In the world of clichés, imagining a Briton with his or her cup of tea is pretty much at the top of the list. But what may seem like an easy portrait of loyal British tea drinkers is actually true – the love story between the British and tea goes back a few centuries and it’s still going strong today.
The Brits drink on average 3 ½ cups of tea per day, that’s 130,000 tonnes in a year. As a whole, that’s 165 million cups of tea a day or in a larger sense, 62 billion cups per year. That’s quite a bit of tea.
Before hitting it off in Britain, tea took a while to catch on in Europe. There are a few historical mentions of Portuguese traders and missionaries who enjoyed drinking tea, but these were mostly samples and souvenirs brought back from their expeditions. It’s actually the Dutch who jumped on to the bandwagon first by establishing trading routes to the East in the last years of the sixteenth century in order to import tea from China to Holland. The warm drink soon became trendy for upper class Dutch as its price was still relatively high and of course, just like today’s trends, it spread out quickly to other countries in Western Europe afterward.
Tea was first publicized in a British newspaper in 1658 as ‘China Drink, called by the Chinese, Tcha, by other Nations Tay alias Tee’, it was made available in a coffee house and was sold more like a curiosity rather than a warm comforting everyday drink. It isn’t before the marriage of Charles II to Catherine of Braganza (a Portuguese princess with a profound love for tea), that tea caught on as a fashionable and trendy drink among the wealthy and courtesans. Seizing the opportunity and seeing how fast tea was becoming popular, the East India Company placed its first important order in 1664 for 100lbs of China tea, and began importing tea into Britain. A love story bloomed.
Due to high taxation, tea remained a favourite for British middle and upper classes. The taxes on tea were actually so high that in 1689 it virtually almost made sales stop, but thankfully the tax was slightly reduced a few years later, although still remaining too high for the average Briton.
Not wanting to be left out, folks turned to tea smugglers to get their hands on the drink and so, a million dollar business came to day. It is estimated that in the late eighteenth century the surprisingly well organized crime network was importing as much as 7 million lbs of tea annually.
But smuggled tea wasn’t exactly the best quality…or even tea. Leaves from other plants or even recycled tea leaves were dried and added back into batches to be resold. But the result often had a shady and unconvincing colour and so, smugglers turned to a poisonous copper carbonate and even sheep’s dung to obtain a colour that looked more like tea.
Concerned by the problems caused by smuggled tea, the government of the day in 1784 slashed the taxes on tea making it suddenly affordable for all and making tea smugglers jobless almost instantaneously.
During the nineteenth century tea solidified its presence in British culture and had become a staple in everyday life for all, regardless of class or stature. Charles Dickens for example, made it very clear in his literature that tea-drinking was omnipresent in the lives of his working class characters. It’s also during this century that Afternoon Tea and High Tea first started being practised in tea rooms, living rooms and dining room across Great Britain.
Keep Calm and Drink Tea
With the twentieth century comes two major World Wars during which the brave Britons stood by their favourite drink. Although not rationed during the First World War, the government stepped in to control importation and the price of tea, which had been steadily rising due to transport ships being sunk by German submarines. During the Second World War, the government introduced a 2oz tea ration for all in order to properly supply men on the front and reward those who stayed back to occupy vital jobs such as firemen. Although the war ended in 1945, it wasn’t until 1954 that the tea ration was lifted.
In the 1950s an American inventor revolutionized the tea scene: he invented the tea bag and the tea-drinking habits of all were changed!
As it stands today, the love affair between Britons and their cups of tea isn’t about to change. It’s now deeply anchored in British culture as a social drink, a comforting drink and even a healthy drink. It seems like nothing will come in between the British and tea.