Rishi and his tea. Photo: Twitter

"Tea ain't from Britain": what our obsession with tea tells us about who we are

No country has a weirder relationship with an agricultural product as the British do with tea
April 1, 2020
During last year’s general election campaign, the Conservative Party released a video of Boris Johnson wandering through CCHQ faux-casually answering questions that veered between banality (Boris, why are we having this election?) to the inane (Marmite, yes or no?), simultaneously showing off his chummy, faux-everyman credentials while delivering the core of the manifesto in easily digestible soundbites.

About halfway through, Johnson made a cup of tea, topping it up with a dash of semi-skimmed milk and leaving the bag in to stew. The next morning, all people wanted to talk about was his tea-making technique. “This is really how I make my tea. It lets it brew and makes it stronger,” he tweeted in response, gleeful that the video had worked. 

No country has a weirder relationship with an agricultural product as the British do with tea. We imbue it with notions of class, gender and authenticity that make next to no sense. Builders’ tea, posh tea. Afternoon tea for ladies, strong breakfast tea for the lads.

Johnson’s video was not the first time he has tried to make a mug of his critics via the medium of tea; just after his infamous “letterbox” column about Muslim women, he cheerfully emerged from his house armed with a heterogeneous tray of steaming mugs for the waiting hacks, just like the mugs in your cupboard, perhaps. No apology, but the images of Johnson mucking in with the tea round made the news.  

A Chinese plant

That the tea plant isn’t native to Britain makes the whole thing even more strange. At the end of his incendiary “Long Goodbye” video, actor and rapper Riz Ahmed furiously spits “Britain’s where I’m born and I love a cup of tea and that / but tea ain’t from Britain it’s from where my DNA is at.”

The question of whether tea is British is not as simple to answer as you might think. Tea is a Chinese plant that for millennia stayed within its borders but it was Britain who turned it into the world’s second most popular beverage after water. How proud you are of that probably depends on your general feelings about the British Empire.  

Those learning about Britain’s escapades with tea for the first time may feel a rollercoaster of emotions. We started the tea industry in India? A cause for national pride surely! Ah, it was started through a combination of espionage, theft, drug-peddling and eventually war, ending in the colonisation of Hong Kong. Hmm, but we also ended slavery. Oh no, it turns out that we also invented indentured labour which uprooted people from their ancestral homes to work on tea fields, creating simmering racial tensions, a hierarchical tea plantation system and a legacy of exploitation that lasts until this day.  

"Yorkshire brew"

Study the real history of tea and you learn the history of this country. For all the nostalgia for Blitz-time brews, it was the Second World War that severed our relationship with tea, just as we were beginning to loosen our grip on the empire in which it was made. During rationing, the British got a taste for dregs, and elevated it to the height of British culture. Ask a contemporary Brit where their tea is from—in this nation where names like Hyson, Bohea and Congou once tripped off the tongue—and you will meet blank stares. (The answer is Kenya, by the way, because Indian tea is too expensive for us these days). 

But we know Tetley and we know PG Tips, because we treat these brands—all of which serve the same, industrially-made, interchangeable product—like they are somehow our friends. When the chancellor Rishi Sunak posed with a bumper pack of Yorkshire Tea the absurdity of people feeling betrayed was only surpassed by the ridiculousness of Sunak calling it a “Yorkshire brew” as if you could turn a product made with the underpaid labour of east African workers “British” by virtue of it being packed here. 

Tea culture moves on elsewhere, in Asia where it has always been, in Europe where a historic coffee culture has meant they have never had time to develop our irrational habits, even in America, where a combination of strong east Asian communities and an increasing interest in Chinese culture is allowing it to flourish. Meanwhile, Britain is content to sneer and talk about “proper tea,” and whip itself into a frenzy about whether you should put the milk in first or second while its role in the tea world becomes increasingly irrelevant. And if that isn’t a metaphor for something else, I don’t know what is.