Why Are the British Losing Their Taste for Tea?

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pour the tea into the cup

We all know the British love their tea (and scones and crumpets and those cute little sandwiches with the crusts cut off), but it turns out they love it way less than they used to.

Tea consumption in the U.K. has steadily declined since the early 1970s, according to research released by the Open Data Institute and cited by the Washington Post. In 1974, Brits sipped an average of almost 68 grams of tea per week. By 2014, their tea drinking had dipped to a relatively weak 25 grams per week — a decline of more than 63 percent. Meanwhile, consumption of coffee in the U.K. during the same period of time tripled.

Tea drinking’s protracted, steady decline shows no sign of abating, either, notes the Post, citing data released by market research company Euromonitor indicating that, last year alone, the volume of black tea bags sold in the U.K. sank 2 percent while the sale of coffee pods climbed 33 percent.

Why are British people turning their backs on what the rest of us regard as their national drink, as symbolic of their country as the Union Jack or the queen’s crown? The Post points to a few potential factors.

Generation Gap: Drinking the traditional black tea long favored by their elders is considered uncool by the younger generation. London-based food and drink analyst Emma Clifford, of the market research firm Mintel, told the paper that tea “has a serious image problem here. People, especially young people, are not excited about it at all. It’s just too mundane.”

Coffee Culture: Coffee is satisfying Britons’ craving for caffeine, providing more of a boost per cup than tea. The number of coffee shops in the U.K. climbed 12 percent last year alone, the Post notes — and there are now 20,000 of them nationwide. Plus, the rise of the coffee pod has provided java drinkers there with a higher-quality alternative to the powdered instant coffee that was long a British pantry staple.

Herbal Infusion: Fruity and herbal teas, which seem much more exotic and innovative, aren’t suffering quite the same image problem as standard black tea, but they alone cannot shore up the tea market.

The Sugar Effect: As health-minded Britons reduce their sugar consumption, they cut back on the tea they associate their treats with. Cakes and tea are “seen as the perfect pairing,” Clifford told the Post, “but now that the country is cutting back on these items, the occasion to drink tea is becoming less frequent.”

The Modern Economy: Workplace tea breaks are no longer the cultural norm they once were in the U.K. Productivity and efficiency and the demands of the global economy, don’t you know.

But all is not bitter in the world of tea. Even as the Brits have turned their backs on the beverage, the American appetite for it has increased dramatically. Between 1999 and 2013, U.S. tea sales quintupled, the Post’s Roberto A. Ferdman notes, citing Euromonitor data. In fact, last year alone, sales of black tea rose 5 percent.

So the tea leaves here, at least, indicate a more promising future.

Feeling like it’s teatime yourself? Here are a few recipes.

Photo courtesy of iStock