What I Learned about the Coffeehouse


My family did not engage in any particularly interesting conversations during our car rides this weekend to and from the country house. At times people said a few lively things, but overall, we just passed from topic to topic. I did toss out a few mentions of stories from a book I am reading, which is the direction I am going to go for today’s post. In a recent chapter of my book, which is a historical fiction about the city of London, England, I learned all about the significance of the coffeehouse.

With great confidence, I would say that the majority of the population in Canada (and probably England too) has visited a modern-day coffeehouse, like Starbucks, Second Cup or Tim Horton’s. It sometimes seems to me that there is at least one establishment every few blocks in the city where I live. The coffeehouse, whether it’s an independent business, a franchise or a chain, plays an important role in the community. It is most definitely a gathering place, where people meet to catch up, relax or work.

The coffeehouse sells a variety of consumables, but at its core it sells coffee. I have personally observed (though I have a feeling that I’m not alone) that over the past decade the number of such establishments has grown exponentially, and they play a significant role in our culture and society.

Is this a new phenomenon, something that can be remembered as a key moment in the 21st century?

Absolutely not.

My book covers a two-thousand-year history of London, and I recently read the chapter that focused on the second half of the 17th century. The face of London changed dramatically during this time, as it became a monarchy again, faced a massive plague and then a fire, which destroyed much of the city. These were all significant events during the late 17th century, and the book carefully documented all this, with its fictional characters.

And in the middle of this chapter, after the plague and fire, it mentions, in passing, the plethora of choices one of the main characters has about which coffeehouse to visit on a given day. He ends up at Lloyd’s, where he could sip coffee (“which was usually served black, though usually with sugar”) all day.

The author writes, “Of all the many conveniences of the new city since the fire, none had pleased Meredith more than the institution of the coffee house. There seemed to be a new one every month…” He goes on to say that these coffeehouses were open all day and served a variety of food and drink. They were meeting places, and certain establishments attracted a particular kind of person.

Lloyd’s for example, attracted merchants associated with shipping, and it was a well-known gathering spot for men to discuss their business.

I’m not going to go into the details of the direction that coffee houses like Lloyd’s eventually went (think about the insurance industry). I just find it fascinating that over 300 years ago London experienced a coffeehouse craze not unlike the one we have today. How many of you have met a potential employer at Starbucks? Did you sign a contract for a business transaction at your local Tim Hortons? Did you catch up with a former colleague over a latte at Second Cup?

We often say that history repeats itself, and in the case of the coffeehouse, that’s definitely the case.

The Secrets of the Coffee Boutique


Ordering, brewing and drinking coffee has become an art form. For years, I was not interested at all in the beverage and preferred to consume only water and once in a while a cup of tea. When I was pregnant with my second child I became hooked on the taste of coffee and drank the odd decaffeinated drink. When I was pregnant with my third child I craved coffee and over the last year it has become a staple in my diet.

I don’t think I am unique in my change from scorning coffee to falling in love with it. It’s hard to walk more than a few steps in a big city without passing a large franchise like Starbucks, Second Cup or even Tim Hortons or a small boutique that offers its own exclusive roasted beans. Coffee is everywhere, and in a society that is always on the go, when we all feel there are not enough hours in the day, coffee has become our fuel.

I was at a party a couple of nights ago and this topic came up in the conversation. We were a lively group, enjoying a beautiful summer evening outdoors, so when one person pulled out his smartphone to share some Starbucks secrets with us we were game to hear.

Have you ever looked at the colour of your Starbucks barista’s apron? By the way, until a few years ago, had any of us ever heard the word “barista?” Starbucks recently revealed the meaning behind some special edition aprons. Most of us associate Starbucks with their signature green apron, but oh, there are other colours too!

If you see a rare purple apron, for example, you must be at a Starbucks in Europe, and it means your barista is a winner of the Europe, Middle East and Africa Barista Championship. In the United States, there is a Starbucks College Achievement Plan, and those graduates get a mortarboard embroidered on their green aprons. Then there’s the black apron, which is more common than the coveted purple in Europe, and it is given to baristas who are Coffee Masters.

So, I learned a Starbucks secret. Then I wondered, are there other coffee secrets? Are there secret menu items at my local coffee establishment to which I was not privy? A quick search on Google and I learned a few things.

I found an article from a few years ago from Yahoo that gave me some ideas of secret menu items that I will have to try. I like the “Red Eye” at Second Cup, which is their brewed coffee with a shot of espresso. Regulars at Starbucks sometimes order the “Marble Mocha Macchiato,” which is “white mocha on the bottom with no whip, shot on the top and mocha drizzle.” It is popular at Tim Hortons to order half-half drinks, such as a drink that is a half-brewed coffee and the other half cappuccino. The Yahoo article also mentions that officially, a “Double-Double” is not on the menu!

What are some other coffee secrets? Are there classified menu items that I should whisper to my barista the next time I visit my local café? I really would love to know. Post a comment here or on Facebook or tweet me @AliciaRichler.