TING’s afternoon tea is stunning. It isn’t just that the restaurant is located on the upper floors of the Shard, meaning that the experience is accompanied by sweeping views of central London. From the server who quietly asks if she can bring a glass of champagne (the answer is always yes) to the tower of detailed, multicolored sweets, the entire experience is a luxurious excuse to linger over a cup of tea (or twelve). But eavesdropping reveals that most of the guests at this restaurant aren’t British. While it makes sense that the average London resident probably wouldn’t take off in the middle of the week to wolf down tea cakes, the lack of locals in the restaurant brings up an interesting question: How much tea does the average Brit actually drink?
At first glance, a lot. The beverage is woven through day-to-day life throughout Britain. Brigit’s Bakery runs a series of kid-friendly, cartoon-themed London bus tours, popular with local kids and parents, where guests’ tea cups and cakes are served in safety wells to avoid spillage. Since its opening in 2003, David Shrigley’s tea room Sketch has gained as much cultural cachet as any trendy bar in the city. And even the local gas stations serve a cup that bests any casual U.S. version. And why would any of this come as a surprise? After all, this is the nation that named an entire daypart after the drink and, in a genius move, paired the experience with a sidecar of sugar and snacks.
While many of my British friends like and certainly drink quite a bit of coffee, all of them have tea stories—from walking over to their grandparents’ house for a cup to being gifted with far too many fancy boxes of the stuff from well-meaning American friends. Tea is both the backdrop and foundation of everyday and extraordinary events alike, sometimes inserting itself into history. In 1990, near the close to a tight World Cup match between Germany and England, stressed-out Britons set an estimated 1.1 million kettles to heat, creating a record-breaking power surge that overwhelmed the power grid in the process.
“I’ve definitely been taken on at jobs because I’m good at making tea,” says Lucie Grace, a British writer now based in Thailand. “I had one job in a record shop and they gave me a trial shift. And then when they gave me the job, I asked them a few weeks later, and they told me, ‘Oh because you make really good tea.’ You can use it to show your skill and show your kindness. If you offer to make the tea, people will love you and appreciate you.”
“It’s kind of because British people can’t, you know, say affectionate things,” she adds, “but you can be affectionate through tea.”
Yes, Great Britain loves its tea. UK Tea & Infusions puts the number at 36 billion cups per year, and the fact the country has a “Tea & Infusions” association probably tells you everything you need to know about the national love affair. So perhaps a larger question needs to be asked: How did a beverage made from the leaves of a non-indigenous plant come to define so much about a nation?
It’s important when discussing tea not to gloss over the accompanying discussion of colonialism. In the 1600s, England was largely a coffee nation. Tea, on the other hand, was strictly a novelty, an “exotic” product the rich were able to procure from China. When getting it from the source became too expensive, they came up with a workaround by planting it in India, which was largely under the direct rule of England. (Tea wouldn’t become a staple in India until the 1960s when its production was finally mechanized.)
“Tea turned out to love growing in India, so the mass production of tea for the British market began,” says Anna Mejer, a University of Warsaw faculty member and food history obsessive who wrote a doctorate thesis about the food of Charles Dickens’ novels. “Since it was now much cheaper, more people were able to afford tea.”
Mejer says that tea used to be much more bitter. Milk and sugar helped take the edge off, but also added often much-needed calories to the cup.
“I once read a book that claimed consumption of tea in Victorian Britain was the ultimate colonial act—it combined tea from India, sugar from the West Indies, and the milk of the English cows,” Mejer says. “That last bit is somewhat far-fetched for me, but it’s true that the Brits were unique in the world in the terms of access to all of those goods.”
Combine the sudden mass-market availability of the product and the evergreen desire of the working class to mimic the habits of the wealthy, and the table was set for a national obsession. Tea clipper races were in vogue, as was betting on which company or ship would arrive first with this year’s shipment of tea. (One such ship, the Cutty Sark, is on display in London today.) Then, of course, tea became a notable flashpoint leading up to the American Revolutionary War, when the U.S. said no to colonial taxes during the Boston Tea Party and yes to a future in which Starbucks sells hot milkshake-like substances as tea.
Can you survive in the UK if tea isn’t your drink of choice? Well, obviously—one need to look no further than London flagship coffee shops Catalyst Café, Monmouth Coffee, and Campbell & Syme as proof that the craft coffee craze has hit England just as hard as anywhere else. (Meanwhile, chains like Café Nero, Costa, and even Pret a Manger serve crowds looking for a somewhat cheaper fix.) But among those who claim allegiance to both coffee and tea, an interesting pattern emerges in the stories they tell. While coffee serves the needs of the body, the caffeine hit in tea comes with a side of personal history, an emotional connection that goes well beyond a quick energy boost.
“I am a god-knows-how-many-cups-of-tea-a-day person,” says Dani Charlton, an assistant podcast producer at the BBC. “In Newcastle, where I grew up, we have a local company called Ringtons which delivers their blends door-to-door, so I grew up drinking it over the big supermarket or fancy brands. When I moved to London, I was so sad to have to drink any other regular tea. I now order it online at great delivery expense.”
“A thousand percent worth it, though,” Charlton adds. “No regrets—it tastes like home.”