Coffee or tea, madam?

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It’s rather strange to think about it, but I suppose I have been living through something of a revolution in hot drinks in the UK. Traditionally, we are considered to be a nation of tea drinkers, but now on my way to work, I suspect that the majority of travel mugs clutched by my fellow commuters contain a more stimulating coffee instead. In 2008, the UK started to import more tonnes of coffee (green and roasted) than tea. Of course, you get more cups out of a kilo of tea than you do out of a kilo of coffee, but the upward trend for coffee importation continues (FAOSTAT).













It used to be that the nearest my coffee drinking came to any kind of ceremony was if I happened to be the lucky person who got to pop the seal on a new jar of instant. Now, however, even if there isn’t a gadget in the kitchen, then there’s ususally a coffee shop nearby to provide you with your morning ritual and your perfect brew. In 17th and 18th century London and Oxford, coffeehouses were also the place for men to go and read the news, make financial deals, reason about academic subjects and perhaps even discuss something a little seditious. By the end of the 18th century, these coffeehouses had all but disappeared. Many factors have been suggested for their decline, including that printed news was easier to come by, and the development of gentleman’s clubs. Tea drinking was on on the rise as it became fashionable at court, as women could participate in a way that they couldn’t in coffeehouses, and of course, through the promotional of the British East India Company’s trading interests in tea from China and particularly from India. Names such as Assam, Darjeeling, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Kangra and Niligri became familiar in the UK through the tea gardens established there by the British in the 19th century.


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Easier to prepare, tea remained the hot drink of choice in the UK for about two centuries providing warmth, comfort and calories (with milk and sugar) with every cup. Many countries favour either tea or coffee at the expense of the other, and in the UK a 2012 YouGov poll still showed more people still rate a cuppa as their favourite hot drink (52% tea/ 35% coffee). The coffee shop sector is one of the strongest businesses in the UK economy, turning over £9.6 billion in 2017. So when you next get to the counter of a coffee shop, what will it be – coffee or tea?


Further reading

David Grigg (2002). The Worlds of Tea and Coffee: Patterns of consumption. GeoJournal 57; 283-294



5 thoughts on “Coffee or tea, madam?

    cathysrealcountrygardencom said:
    March 6, 2018 at 6:34 am

    Time to make a pot of tea!

      Rachel responded:
      March 7, 2018 at 12:25 pm

      Midday and I’m running on two cups of tea and one coffee!

    Megan said:
    March 6, 2018 at 1:42 pm

    Interestingly (and this is anecdotal evidence), the opposite seems to be happening in North America – to a degree at least.

    While few of my friends drink coffee, all of them drink tea. Possibly it has something to do with local demographics (large Asian population), but it could be to do with the sheer variety of teas available and the cultural importance in individuality/perception as sophisticated (coffee being a very everyman sort of drink). Coffees have a pretty similar taste profile, and the biggest differences seem to be intangibles – cost, location, ethical considerations – whereas tea blends come in a massive number of very different flavours, and are often cheap enough that one can experiment with preferences.

    It’s an odd sort of inversion.

      Rachel responded:
      March 7, 2018 at 12:35 pm

      That is intriguing. I think that loose-leaf and the preparation associated with it might be seen as classic elegance or stuffy and old-fashioned, depending on your standpoint, and that a coffee is perhaps viewed as more modern and sophisticated. A ‘builder’s tea’ is perhaps seen as our ‘Everyman’ drink, it doesn’t have the pretension of either of the others and maybe is something which is drunk more at home than when being social in cafes. I would say the big change in the UK happened after Starbucks arrived in 1998 heralding the rise of the coffeeshop over existing tearooms.

        Megan said:
        March 7, 2018 at 5:13 pm

        Ironically, I’d credit the change towards tea in NA to Starbucks as well – but as almost an inversion on the standard coffee shop, because you could take your frou-frou hot beverage to go and not have to drink it there.

        Now, if you’ll except me, I’m feeling rather thirsty.

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