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United Kingdom's Tea History

Updated: May 24



Tea, next to the water, is the most extensively consumed drink in the world and can be found in almost 90% of all UK households. In Britain, around 165 million cups of tea are consumed in a day. This much amount of tea can fill up to 20 Olympic swimming pools! Yes, Brits have had a love affair with tea and it is still going strong, so much so that there’s a dizzying amount of options available to them. Before the British made tea popular, the beverage has long been consumed in many eastern cultures due to its healing benefits, among other aspects.


Despite that, the Brits are among third most prolific consumers of tea, behind Turkey and Ireland.


The first record of a Britisher consuming tea was found in Samuel Pepys’ journal dated 25 September 1660. The Englishman mentioned about a beverage (a China drink) that he had never drank before. Since that, for over 350 years, the people in Britain have had a lovely history with tea.



Tea wasn’t a British Staple until the 19th Century!

People associate afternoon tea with the British. However, the world’s most popular beverage hasn’t had that long of a history in the United Kingdom. It was only after the 17th century that tea became a fashionable beverage among the English upper class. Since tea wasn’t grown in the United Kingdom, it was subject to government taxes, making it relatively expensive for middle-income people to afford it. However, in the 18th century, smugglers brought tea supplies into the United Kingdom without paying any taxes. They began selling tea at inexpensive rates. As the 17th century neared an end, duties were lowered on tea. This was done to stamp out tea smuggling. As a result, tea became an affordable beverage among the people in the United Kingdom.


At the beginning of the 18th century, the government started the temperance movement with a goal to encourage middle-class Britons to consume tea instead of liquor as it was considered to be degrading their health. Therefore, tea shops were opened all across the country. In the late 1800s, tea became a popular beverage across all social classes.



Who brought it and who made it famous?

The East India Company first introduced tea to the Brits in the early 17th century. Tea was an expensive product and only the rich could afford it. People of the upper-class kept tea under lock and key. Charles II’s wife Catherine of Braganza introduced the tradition of drinking tea to the Royal Court. The habit was adopted by the nobles, aristocrats, and lords later.

According to the reports, the first tea shop was opened for ladies in the year 1717 by Thomas Twining. Slowly, considering the popularity, tea shops became a household name in Britain, making the beverage available to everyone. During the British Empire in India as well as their rule in China, they further developed their love for teas.





Tea Smuggling and Taxation

Tea became a popular beverage in the United Kingdom soon once it was introduced. People started serving tea in coffee houses, especially in locations where most business transactions occurred, including places of pleasure and relaxation. Tea was a beverage, which could only be afforded by upper-class people. Some middle-class people would buy tea to celebrate occasions. While men loved to sip their teas in public places, women preferred drinking tea in their own homes. Since tea was extremely expensive, it was yet to be streamlined among the working classes. It was followed by heavy taxation. In 1689, the first taxation on tea was introduced. It was as high as 25p in British Pounds. Soaring taxation almost stopped the sale of tea in the country. In 1692, considering people’s ignorance of one of the most expensive beverage, the government dropped the taxation to 5p in British Pound. And it wasn’t until 1964, taxation on tea was abolished. Before that, politicians were always tampering with the exact method and rate of taxation.




The types of tea in Britain

Today, The United Kingdom enjoys the taste of 1500 different flavours of tea. They all vary in colour, taste, and preparation style.


Chinese Teas:

China is known to be the birthplace of tea. Currently, it produces 18% of the world’s tea. The following are the two major types of teas from China loved in Britain:


  • Yunnan Tea: It is a black tea cultivated in the province of Yunnan. Yunnan tea is popular for its earthy, rich flavour, and is one of the favourites of Britons as they often call it ‘breakfast tea.’

  • Lapsang Souchong: Lapsang Souchong is probably the most popular tea in China, cultivated on the hills of north Fujian. It is known for its smoky aroma and flavour.


Indian Teas:

India is the second largest tea-producing nation in the world, exporting 1,325,050 tonnes of tea each year, exporting probably 14% of the world’s tea. The following are the Indian teas popular in the United Kingdom:


  • Assam Tea: This tea is known for its strong aromatic flavour, which is often enjoyed with milk.

  • Ceylon Tea: Ceylon tea has a slightly sharp flavour with a pinch of strong aroma that stands up well when sipped in any manner.

  • Darjeeling Tea: Darjeeling tea is the most popular of all teas in the United Kingdom. It is cultivated in the North-Eastern part of India. It is a perfect afternoon tea known for its light flavour.

  • Other types of Indian teas savoured in the United Kingdom include Ceylon Broken Orange Pekoe or Darjeeling Orange Pekoe. This type is known for its broad, large leaves but is not orange in flavour.


Modern-Day Tea Drinking in the United Kingdom

With the introduction of tea bags, tea sales took off the shelves in the 1970s. Today, it is the most loved beverage in the country. However, there are still debates going on about the way tea is consumed. People are still fighting over when to pour milk in the cup. Some say it should be put after pouring while others say it should be put before pouring. Well, it doesn’t really affect the taste, or does it? I leave you to mull over these questions and decide which side of the debate you lean towards. 


#kitchenkite #UKTEAHISTORY #TeaHistory

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