The top two bestselling hot beverages in the UK and America are tea and coffee. But does the quintessentially English association with the cup of tea still hold true? And do Americans, usually associated with coffee, ever drink tea? I’m going to have a look at the history of each drink in each country to try and get an answer. I’ll talk about coffee in a second article soon, but first, it’s time for Tea…
The cup of tea was something of a latecomer to the shores of Britain. The custom of drinking tea dates back to the third millennium BC in China, but it was not until Portuguese and Dutch traders first imported tea to Europe in the 17th century that it appeared in England. And it wasn’t for another century that the biggest tea trading organization of the Industrial Revolution, the East India Company, began to make money out of tea’s rising popularity. Somewhat ironically, it was the London coffee houses that were responsible for introducing tea to England. Coffee house merchant Thomas Garway sold both liquid and dry tea to the public as early as 1657. Three years later he issued a broadsheet advertising tea as “making the body active and lusty”, and “preserving perfect health until extreme old age.”
By 1700 over 500 UK coffee houses were selling tea as well as coffee. By 1750 tea was outselling coffee and had become the lower classes’ most popular drink, being cheap and easily available.
According to the UK Tea and Infusions Association (https://www.tea.co.uk/tea-faqs), the British drink 165 million cups daily, amounting to 60.2 billion per year. Although China, India and Kenya produce the most tea in the world (China produced 2, 230,000 tonnes in 2015), it is the Republic of Ireland that drinks the most tea per head of population, followed by Britain. Of all the tea drunk in Britain, 96% is brewed by using a tea bag rather than tea leaves, and 98% of all tea made is served with milk rather than black with lemon, honey or single infusion.
In America, it is coffee that is considered the national beverage. It poses the question, why haven’t they embraced tea in the same way as the UK? America was introduced to tea at the same time as the British discovered the country, after all. However, the War of Independence between Britain and America that erupted shortly afterwards meant that trade routes providing tea were restricted. Britain controlled the shipping routes to and from America and so very little tea reached the US, making it hard to get, and therefore expensive. As a result, during this time a lot of Americans switched over to drinking liberty tea, which is mainly made from a goldenrod plant. When the American Revolution was over, the shipping lines did return, and Americans did go back to drinking tea, but a new war broke out in 1812 and the lines closed again. It meant that the next generation of Americans had grown up during the American Revolution and spent a lot of their formative years not drinking tea. And because they’d grown up without much of the drink, they didn’t consider it as important as the British did.
Today, tea is a popular drink in the US, especially in the American South, but they usually drink it iced rather than hot. Although cold or iced tea is drunk in the UK, it has had little impact on the traditional hot cuppa, whether served in a cup and saucer, a mug, or a takeaway beaker.
Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.