Tea in Britain

Tea was first introduced to Britain in the mid 17th century with the marriage of King Charles II to a Portuguese princess. This brought the habit of drinking tea to the English court.

It was originally promoted as a medicinal beverage and by the end of the century it was widely drunk amongst the aristocracy. The East India Company, one of two companies to import tea to Britain, embarked on a PR campaign to promote it to the lower classes and thereby increase demand.

It went on sale in London’s coffee houses both dry and ready brewed to drink on the premises. In a few years time it had become enormously popular with the working classes but the price had risen astronomically as the government sought to benefit from the new market. A trade in tea smuggling began to avoid the absurd 119% duty charge and people began mixing it with other products and reusing leaves to save money.

Tea was now both a fashionable drink for the rich and an illegal trade and popular drink for the lower classes. The upper echelons of British society created a whole new set of customs around tea drinking which still apply today.

How to drink tea – the British way

The traditional and most common way for British people to drink their tea is with milk. How you prepare the drink depends on your social status.

If you are rich (and therefore upper class) your bone china will be good quality and able to withstand extreme temperatures without cracking. To demonstrate this people would pour the tea first and then add the milk.

If you are poor (lower class) then your cups will be a lower quality and may crack at a high temperature so you add the milk first.

Tea can be served at any time of day but the tradition of afternoon tea has become a special treat. In the early 1800’s Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford came up with the concept of having tea in the late afternoon to bridge the gap between luncheon and dinner, which was often served late. What began as a practical implementation soon became a fashionable ritual and an excuse for ladies to socialise, often apart from the company of men.

Ladies would make a great show of unlocking their ornate tea chests and spooning the leaves into the pot. Servants were not normally entrusted with access to the tea chest as the tea was considered too valuable and easy to steal.

Afternoon tea now commonly comprises of a selection of delicate sandwiches, pastries and scones with jam and cream as well as the obligatory pot of tea. It is still especially popular with ladies and often treated as a special occasion rather than an everyday occurrence.

Modern tea

When tea first came to Britain we already had coffee and the coffee houses of London had become an important social and intellectual phenomenon. The popularity of tea was such that it overtook coffee to become the nation’s favourite drink and this has been the case ever since.

In recent years coffee has been making a comeback with many chain and independent cafes specialising in coffee and serving a wide range of types. Coffee has become trendy. Friends meet for coffee instead of tea, colleagues ‘grab a coffee’ for informal meetings and it is the expected choice of after dinner drink. Italian bistros and even a few notable cafe chains promote a sophisticated image of coffee. Tea, although still popular at home, seems to have fallen by the wayside despite the continuing tradition of afternoon tea.

People are happy to pay £2-3 pounds for a cup of coffee but tea generally remains much cheaper. There is not the same level of equipment or skill required to make a cup of tea. For most people it is still a case of pouring boiling water over a teabag and letting it brew. With coffee there is an excitement about the process of grinding beans and frothing milk. Perhaps it is the variety of coffee available to us that has led us to think of it as a special treat rather than the old fashioned cups of tea we used to prefer.

Tea still has a place in British society. The glamour originally imbued upon the drink by the upper classes may have diminished but in the average British home it is still the favourite drink du jour. Mornings often begin with a cup of tea. When friends come to visit at home someone will always put the kettle on. In cold or wet weather people enthuse about the comfort a steaming mug of tea can provide. In case of illness, stress or emergency, a cup of tea is also amongst the first remedies to be offered. It seems that coffee is now for treats whereas tea has become a necessity and a cure-all.

At the same time, a small revolution is happening amongst tea drinkers. The traditional brew is no longer the only kind of tea on offer. Old fashioned blends like Earl Grey are being rediscovered. The health benefits of green and herbal tea have given them prominence in supermarkets. If you go to Claridges in London for afternoon tea you will find an amazing array of flavours and blends. At Whittard, a large chain of shops specialising in tea and coffee, you will find a similar selection ranging from Chai through to Rooibos and many other unusual flavours.

The result of this revolution is that tea is becoming exciting and glamorous again. The effects of the revolution have not been far reaching however and most homes still rely on the traditional blends of black tea that come in tea bags. Even when faced with a dazzling variety of teas many people will still prefer a ‘normal’ blend and ask the waiter for a pot of ‘normal tea’.

Perhaps one of the charms of tea is its capacity to stay the same. As many Brits turn to tea in times of crisis there must be something inherently soothing and reassuring about the drink. We are told it has health benefits. Each cup of tea has less caffeine than a cup of coffee so you won’t have to worry about it making you hyper or unable to sleep.

It can become a ritual – just you, a cup of tea and a bit of peace and quiet – a chance to relax and take time out from your busy week. A cup of tea can also be a gentle wake up call. Not like the shout you get from a cup of coffee! It may have lost much of its glamour but we still love it like a favourite childhood toy and it is hard to imagine Britain without it.

From high fashion to simple reassurance, tea is a hard habit to break in Britain.