The news is that Unilever is withdrawing from the tea trade (PG Tips and Liptons) because tea drinking is going out of fashion. Coffee drinkers are increasing, especially among young workers. They need the caffeine-high to keep them alert during long hours at the computer.
So are we Brits abandoning the cuppas that powered the Empire, the Industrial Revolution, and the soldiers in the trenches? The British and the Irish are the largest consumers of tea in the world (after the Turks). The development of tea plantations in India and Ceylon were part of the Empire.
Indeed the need for finance to develop the tea plantations is reputed to be one of the causes of the Opium War with China, those shameful years when British traders deliberately shipped opium to China to get the cash needed by traders in India, to then ship tea to the factory workers of the growing industrial cities of the home country.
Tea was a drink encouraged by factory owners as it kept the workers alert and sober, unlike the ale or gin preferred by the labouring classes in previous years. To be fair, in those days before piped water, it was safer to drink a fermented liquid than water from many wells or streams. Even the Benedictine monasteries had bread and ale for breakfast.
In the trenches of World War I, water was delivered in old petrol cans to the Front. Soldiers would brew up for their cuppas in between the bouts of gun-fire. It kept them sober. They were given tots of brandy before going over to attack the enemy trenches. Being drunk made them bolder. But better to keep them sober on tea during the lulls in the trench warfare.
It is interesting to ponder why this particular herb (camellia sinensis) became the main means of providing a safe non-alcoholic drink. Boiling the water is what makes it safe, rather than any medicinal property of the tea plant. Tea does have mild stimulant properties, but only about a third as much as coffee. But there are other plants that can be brewed into a tea that have more beneficial medicinal properties.
For example, rosehip excels in Vitamin C. Mugwort (artemisia absinthium) is good as a tonic, especially for stomach and digestion, and against worms, although pregnant women are warned off it. Elderflower, often made into cordial, can act as a diuretic and laxative, and is also anti-bacterial . Elderberries can be made into a drink too, although they are poisonous if eaten raw. Recipes for elderflower cordial go back to Roman times.
Why not stick to ale?
The puzzle is why these herbal brews do not seem to have become as popular as tea as an alternative to alcoholic drinks. Maybe, amid the drudgery and dirt of earlier times, people were just happier to be half-drunk most of the time. But it is surprising that women also shared the habits – ale-drinking at breakfast, for instance.
Amid the perils of housework that involved heaving huge pots of hot water for laundry and baths and keeping children away from the stoves and open fireplaces, it is surprising they would not want to be on full alert. Maybe they just drank more whey, or the cooled down water from the kitchen. Maybe they did in fact make more cordials and herbal teas but this never got into the history books in the way that most women never feature.
…And is there “English breakfast” still for tea?
Anyway, nowadays herbal teas have come into fashion, on display at the supermarket shelves packaged into neat tea bags, in colourful boxes boasting appealing combinations “strawberry and elderflower”, “peppermint and nettle”, and “all natural ingredients”.
So Unilever is aware that herbal tea is the future while the dried brown leaves for the traditional cuppa are disappearing from the shopping list.