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Some habits die hard: the truth about Oxford’s Coffee Culture

The baristas in Cornmarket Pret know my coffee order on sight. My friends rarely see me without a strong black Americano in hand. You might say I’m an extreme case, or express concern that coffee can be such a fundamental part of my personality. But is my love of caffeine really so rare, or merely symptomatic of a wider Oxford coffee culture which affects us all?

To find out, I did some digging into the coffee habits of the average Oxford student, including our key motivations for drinking the stuff, our patterns of consumption, and its bearing on our daily activities. After polling over 300 Cherwell readers on social media, the results have been strikingly diverse, showing that Oxford students have a far more complex relationship with coffee than you might expect… 

Why do we drink coffee?

First, I asked participants to identify the primary purpose of their caffeine consumption. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a student population weighed down with intense academic pressure, 71% of respondents said they mainly drink coffee to help them work. Well, as far as I’m concerned, it’s true: few things beat coffee for getting you through a gruelling 9am tutorial. At the same time, however, this reaffirms the place coffee has come to occupy in “hustle culture”. Many of us see it as a performance drug rather than something purely enjoyable, which we accept without thinking here in Oxford.

Perhaps this explains my surprise when some cafés I’ve visited abroad haven’t actually served Americanos. Indeed, cafe latte only seems to be the status quo in quite a lot of European cities, and my compulsion to chug black coffee through the day has been looked on with varying degrees of incredulity by the continent’s most artisanal baristas.

For some Oxford students, however, all hope is not lost, as 25% of survey respondents said they primarily drink coffee when meeting friends. This reveals a more refined and continental attitude to coffee, and we can’t deny that this is nice: for many, gossip about nasty tutors and relationship drama is infinitely enhanced by a chocolatey cappuccino or oat milk latté.

But the third “key motivator” for caffeine consumption among Oxford students is arguably the most interesting, with the remaining 4% confessing that they mainly drink coffee for political advancement. Yes, as Oxford Union hacks well know, “to coffee” is a #VERB. These political grifters and officership aspirants have generally mastered the art of hustling (requires coffee) with the aim of winning friends (also requires coffee). And thus, without Oxford’s abundant landscape of well-situated cafés, who knows? Election season may be at risk of grinding to a halt altogether…

Coffee or sleep?

But what does this reliance on coffee – whatever its reason – actually do to us as human beings? Determined to answer a question my wellwishers ask periodically, I wanted to set this in the context of what Oxford students think about sleep. When asked in a concurrent poll, 77% of respondents said they don’t feel they get enough sleep during term. In fact, 56% (159) of a total 287 students asked say they get less than the recommended eight hours of sleep per night.

And while I don’t have precise statistics for how much of a direct impact coffee has on this, I did receive a number of comments in response to the overall poll which elucidated:

“Coffee is a necessity to survive here” – 3rd year, St John’s

“My espresso machine is as vital to my functioning as my laptop” – 2nd year, Merton

“I would fall asleep in labs without it” – 2nd year, Oriel

One student even told me: “Corpus has a free coffee machine… it’s like the Hunger Games!”

Speaking from personal experience, it’s hard to deny that Oxford’s love of coffee is inextricably linked to our penchant for regular all-nighters at any cost. 

Favourite coffee shops?

So which establishments profit from our love of coffee and which are Oxford students’ favourite haunts? I personally have no clear-cut answer in this regard. As a firm believer in art of the political (or journalistic!) coffee, I’ve actually drawn up a “Coffee Map” of Oxford, which helps me choose where to meet people based on security, atmosphere, and intimacy of location.

However, there are some places which can’t go unmentioned. Pret a Manger, for starters, is a staple of many students’ existence: with three of them in the town centre to choose from, this outcome was unavoidable. As of last year, we even have a designated Facebook community (OxPret) which was set up to quickly inform other coffee lovers about which store has ice at any given time, and other such things.

As such, Pret will always occupy a special place in my heart; not only does its £30 per month subscription help you to get hooked on up to five barista-made drinks per day, but it works out as amazing value for money once you do so. (Without it, five single espresso shots would come to £11.75 per day at the current rate.)

31% of survey respondents evidently reached the same conclusion, saying that they’ve had a Pret subscription at some point in the last year.

Nonetheless, Pret has also gained a reputation for being a little basic: with the Cornmarket outlets becoming a thoroughfare of zombified students every rush-hour, it’s not always the best place for a sophisticated, sit-down coffee.

Of the other, more picturesque options around the city centre, 34% of the 88 students who told me their favourite coffee shop rated Jericho Coffee Traders as a clear winner, with Gulpfiction, Blacksheep, Queen’s Lane Coffee House, and Coffeesmith’s also receiving honourable mentions.

I was pleased that this reflects my own tastes exactly; Pret gets me through the day, but JCT’s “Adventure Blend” is my guilty pleasure. Perhaps this was inevitable – as an Oriel student living right next to JCT, I’ve been there since Day One and haven’t looked back.

Together, these polls show just how rich and multilayered Oxford’s coffee landscape is, and the number of different student perspectives I’ve heard has been fascinating. So, regardless of whether you think I’m an obsessed caffeine addict or a fulfilled coffee enjoyer (not mutually exclusive, by the way), I hope these insights give you something interesting to read over your morning latté.

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