Why Did England Prefer Tea over Coffee?

April 18, 2017 by Bruce Richardson

Why does England drink more tea than coffee? Before the British East India Company turned its thoughts to tea, Englishmen drank mostly coffee.

The Tea Clipper ‘Houqua” c.1850

Within fifty years of the opening of the first coffee house in England, there were two thousand coffee houses in the City of London, alone!

It is interesting to note that just as America started out to become a nation of tea drinkers, only to boycott it for coffee, so England, once the largest coffee consuming nation, became the world’s largest tea consumer. Men and ships brought this about, but particularly such ships as those which graced the coat of arms of the old East India Company—“three ships in azure,” they were called—these and the graceful white-winged tea clippers of the era that followed on.

Toward the close of the seventeenth century, however, the East India Company was much more interested in tea than in coffee. Having lost out to the French and the Dutch on the “little brown berry of Arabia,” The Company engaged in so lively a propaganda for tea that, whereas the annual tea imports from 1700 to 1710 averaged 800,000 pounds, in 1721 more than one million pounds of tea were brought in; in 1757, some four million pounds were imported. And when the coffee house finally succumbed, tea, and not coffee, was firmly entrenched as the national drink of the English people.

1742 English engraving “The Tea Table”

While it is often said that the British East India Company owed its birth to pepper, its amazing development was due to tea. Its early adventures in the Far East brought it to China, whose tea was destined later to furnish the means of governing India.

During the hey-day of its prosperity John Company, otherwise the “Honourable East India Company,” maintained a monopoly of the tea trade with China, controlled the supply, limited the quantity imported into England, and thus fixed the price. It constituted not only the world’s greatest tea monopoly but also the source of inspiration for the first English propaganda on behalf of a beverage.

It was so powerful that it precipitated a dietetic revolution in England, changing the British people from a nation of coffee drinkers to a nation of tea drinkers, and all within the space of a few years. It was a formidable rival of states and empires, with power to acquire territory, coin money, command fortresses and troops, form alliances, make war or peace, and exercise both civil and criminal jurisdiction.

There were sixteen rival East India companies of Dutch, French, Danish, Austrian, Swedish, Spanish, and Prussian origin, operating at various times from the continent of Europe, but none of them reached the position of commanding importance occupied by the British East India Company, and Chinese tea was the prime commodity that fueled their success.


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Author: Bruce Richardson
Tea Master for the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum

MSN calls Bruce Richardson "A leading tea expert involved in tea's American renaissance for over 25 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 and China Global Tea Fair. He is the author of over a dozen books on the subject of tea. Mr. Richardson serves as Tea Master for the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum.