It is the quintessential English stereotype. Everyone drinks tea. It’s the first little piece of trivia any foreigner gravitates towards in a conversation about the English. But is it true? And if it is, then why?
First off, is it really true that English people love tea? Well, of course, it varies from person to person. Not every English person loves tea – but a significant number of us do. According to the UK Tea and Infusions Association (as if the existence of this association does not speak for itself) the British (so we’re including Scotland and Wales here too) consume 165 million cups of tea a day. That is a lot of tea. To put it in perspective, the number of cups of coffee we consume per day is only 70 million. The same website also puts Britain as the number two tea drinking nation per capita in the world, behind only the Republic of Ireland – and let’s face it, we’re all basically from that same teeny tiny group of tea-loving islands. However, if you look elsewhere, the United Kingdom (Britain plus Northern Ireland) is ranked third, behind both Ireland and Turkey. Here is a fun map showing other tea-lovers worldwide. Either way, we are way up there. So it’s not just a stereotype – we love our tea, us Brits.
We also love our tea in a very specific way – made with a tea bag and finished with milk. Go elsewhere and they just won’t do it right. In America, you have to be extra careful – if you ask for tea in a restaurant they are more likely to bring you this than this.
American tea vs. English tea.
But anyway, back to the main topic of discussion here. We’ve established that the English really do love tea – or 84% of us do, anyway – so the question is, why do we love it?
Well, tea certainly wasn’t an English invention – we stole in from China, and it first came to our shores in the mid-1600s. For a long time, it was a fancy upper-class drink rather than the ubiquitous builder’s brew most Brits go for today – since it was a foreign import, it was only really available to society’s chosen few.
Once we get into the 1700s, though, we were already importing tea hand over fist, along with sugar, which was often added, along with milk, to black tea. Twinings – still a well-known tea brand – opened the doors of the first known tea shop in 1706, and the idea spread from there, overtaking coffee shops and gin houses in popularity.
So tea quickly became popular in England, and it has stuck ever since, inspiring the tradition of afternoon tea and becoming the drink of choice across every social class. There are plenty of reasons why tea became such a popular choice – for one thing, it became a cheap and easy option as soon as we stopped importing it from China and started growing it ourselves (in British-colonized India). Once the price was affordable to all, and tea shops began to spread across the country, it became a popular choice for workers. This was due to its stimulating properties, helping workers to boost their strength for a hard day’s labour. It also helped prevent disease, as boiling water before drinking it made it safe to consume, protecting people from diseases such as cholera, dysentery and typhoid. Plus, it just tasted good and went great with a delicious morning or afternoon snack.
Of course, another reason for tea’s popularity is just good advertising – England became a major international hub for tea trading (we all know about the famous tea taxes and the Boston Tea Party) and a lot of businesses sprung up around the business of tea. In more modern times, companies like McVitie’s have established their snacks as the perfect accompaniment for tea – tea and biscuits is a ritual for any self-respecting Englishman, and our deliciously dunkable biscuits are a product of our love of tea – and vice versa. One sells the other. Then there are advertising campaigns like tea cards in the 1940s-80s, collectibles aimed at children – and now worth a fair bit of cash.
There is also the beloved concept of afternoon tea – it is a tradition stemming from bored society ladies in the 1800s consuming cups of tea together with delicate sandwiches and cakes with groups of their lady friends to give them something to do with themselves in the afternoon. Of course, everyone loves an excuse for a drink and a snack in the afternoon, so it was a tradition that caught on – and it’s now a hallmark of English culture, though most of us settle for tea and biscuits and only go for an elaborate spread on rare, indulgent occasions.
So really, the English love tea because it is deeply ingrained in our history and it grew into a big industry across the country, which is still present and as strong as ever today. Besides, it is a soothing habit to get into – take a break and make a cuppa, with a biscuit to go along with it. What’s not to like? You know, what, give it a try and you’ll understand.