Why the English Love Tea

Why the English Love Tea

"Accounting for Taste: British Coffee Consumption in Historical Perspective" by S. D. Smith, in Journal of lnterdisciplinary History (Autumn 1996), 26 Linnaean St., Cambridge, Mass. 02138-161 1.

Read Time:
1m 44sec

"Accounting for Taste: British Coffee Consumption in Historical Perspective" by S. D. Smith, in Journal oflnterdisciplinary History (Autumn 1996), 26 Linnaean St., Cambridge, Mass. 02138-1611.

Tea drinking, like roast beef and cricket, has long seemed an essential part of the British way of life. But it wasn't always so, observes Smith, a lecturer in economic histo- ry at the University of York. Until the early 1700s, coffee was king: the English con-sumed 10 times as much Java as tea. By the mid-1780s, however, tea was on top.

Tea had several advantages over coffee. It was easier to prepare, since no special grinding equipment was needed. It lacked coffee's unsavory association with London's "deca-dent" coffeehouses, where patrons often spiked their drinks with alcohol. Tea, by con- trast, was thought to have the "virtues of sobri- ety and morning alertness." Yet while Britain embraced the honey-colored brew, coffee remained the favorite on the Continent.

Why were British taste buds so different?

They weren't, Smith argues. The hallowed British taste for tea is in reality nothing more than a product of the law of supply and demand.

In the early 18th century, when coffee was still the British favorite, British duties on coffee and tea were compara-

ble, and, consequently,

so were retail prices,

Smith explains. But as

the century progressed,

the powerful British East

India Company, which

supplied tea from the

Orient, pressured Lon-

don to cut import duties

on its product, tea. The

private traders who

brought coffee from

Britain's West Indian

colonies did not wield as

much political clout. So tea prices dropped, and consumption increased. Coffee held its own until the War of Jenkins's Ear (1739-45) with Spain disrupted supplies. After the war, another cut in the duty on tea trimmed the ranks of coffee drinkers again. With tariff reform in the early 19th century, coffee briefly regained some customers. But coffee prices in England shot up after 1834, as slaves on coffee plantations in the British West Indies won their freedom. The price of Jamaican coffee, for example, rose by almost 40 percent during the 1830s. Tea's triumph was complete.

More From This Issue