Sunday, May 08, 2016

Mea Cuppa - The Decline of Tea Drinking in Britain

On Twitter last week, Peter Sipe asked me what I thought about a Washington Post article about the decline of tea drinking in Britain (apparently, it's dropped from 68 grams per week in 1974 to 25 grams per week 40 years later). I read it and shuddered with horror. Without a single shot being fired, the British have become a nation of coffee drinkers. It's as if the ravens have left the Tower of London.

The Washington Post claims that tea drinking is the most British thing there is, so what has gone wrong? I think there are several possible answers:

1. We've gone to the dogs

Tea was a quintessentially British beverage because it offered a mild, barely perceptible stimulation, as restrained as the twitching upper lip of a dying Spitfire pilot. It was a drink that vicars and maiden aunts could consume it by the gallon without unleashing repressed passions. Labourers cherished it because the act of drinking a cuppa offered a brief, elysian respite from the drudgery of their working day.

In recent years, we've turned our backs on moderation and self-control, placing more value on self-expression and cheap sentiment. We began to let it all hang out around the same time that city gents stopped wearing bowler hats (if I had the time, I'm sure that I could plot out a causal relationship) and this was accompanied by a growing preference for stimulants. The 'nice cup of tea' and the traditional pint of warm, weak beer became replaced by amphetamine-like coffees and ever-stronger alcoholic beverages.

We went from becoming a nation that kept calm and carried on through the Blitz to one that wept like infants when Princess Diana died. We've gone to the dogs.

2. Travel has broadened the mind

Around the same time that gentlemen were abandoning their bowler hats, British people were discovering the delights of having a summer holiday in a place where it didn't rain half the time. They loved the climate, but weren't so keen on the cuisine - "Ooh Joan, you can't get a decent cuppa anywhere and the food's so garlicky". After a life of eating bland, overcooked food and weak tea, Mediterrnean cuisine must have been as overstimulating as LSD.

But after a while, people got a taste for 'foreign muck' and the supermarkets saw a growing demand for more exotic dishes, while old favourites like suet puddings, faggots and fish paste sandwiches saw a steady, inexorable decline. Our changing tastebuds, once shaped by a national cuisine of flavourless food and drink, now sought something a little stronger than tea.

3. Tea has got worse while coffee has become nicer

Half a century ago, a cup of tea would have usually been made in the traditional way, with loose leaves in a warmed pot, brewed for at least two minutes before being served in decent china. On the other hand, a cup of coffee would usually look and taste like washing-up water.

Then two things happened: some bastard invented the teabag and coffee began to become drinkable.

The big coffee revolution took place in the mid-80s, coinciding with the advent of yuppies. I'm pretty sure of this because when I went to university in Wales in the early 80s, coffee in cafes was usually undrinkable, but when I returned to London in 1987, everyone seemed to be drinking cappuccinos. I felt as if I'd been away for 20 years.

Coffee became seen as the drink of the cosmopolitan, go-getting white collar worker, while tea was the choice of builders and old people (there isn't time to venture into the dark world of herbal tea here, but it was the drink of choice of some of the worst people I've ever worked with - individuals who'd perfected passive aggressive behaviour into a martial art).

Those are my three main theories. I'm not sure which one is the nearest to the truth.

I don't have strong feelings about the relative merits of drinking tea versus coffee. I like both, but I dislike the coffee culture that has sprung up during the last 20 years. I'm annoyed by seeing people walk around clutching cardboard cups; perhaps because it represents that whole '24/7' culture of being permanently on the go. Good people fought for their right to have a tea break. Everyone should stop and sit down for 15 minutes.

I also hate the wanky 'barista' nonsense, as if operating a coffee making machine is a specialist occupation, like tree surgery and stonemasonry. And why is there so much choice? Maybe we did need something more imaginative than black/white/with/without sugar, but if I offer to buy someone a coffee, I don't expect to have to remember some nonsense about a double skinny mocha decaf latte while I approach the counter. It's symptomatic of a spoilt brat consumer culture, in which all needs and inclinations must be catered for.

On the other hand, tea is the drink of a civilised nation. Like coffee it has caffeine, but at a level where it feels like a relaxant rather than a stimulant. Having a cup of tea isn't just about drinking; it's about stopping and gathering's one's thoughts. Unless you have a cast iron esophagus, a cup of tea cannot be drunk quickly and that is one of its greatest virtues.

The future looks grim, but the tide may turn and the new generation of young people may turn their backs on skinny mochas, tattoos and long beards. I live in hope. In the meantime, my household will continue to drink tea in the afternoon, accompanied by a slice of something nice.

I will finish with this homage to tea by Chap Hop artist Professor Elemental:


David Gouldstone said...

There's a terrific song by (jazz musician) Django Bates about how to make a cup of tea, called 'The Importance of Boiling Water'; it's on his album 'Like Life'. For the record (the CD?) I'm not a fan of the method he advocates, leaving it to brew for three minutes etc; it's a slipping of standards, I know, but I really do very much prefer the teabag (Lady Grey if you're asking) vigorously dunked for about 15 seconds.

Anonymous said...

Nothing is really new, in the 17th and 18th Centuries coffee houses proliferated in London, in particular.

Personally, I prefer a cup of Dargeeling.

Well done for complaining, I do agree with you, especially about walking around with a cardboard cup.

Dale said...

How right - and righteously angry - you are!

I agree that the man (had to be a bloke) who invented teabags could not pick out his father in a police line-up.

Factors influencing the decline in proper tea drinking include the rise of the one-person household, with the sad single bag going into the sad single mug instead of the cheerful teapot, and also the bullish world-wide PR campaign for coffee, in which my own Kiwi countrymen have played a distasteful part.

A major factor, however, would be Margaret Thatcher; crushing the unions meant the disappearance of the hard-won tea break from the workplace - now firms come equipped with a coffee machine or water boiling device in place of a tea room. One slinks in, solo, and grabs a miserable cup of warmish ersatz and then back onto the treadmill; breaks of any kind are frowned upon. Yes, another thing we can blame on the Iron Maiden. She made the Boston Tea Party look like beginners.

As an incorrigible knitter of artistic tea cosies, works of art now spurned by an uncaring nation, I can only say: Britons! Get a grip on your heritage! Put tea back on the menu before you forget your roots! [fades up Land of Hope and Glory...]

Anonymous said...

We have gone to the dogs - we're all going to hell in a handcart and you're quite right, it was the falling to bits at Diana that set us off down the road of these outpourings of public grief and the like. What happened to that good old British reticence and resilience??


Rog said...

What a stout fellow you are Mr Steerforth. Very sound on the Barista nonsense - I also loathe the coffee purchasing experience which always seems to take ages because they imagine it's some sort or theatrical experience as they pratt about with hot machinery. And the fact that a local cyclist chap takes pictures of his coffee cup every morning and has 2500 followers on Instagram makes me have serious concerns for the future of the human species.

Lucy R. Fisher said...

As some genius pointed out, a latte served by a barista often tastes like "lukewarm Mellow Bird's". I said I preferred a caff where at least you can GET lukewarm Mellow Bird's. And the tea! Coffee shops can't make tea. The strongest on offer is usually English Breakfast (as abroad). It is even made, continental style, with warm water, not boiling. No wonder people don't want to drink it.

At friends' houses, when I ask for a strong cup of tea I get: an English Breakfast bag dunked for a nanosecond, followed by a tiny splash of milk. Well, that makes it "strong tea", doesn't it?

Dear friends: the bag must be PG, the water must be boiling. Slosh the bag around a bit, then add quite a lot of milk. Slosh the bag around a bit more until the tea attains the colour of a pair of 70s tights (American Tan). Remove the bag and add a slosh more milk.

When all the caffs have become cafes, where are the men in hiviz vests going to go?

Erika said...

I blame teabags. Floor sweepings rather than good leaf tea. Bleeech. I use either a cup strainer or my grandfather's little brown teapot.

Coffee in the morning (admitting to an espresso habit), tea in the afternoon. Also - IT survives on coffee. But just like a decent cuppa, it should be appreciated, not swilled down.

Annabel said...

I hate the whole Costa/Starbucks experience too - and only ever drink coffee as a double espresso after a good meal. When out, I always choose tea but just half a cup of water so I have a vague chance of it being even a halfway strong enough brew.

I find Twinings everyday makes an acceptable cup when I don't have time to brew loose-leaf, but often use 2 teabags in a big mug! I'm still adapting to the taste of tea without sugar too, having recently given it up.

I have noticed recently that more different teas (excluding all fruit ones which are NOT tea) are coming available in supermarkets - so maybe the market is picking up at the higher end which is nice.

Anonymous said...

Coffee in the morning, tea in the afternoon.

Stanmer House in the vid - your manor.


martine said...

I always brew my tea with loose leaves in a warmed pot. When on holiday last year I was given a pot of warm water with a teabag on the side and I less than politely informed the lady that it was not how you made tea!

Generation8 said...

I was appalled when I read this too. I immediately started a fight back and had three cups between waking and starting work, instead of the usual two.

Desperate Reader said...

I would argue that coffee is a better accompaniment to most cake or pastry's than tea, but tea is much nicer to drink on its own. nothing good seems to come in paper or cardboard cups. I don't mind teabags (Yorkshire) for a basic cuppa, partly because they normally have quite a bit of Assam in them which is the tea that tastes most tea like to me. I was given an old silver teapot a couple of years ago along with some F&M's Old Silver Teapot blend, it tastes markedly better made in a silver rather than China pot - which was a nice surprise.

Peter Sipe said...

Much wisdom here. I especially like your point about gathering one's thoughts.

I've been indifferent to tea, but then again, I've been making it all wrong: warm water, tea bags, and whatever else the prosecution says. As for coffee, I don't like bad coffee, but my powers of discernment stop beyond the level of "good."

This discussion sent me back to "Confessions of an English Opium-Eater," for I remember being surprised by how highly Mr. DeQuincey spoke of a substance not indicated in the title:

“From the latter weeks of October to Christmas Eve, therefore, is the period during which happiness is in season, which, in my judgment, enters the room with the tea-tray; for tea, though ridiculed by those who are naturally of coarse nerves, or are become so from wine-drinking, and are not susceptible of influence from so refined a stimulant, will always be the favourite beverage of the intellectual; and, for my part, I would have joined Dr. Johnson in a bellum internecinum against Jonas Hanway, or any other impious person, who should presume to disparage it.”

Steerforth said...

David - I'm guilty of vigorously dunking a teabag in lieu of a brew, when time doesn't allow a more leisurely approach, but I always feel bad afterwards.

Toffeeapple - Quite true and perhaps, three hundred years ago, people were complaining about the way we had abandoned a good old English cup of coffee for this newfangled thing from the east.

Dale - Your tea cosy has graced many a pot in our house and I'm very glad that you're fighting the good fight in southern hemisphere. The outcome isn't inevitable, particularly as the arabica bean is now under threat and coffee prices look set to rise. As for the teabreak, I think it became seen as emblematic of the workshy, clock-watching culture that was widespread in the 1970s, but we've gone from one extreme to another, where people now often work through their lunches.

Kaggsy - For a brief period I wondered if there was something wrong with me when Diana died, as I felt no desire to join the mass orgy of grieving. I remember feeling very sorry for her sons, but on a personal level she meant nothing to me (I also wondered if the money spent on the thousands of bouquets of flowers wouldn't have been better spent on charity). In retrospect, the whole thing looks like mass hysteria.

Rog - The coffee photos baffle me, but so many people do it, I end up wondering if I'm the one who's at fault. Nearly every picture has that leafy/fractal thing in the froth - the pattern that some people wanted to turn into a new New Zealand flag. As for our friends the baristas, I agree that they should stop faffing around and get a move on.

Lucy - My mother used to give me a flask of tea, but she left the teabag in so by the time I drank it, it had been brewing for three hours. Nothing has ever tasted quite as strong since. However, I agree that if you're going to have a teabag, PG is pretty good - "It's the taste".

Erika - I'm the same: always coffee in the morning, but NEVER in the afternoon.

Annabel - I'm down to half a teaspoonful of sugar, but I can't quite make that leap. I know I should. And I agree about the fruit teas - they are not tea!

Bob - Yes, he's a local chap; lives in Brighton.

Martine - I think people need to know that warm water is completely unacceptable. The alchemy of infusion depends on boiling water, which is why we warm the pot.

Martin - I'm very glad to hear it. With three cups under your belt, you must have been in splendid form at work!

Desperate Reader - Now you mention it, I've had some first rate cups of tea in tea shops that use silver pots. Perhaps it's something to do with the heat transference of metal versus china. I shall be looking up silver tea pots on eBay later.

Peter - I didn't know what a good cup of coffee tasted like until I travelled around Europe and found that even the most humble railway cafe served something that tasted gorgeous. The nearest I can get to it here is the flat white. I hope you give tea another chance - boiling water and a decent brewing time will make all the difference. It should be full bodied, not insipid and lukewarm. Thanks for the great DeQuincey quote, which so eloquently vindicates what I've tried to say.

tristan said...

anyone who took their o level chemistry fifty years ago will know that if a t-bag is to succeed then first of all you must thoroughly pre-heat the cup and the spoon with boiling water ... only then will you be able to sustain the tea making ingredients at their optimum temperature whilst you assault the bag with the spoon ... s'obvious, innit ?

Anne Roy said...

I make 'real' tea at home ... the loose stuff ... Assam for the early morning, in a properly warmed teapot.

I have a cup of coffee after breakfast (Bodum press, another cup with my elevenses

then some Earl Grey at 4 p.m.

We do have some teabags in the house ... Tetley which are far nicer than PG Tips ...

tea is wonderful ... it knows ... if you are hot it cools you, if you are cold it warms you, if you distressed it calms you & if sluggish gives one a boost ...

Nicholas Mapstone said...

Loose tea in a Chatsford infuser placed in a mug . Nothing else needed. Tea made in teapots always ends up too cold.

Canadian Chickadee said...

Gosh, Steerforth. Dire straits indeed. In the main, I am inclined to agree.

Even though I love tea, sometimes it's difficult to find a decent cup of it when out, especially in North America where cafes and restaurants are fond of dangling a limp tea bag in a mug of lukewarm water and calling it good.

There are a few shops that still serve decent tea, but they are few and far between. And even when visiting my sister in England, it's easier to ask for coffee -- you get fewer stares that way, and it's usually hot and palatable. But I still like tea best. In fact, today I made an emergency dash to the shops to get tea, as we'd run out and there wouldn't be any for later this afternoon. And we can't let that happen. After all, standards must be maintained!

Personally, I blame Starbucks. Apparently they are a good company to work for, and it's true, their coffees are good (if a tad on the expensive side) but you still can't beat a really good cup of tea. Or at least In My Humble Opinion

helenalex said...

As I recall, fish paste sandwiches had quite a lot of flavour to them.

This was not really a good thing.

Nige said...

I blame The Archers. Have you noticed how everyone in Ambridge - even the most unlikely people: yokels, oldsters, etc - drinks 'coffee' (heaven knows in what form) all the time, almost never tea. This has been going on for years and is one of many disturbing features of life in Ambridge.

Anne Roy said...

Mr Mapstone ... tea keeps very well in a Chatsworth (I have two) teapot with a cosy ... a bachelor tea cosy which does not constraint the spout nor the handle.

Steerforth said...

Tristan - It should be obvious. I wonder if those coffee shops that serve warm water are part of a conspiracy to discredit tea.

Anne - I have a Nespresso coffee in the morning - always two capsules to give me a kickstart. As for tea, I'm on a never ending quest to find the right tea. Assam doesn't have enough complexity but I like the strength. English Breakfast is a bit weak, but not as bad as Darjeeling. I used to be obsessed with Earl Grey and Lapsang, but have plainer tastes these days.

Nicholas - Now that's an idea. Less of a fag than a pot. I'm tempted.

Carol - I generally avoid coffee shops, partly because two of the main ones - Caffe Nero and Starbucks - don't pay their taxes, but also because they can't compare to the delights of a decent teashop, with homemade cakes and proper teapots. mouth's watering just at the thought of it.

Helenalex - Yes, you're right, they did. I remember being offered a choice between fish paste or Sandwich Spread, which was like being asked to choose between being punched in the face or the stomach. Horrible.

Nige - I suppose that's part of the attempt to demonstrate that The Archers is moving with the times, as if that's why anyone listens to it.

Anne - I have a superb one knitted and brought over from New Zealand by a reader of this blog. They are splendid things.

Canadian Chickadee said...

And after reading your comment about coffee shops vs. tea shops, now my mouth is watering too! There is one trea shop a few miles from here, and I may have to go and look it up soon. xoxox

Ange said...

I can report from Melbourne, Australia, that the battle has been well and truly lost here. Not a day goes by without the media carrying on about Melbourne's coffee culture. Remaining tea drinkers feel left out in the cold. Even within my family my own parents and previously dedicated tea drinking siblings have abandoned the teapot. While I can tolerate the workplace teabag ( and UHT milk) we are wedded to our stainless steel teapot and loose leaf Nerada black tea at home. We have a beautiful wedgewood teapot given as a wedding gift almost 25 years ago that has never been used due to my husband's complete contempt for China teapots. We even have a small stainless travelling teapot that goes with us on our travels (or if baggage allowances won't allow, we have been known to buy a new teapot first thing on arrival). Strangely, despite the shrinking proportion of teapot using tea drinkers, tea cosies seem to be rising in popularity. Have a look on the knitting website Ravelry for a wonderful variety that you can knit yourself - some patterns free, some for purchase (including my daughter's bagpipes tea cosy that she designed herself (apologies for the plug).

Roger C said...

One of the staging posts on the Decline-of-Tea Trail must surely have been the invention and marketing of the Teasmaid. This device doubled, you'll recall, as an alarm clock and labour-saving device. Tea was freshly-brewed (but with water stale from having been in its reservoir since bedtime) and poured ready for consumption at the exact point of waking. My parents had one in the '60s and thought it was the ultimate bee's knees. But if ever there was a point in the history of beverages - and tea in particular - when the ramparts of "cool" were comprehensively abandoned to coffee, this was it.
Another jolt, as you've suggested, Steerforth, came with the imposition, probably by freaks and weirdos living in a world where Tofu is an acceptable mode of sustenance, of the "tea" word on a wide range of unrelated and uniformly disgusting drinks. Beginning - but alas not ending - with "fruit" teas.
And how could the introduction of stainless steel to the tea shops of England do other than cause irreparable damage to the standing of the traditional teapot itself? It became lodged in the minds of millions of us that ALL teapots would dribble, leak and generally cause tea table chaos as stainless steel teapots invariably do. And so died a tradition...
Ah well. It wasn't always so, as Jack Buchanan reminds us from 1935.

Steerforth said...

Ange - I can understand it happening in Sydney, but I had hoped that Melbourne would resist this sensation seeking culture. You'll just have to keep your heads down until the coffee shortages begin - which I'm told will happen - and the baristas have to retrain as tea wallahs. I think you've shown a remarkable degree of tolerance, putting up with UHT milk - no tea drinker should have to endure it. On the subject of UHT, this clip from Father Ted always amuses me:

Roger C - I must admit, I'd completely forgotten about the leaky aspect of the stainless steel teapot, but I'm now revisiting a painful montage of embarrassing teashop moments. As for the Goblin Teasmaid, it was the epitome of 60s/70s chic. I imagine that Mike Gambit in the New Avengers probably had one in his garish batchelor pad. I remember wishing that my parents would buy one.

The Jack Buchanan clip is wonderful; I've loved his voice ever since I first heard Goodnight Vienna. Thank you.

The Poet Laura-eate said...

Quite right. Johnny Foreigner has a lot to answer for though I'm a hot choccie aficionado myself. And it's JUST as hard to find a good cup of that as it is to find a good cup of tea, despite the apparent popularity of chocolate.

Love Professor Elemental and his superb music video (filmed at Stanmer House). Well worth seeing live. Echoes of a young Leonard Rossiter in his performance.

Dale said...

Now here's a coincidence.

I was DuckDuckGoing to find the etymology of the excellent expression "oojah cum spiff', and I incidentally uncovered the sizzling information that P G Wodehouse was the first writer to use the word "cuppa".

Thought you'd like it.

SmitoniusAndSonata said...

Does anyone remember Camp Coffee ? Any sort of tea was preferable !

Steerforth said...

Laura - I think hot chocolate is often scorched and/or watery and over-sweetened. Finding a good one is very hit and miss. I've had gorgeous ones from vending machines and terrible ones in cafes, so there's no telling when the chocolate Rapture will arrive.

Dale - I hope you had safe search on. I often Google innocent phrases, only to discover that they are slang for the most extraordinary deviant acts.

Smitonius - I remember it being advertised, as if it was the drink of choice for cosmopolitan Froncophiles. Fortunately, I never had to drink it.