospitality been inhibited by our unspoken sense that we won’t have the right stuff in the cupboard? Indeed, do people invite people into their homes as much as they used to? Somehow I doubt it. Perhaps the growing number of places to have a cup of coffee with friends or acquaintances is not so much a sign of the regeneration of relationships in our culture but actually their decline. It’s convenient, it’s true, to pop in to a coffee shop. And it’s often refreshing to get out of the house and delightful not to have to tidy the place up to make it presentable enough to say, “Oh, sorry, it’s such a mess.” But still I wonder whether choosing to treat ourselves in the neutral arena of Starbucks is also a way to avoid inviting people into the revealing realities of our homes and the more intimate connections that can be forged by serving them tea or coffee or frog and nettle infusion, or whatever it is you happen to have in the cupboard that might change the colour of boiled water and serve to nurture a relationship.

Mark Greene is the executive director of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.