A coffee break from the pandemic
For many of us, coffee is part of our daily routine. We wake up, we commute to work, and we buy a coffee en route. And then the subsequent day will involve a varying number of trips to the office coffee machine for refills; for caffeine and, of course, a chance to chat with a co-worker.
As cliché as it is, humans are creatures of habit, and when our habits were so dramatically altered by the Covid-19 outbreak, we reached for the things we knew, the things we could control, to emulate a semblance of stability. There is a reason we re-watch our favourite films or TV shows, re-read books over and over: we are comforted by the familiarity and the predictability.
As soon as cafés were allowed to offer takeaway coffee, a glimmer of normality returned, and we flocked to their doors in an attempt to capture that mimicry of routine once more. We all remember looking forward to the one trip outside that we were allowed each day. And for so many, this took the form of a walk to grab a coffee to-go from their local café or coffee shop. Not only did it hail back to normal times, but it was a chance for human interaction – seeing ‘real people’ aside from your dog or your long-suffering partner.
At the Specialty Coffee Association’s (SCA) Virtual Coffee Retail Summit in February, Jessica Warden, head of coffee at Gail’s, spoke of the newly essential role their baristas had to play during this time, that the exchange between customer and barista became even more important. For many, it may have been their only social interaction of the day and for most, it served as a chance to get out of the house and recalibrate with the outside world. Coffee, and more importantly, coffee shops, throughout the pandemic, remained an integral part of people’s lives, just in a rather different format.
It was during this time that Pret a Manger launched its subscription service: up to five barista-made beverages a day for £25 a month. This proved a popular scheme, encouraging its customers to make the effort to visit, if only to get the most out of their subscription. One of my closest friends and her housemates would walk to Pret daily – even though it was a forty-minute walk from their house – to feel like they had achieved something with their day, gone somewhere and done something at a time when this was a luxury.
Pret also opened to sit in before a lot of other places, socially distanced and one household to a table of course, where you could go and work or study. The return of indoor dining offered different walls to stare at, and a constant volley of people, which, despite not really being able to interact with, at least they were people and a reminder that life continued.
Instant coffee, was, and still is, widely consumed in the United Kingdom, but specialty coffee is on the uptake and has been for some time. Previously, most people were satisfied with their instant coffee at home and would enjoy a barista style coffee on their way to work or from their fancy office coffee machine, if they were lucky. But during lockdown, when a trip to the coffee shop became the focal point of the day, and time felt so endless that people picked up hobbies like sourdough cultivation and crocheting, the coffee-minded among us delved into the world of specialty coffee at home. They invested in coffee machines and experimented with more unusual and premium blends, no longer satisfied with anything but the high-quality coffee that was the spoils of their lockdown coffee-shop pilgrimages. This was expediated by social media such as the Dalgona coffee TikTok trend that saw people whipping instant coffee, sugar, and water together and adding it to hot or cold milk to create a cloud-like coffee concoction. People were using social media to learn how to do many things – like learning to knit a cardigan – and many were also using it to learn how to make specialty coffee.
Now that society has mostly re-opened, our evolved preference for specialty coffee has lingered and whilst many can achieve this at home, coffee shops have not lost their unshakeable attraction as a segment of our routine and a respite from what was a too empty life in lockdown, to a once more, busy life doing whatever it was we used to do in 2019.
- Kathryn Brand, Bell Publishing editorial assistant
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