There was a time when coffee was meat and drink to stand-up comedians. All a comic had to do was mention a “tall skinny frappuccino”, and audiences would fall about laughing. After all, everyone knew that when it came to coffee, there were only two questions that had to be answered: “Black or white?” and “How many sugars?” Anything else was gobbledegook. But what the mochachino mockers didn’t understand was that the language of coffee was one key factor in its resurgence.
The fact that the UK now drinks more coffee than tea - and Lyons tea houses are less common than actual lions in the UK’s high streets - has as much to do with buzzwords as caffeine buzz.
Consider all the terms that none of us knew a decade ago. The first time those continental polysyllables passed our lips, they gave us the thrill of believing that we’re weren’t suckers paying over-the-odds prices for a bitter-tasting pick-me-up. We were connoisseurs with our own idiosyncratic preferences taking a consumer choice, build-your-own approach to each paper cupful.
“It’s interesting that a lot of the language of coffee is European, or specifically Italian,” explains Sam Jordan, the managing director of Calling Brands, a marketing consultancy, “relating back to the introduction of the coffee bean to European consumers, as opposed to the origins of the bean itself.
The jargon has associations with being stylish and sophisticated - a gastronomic experience rather than an exotic one. And the big coffee companies have deliberately built their brands around these associations. Look at Caffe Nero: it’s an Italian name for a British company selling a product from Colombia and Kenya.”
All the same, if coffee was no more than a synonym for “chic and European”, then the nation’s Starbucks might be closing down faster than its bookshops. The key point is that there is a vast range of coffee-related lingo, which means a vast range of different selling points. Indeed, the language of coffee is supremely suggestive. Ask for a “strong black coffee” and people assume you were drinking something a lot stronger the night before.
Ask for a “cup of Joe” and you’re a New York cop with a 24-hour stake-out ahead of you. Request an “extra shot” and you can kid yourself that you’re knocking back a glass of rum. To most drinkers, a “flat white” is barely different to a latte - yet it sounds so much more now. No other beverage allows you to feel cosmopolitan and down-to-earth, artistic and macho, hungover, hardworking and easy-like-Sunday-morning - not because coffee itself is so versatile, but because coffee’s lexicon is.
In contrast, tea just doesn’t have the phrasebook to compete. “Fancy a cuppa” sounds as cosy as, well, a tea cosy. “How about a nice cup of tea?” suggests that someone is being consoled after their kitchen has flooded. It’s all a bit parochial and gloomy. And yet, could tea be making a comeback?
Pret A Manger and Eat have both just introduced tea-centric product ranges, and the institution of afternoon tea is being revived by vintage-wearing hipsters. But tea has a long way to go. If tea-marketers want it to be the new coffee, they had better stay up late coining enticing nicknames, even if they have to make themselves a strong pot of java first.