A Brief History of Tea in Great Britain

What could be more quintessentially British than a good old cup of tea? For many of us, tea is a staple in our homes. It comforts us, brings us together and quenches our thirst come rain or shine.

In fact, each day in the UK we drink 165 million cups of tea, which equals two and a half brews for every person!

At all of our cafe franchise locations, there’s plenty of room in our hearts for a lovely cuppa, and we pride ourselves on our delicious range of high-quality teas, from classic English Breakfast to rich herbal infusions packed with antioxidants and good things. In the spirit of one of the nation’s favourite beverages, we’ve done some digging to bring you a brief history of tea in Great Britain. So, while we're all staying at home, stick the kettle on, make a cup of delicious brew and learn all about it.

The First Tea Pioneers

Many of us do not realise quite how much impact the humble cup of tea has had on the country’s history and culture. Tea has helped to shape our social traditions, support the rise of the British Empire and contributed to the mighty momentum of the industrial revolution. It is widely believed that the British East India Company established the initial trade for tea in the 17th century.

While tea has been enjoyed in other parts of the world for centuries, it was not bought to the UK until much later. The earliest recordings of the sale of tea in London coffeehouses are from 1657, when green tea exported from China first appeared on the menu, along with a pamphlet explaining the exotic drink. The drink gained momentum, helped along by claims that it had a variety of medicinal properties. During this time, tea would have been an expensive commodity, far dearer than coffee, and, therefore, only enjoyed by the upper classes.

people picking tea leaves

London’s First Tea Shop

In 1706, Thomas Twining opened the first tea shop in London, and it was in the 1720s that black tea became more popular thanks to the addition of milk and sugar, something that was not done in China. It overtook green tea which, until then, had been the more popular choice. Propelled by its ever-increasing popularity among the elite classes, imports of tea rose dramatically. It helped to drive the price down, and by 1750, the lower cost of the leaves opened the drink up to new levels of society.

Tea for Everyone

After tea became more affordable and accessible, it became widely enjoyed by Britain’s middle classes, keen to boost their status with the valuable commodity. These social groups also adopted the rituals of the upper classes, and some argue that it’s the social etiquette surrounding the drinking of tea that helped to solidify its inherent Britishness.

tea being poured from a teapot

The Working Classes

By the early 19th century, tea had become a staple in the everyday life of labourers, factory workers and the working classes. Unsurprisingly so, as the hot, sweet beverage provided warmth, comfort and an additional boost to the workers of the industrial revolution who were required to work exceptionally long gruelling hours.

At the time, tea also helped to reduce the diseases associated with urbanisation and poor water quality, as the drink had to be boiled before consuming, which killed many water-borne diseases such as dysentery and cholera.

cup of tea on table with book and flowers

Tea in the Modern Day

Today, tea is still considered to be the national drink of Great Britain and continues to be widely enjoyed. While the social etiquette introduced by the upper classes in its early days are somewhat lesser practised, there is still an element of undeniable ritual about tea. Whether it’s a pot at home or a mid-morning pick me up, the consumption of the hot beverage is inherent in our culture and is likely to remain so.

At Esquires Coffee, we are passionate about the history of our favourite drinks which is why we’ve also written the history of the cappuccino and the espresso!

If you want to learn more, why not read or article on why coffee shops are so popular?

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