It was that chronicler of the plague, Samuel Pepys, who was likely responsible for the first mention of tea in the English language. Writing in his diary in 1660, he recounts a business meeting where “afterwards I did send for a cup of tee (a China drink) of which I never had drank before.” Europe was then in the grips of Sinomania—tea was just the latest craze in a long line of Chinese exotica that fascinated the west. Out of the ports of Canton and Amoy flowed not just tea, but raw and woven silks, bright porcelain and decorated ceramics. Soon the British were so obsessed that it wasn’t enough to merely trade these items: they became producers. Potteries were set up in Staffordshire; on the slopes of West Bengal, tea was planted. The district’s name became a byword for luxury: Darjeeling.
In the 17th century, tea was not the mark of British national identity we know it today. It was only through the slow, and often brutal process of de-Sinofication that tea eventually became British: tea grown on empire soil, fuelling the caffeinated habits of an industrialising nation. Tea’s ascendancy into Britishness also marked the ascendency of Britain as an imperial power; the corollary to this is that Britain’s decline has also been tea’s decline in the west. Tea consumption has fallen from 70g per person per week on average to just 20g since the 1970s. What's more, it has been disconnected almost completely from a sense of place. Stuffed into bags where we can’t engage with tea as an agricultural product, we no longer know what country or countries our tea is produced in—just the name of the brand selling it to us,
Today it’s hard to imagine the idea of tea not being a British drink. But what is much easier to understand from our vantage point is the rising cultural power of east Asia. In Why The West Rules For Now, the historian Ian Morris compares the rising and falling fortunes of "the west" and "the east" using a complex formula that ends up looking like a glorified Electoral College, giving each single points to compare social development. Morris posits that parity between the two has been reached only twice in comparatively recent memory: the first time was just before the British went to war over Chinese trade restrictions in the 1800s, when the West was in ascendency; the second time is now.
The last decade has seen a remarkable uptake in interest in east Asian cultures from the west: not just Japanese videogames, handmade craft and technology, but also Korean music and films, and the rise of Mandarin as a second language. Food and drink is also a vital component of this soft power—while travel may be temporarily out of the question, but the number of Chinese students living in the UK means we don’t need to get on a plane to enjoy Chinese cuisine. In any British city it’s possible to find not just the traditional cuisines of multiple Chinese regions, but modern dessert parlours and trendy hotpot restaurants. Many people who never once expressed an interest in loose-leaf tea have suddenly become obsessed with bubble tea, a Taiwanese invention that combines milky tea with chewy spheres of tapioca and doubles up as a sweet, after-dinner treat.
Every year, someone will notice a faint uptick in the sales of loose leaf tea and write an article saying perhaps this year, tea is going to be the next coffee. But perhaps tea will actually be the next tea. We are once again becoming a nation of Pepyses, obsessed with the esoterica of the new and unknown. If tea culture blooms again in this country, it will not be the tea we know but maybe the matcha unexpectedly offered to us at the end of a meal on our travels, or a steaming cup of genmaicha glimpsed in a Studio Ghibli film, or a box of Korean tea put into a shopping trolley on a whim while looking for instant noodles, or some puerh recommended for its meditative effects by our tai chi teacher (or at the very least, wellness guru Gwyneth Paltrow). Maybe it will only be once we have unlearned everything we thought we knew, that we will come to tea again with fresh palates, and history will repeat itself; this time, with added tapioca balls.