Before lockdown hit last March, cafés were an eccentric hub of creativity, productivity, and community. Whether they provided an early commuter’s caffeine fix on the way to the station, or acted as a cool place to nurse a single latte all afternoon while you work on an essay – cafés were a key part of all of our lives.
Within the urban landscape of Manchester, cafés like Fuel and Art of Tea offered some respite from the hectic life outside, acting as key community spaces in an otherwise disconnected world. Students, commuters, and creatives could all happily occupy one single binding space over a shared love of café culture.
Coffee has weirdly been a defining aspect of lockdown, with last summer’s whipped “Dalgona Coffee” going viral on TikTok and Instagram – along with baking banana bread and learning how to crochet.
While what we know in the UK as “café culture” is significantly different from a sunny, paved terrace in France or Italy (where they probably don’t even serve oat milk alternatives), Brits have curated their own little culture.
Cafés operate as a kind of “third space” between the spheres of home and work, where coffee-drinkers can express their sense of individuality in an otherwise homogenized environment of the high-street. Whether your coffee is small or large, dairy or milk alternative, with syrup or sugar, hot or iced – there is a choice for everyone to mix and match these options as a means of expressing their personality.
Lockdown restrictions and the closure of cafés, have forced us to significantly update our home-grown café culture. Some cafés, which didn’t decide to furlough their staff, are still up and running: with takeaways instead of staying-in.
It makes me wonder whether people, and students particularly, are still willing to spend that £2-something on a flat white if it’s divorced from the dim-lit room, the wooden tables, and the indie playlist which once surrounded them?
The in-and-out service, lack of conversation, and paper cups seem so far removed from the patio-seating, funky mugs, and social cigarette breaks which were previously tied to cafés.
A sit-down with a mate, as you recline back on upcycled armchairs, while discussing your summer festival plans, has now evolved to a walk in the park, chatting about the government and your lower back pain from endless Zoom calls, as you burn your hands on an un-sleeved cup.
Will what we once knew as café culture return once restrictions finally get lifted? Or, will we simply forget about this slow and simple pastime and replace it with ‘lads holidays’ and raves as a means of compensating for the lack of social life we have all endured this past year?
Who knows. But if you do enjoy café culture, or what it once was, try to support your local and independent coffee houses, because they may not be around for you when the world opens back up again.