Tea is as ubiquitous in Britain as clouds. There is no drama too small or occasion too grand for the obligatory refrain of “let’s have a nice cup of tea” to be considered inappropriate. Tea has become so much a part of our lives, such a “British” drink, that during World War II Churchill is reputed to have said that it was more important than ammunition. We write songs about it, children play games with it, serving it to teddy bears and glass-eyed dolls, and we even named a time of day after it: teatime.
How did a drink made from a plant that originated somewhere in the forests of south-west China become a “British” drink?
Well, it started with the rolling of a king’s head and a young prince who was determined not to lose his. The king was King Charles I and the young prince was his son, Charles II. After his father’s execution, Charles fled Britain to live in exile in Holland. The Dutch were the first to import tea in commercial quantities from China, and they were enthusiastic about it, extolling its virtues. Charles adopted their enthusiasm and became a tea drinker.
In 1660 Charles was restored to his father’s throne and in 1662 he married a Portuguese princess, Catherine of Braganza. While Holland was the first country to trade in tea, the Portuguese were the first Europeans to discover the sea route to China, and one of the exotic imports they brought back was a strange beverage called tea. When Catherine tasted tea for the first time, she was immediately smitten. This meant that the King and Queen of England were influencers for tea and Britain was on its way to becoming a nation of tea drinkers.
Coffee or tea?
“You take coffee, I take tea, my dear”. Coffee was another new exotic drink that was being consumed with great gusto at the time tea arrived, and coffee houses sprang up all over London. These were rough and rowdy places where gentlemen did business and not a place for ladies. Men would buy tea for their wives to drink in the privacy and safety of their own homes. Wealthy women began to invite other ladies to their homes to experience this new drink and soon the British appetite for tea became insatiable.
How is tea drunk in Britain today?
What began as a luxury drink, enjoyed and celebrated only by royalty and the upper classes, is now ubiquitous. Along with talking about the weather, tea is one of the few experiences in Britain that cuts across social class, ethnicity and level of income. Putting the kettle on is a programmed response to almost every situation that occurs throughout the day, starting with a cup of Breakfast Tea straight after waking up.
Drinking tea with milk
Although adding milk is a great way to soften the taste of a bitter black tea, the reason the British started drinking tea with milk was not for the taste, but to prevent the cup from cracking under the heat. While drinking tea with milk is still popular in the UK, a 2018 YouGov survey found that most British tea drinkers now add the milk last.
Tea is very much a part of British culture, and British culture is still rooted in the class system. Although tea cuts across all classes, the type of tea drunk, how it is served and the manner in which it is taken indicate the social class of the drinker. While the finest loose-leaf Darjeeling teas and premium green, white and oolong teas are favoured by the upper classes, for most people in Britain “a nice cup of tea” would be cheap, industrially produced, strong black tea from a tea bag, taken with milk and possibly sugar to temper the bitter taste.