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What’s Happened to the Traditional British Cuppa?

Stoller infront of tea shop
The UK needs to nurture younger tea drinkers

The traditional English cup of tea, once considered a necessary luxury, is undergoing its biggest change since tea was first advertised for sale in London in 1657.

British tea consumption has fallen from 2.5 ounces per person per week to less than an ounce. That means Britons are drinking on average just 8 cups of tea a week today, down from 23 in 1974. This monument change in drinking habits is revealed in the latest National Food Survey.

The London Telegraph suggests that tea is often linked to sweets, biscuits and cakes, which have also fallen out of favor as new data show British consumers have tried to move away from sugar and bread toward healthier trends.

Another factor leading to the decline of the British tea tradition includes the rising popularity of coffee shops.

I recall seeing coffee shops popping up on every London street corner during the late 1990s. The eventual arrival of Starbucks threw the coffee culture into a boil that had not been seen since the 1600s when as many as 2000 coffee houses were found throughout the London area.

I wrote a Fresh Cup magazine article a dozen years ago that suggested the UK needed to “blow the dust of their tea image.” As a new millennium dawned, America was entering a tea Renaissance while Great Britain was staring at an impending Dark Ages of tea.

Is it time to blow the dust off the image of traditional British Tea?

United Tea Company
Is it time to blow the dust off the image of traditional British Tea?

What brought on the dramatic differences in the two tea cultures that were wed by the East India Company three centuries ago?

In the minds of British youth, tea was what your mum drank, or it was what you drank when you were sick. It was not something you wanted to be caught sipping if your mates were about.

Meanwhile, the American tea culture became more inclusive of specialty teas, green teas, tisanes and herbals. And tea was considered to be a part of a healthy lifestyle. Fortunately for the tea marketplace, this trend became fashionable just as the soft drink industry entered a tailspin.

Chinese tea shop in london
Cakes of Pu-erh line the shelves of Juyan Chinese Tea Shop along Portobello Road in London.

Now 18-30 year-olds are as likely to order tea as they are coffee when given the choice.

That vibrant young demographic bodes well for the future of tea in America and sets us apart from traditional tea drinking countries such as the UK and Japan.

But there is hope for the British tea culture — if you know how to read the tea leaves.

The Guardian newspaper last August offered that “while traditional British tea fell six percent in the past five years, sales of less traditional teas — fruit, herbal, specialty, green — grew steadily from 2012 to 2014.”

That trend toward less traditional teas is what has been happening on this side of the Atlantic for over a decade.

In 1773, who would have imagined that the once-powerful British tea industry would one day yearn to emulate the tea drinking fortunes of America?

The citizens of Boston are smiling.

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Bruce Richardson

MSN calls Bruce Richardson "A leading tea expert involved in tea's American renaissance for over 30 years." The native Kentuckian is a writer, photographer, tea blender, and frequent guest speaker at tea events across the globe. He can often be found appearing on television and radio talk shows, or as a guest speaker at professional seminars such as World Tea Expo or China Global Tea Fair. He is the author ...

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