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How tea really became popular across the world

For a product that has been recognized for its health benefits for over 5000 years of its history, one would imagine that the ‘health-angle’ was perhaps one of the major reasons, if not the most important, for the growth in popularity of tea. At least that’s how most of the tea related articles published online would like you to believe.

Over the last few decades, tea drinkers, tea planters, retailers, tea boards of various governments have all done their bit in forwarding the thought of tea being a healthier alternative to coffee.

However, many tea drinkers, including myself oppose the idea of projection of tea purely as a healthier alternative to coffee; a beverage whose existence is solely to serve as antithesis to coffee. There’s so much more to tea, we argue.

So how important was the healthy beverage argument in furthering its popularity over the last couple of centuries? Turns out, not much. What follows is the fascinating history of the health debate that has lasted over 350 years and continues to be written about.

Hanway Vs Garraway – Putting tea on the map

In 1657, tea was first introduced in Britain as a medicinal product. The first advertisement for tea, printed by the owner of a coffeehouse in London, projected tea as an exotic product that would not only, …maketh the body active and lusty” but also “…removeth the obstructions of the Spleen… also it vanquisheth heavy dreams, easeth the frame and strengtheneth the memory”.

Although it now seems more like a Shakespearean version of a sales pitch for a modern pharmaceutical miracle, there isn’t any doubt that Garraway, the owner of the coffeehouse was being sincere and really did believe in the story himself

However, despite it’s growing popularity since introduction, not everybody really believed in these qualities of tea. In 1756, one notable voice of dissent came from a London merchant, Jonas Hanway who published an essay on the effects of tea drinking calling it ,”…pernicious to health, obstructing industry and impoverishing the nation” and went as far as saying that the due to women drinking tea ‘there is not quite so much beauty in this land as there was’.

Samuel Johnson, a revered public intellectual and devout tea lover replied to Jonas Hanway’s essay by publishing a funny, satirical response. And this sparked off a public feud, with neither willing to back down on their arguments. Of course, neither had any scientific proof to back them.

A side effect of this incident and the argument about tea entering the space of public discourse was that it inevitably made people more curious and interested in tea.

Some like it hot…and sweet.

Hanway and Johnson may have warred on the health benefits of tea, but the success and failure of tea sales was largely driven by extraneous factors. The most important of them was the cheaper and easier access to sugar.

Although tea was gaining popularity since introduction, the first major inflection point in its sales arrived when the prices of sugar fell. This is now the subject of many anthropological and historical studies. The most popular and often quoted being Sidney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power.

Mintz links sugar to Britain’s growing colonial strength, but also to mercantilism. Within a matter of a century, sugar, produced by extensive use of slave labour, went from being the privileged food of the very rich to becoming the staple of the fairly poor.

As sugar prices fell between 1650 and 1750, sugar and its meanings percolated downward through English society. The concurrent downward percolation of tea during the eighteenth century created a new, important mode of consumption for the poor: Tea sweetened with sugar was now finally accessible to all.

And as a consequence of this, the working class had started to forsake their traditional rural diet to white bread, butter and healthy supplements of tea. While tea was just a non-nutritional supplement to the diet of the rich, it unfortunately came to be the mainstay of the working class.

Same old tea, all new story.

By the end of 1800s, the whole of Britain was drinking tea everyday. And soon as the industry stabilized, overproduction brought lower prices and profits. However, the number of plantations only continued to grow. Planters, importers, and retailers now encouraged Britons to drink more and more of their national beverage.

Despite their efforts, towards the end of 1800’s it had become clear to the tea planters of South Asia that they were running out of new consumers to sell tea to. In the decades that followed, the tea traders and planters put enormous efforts in reaching out to customers in Europe, Australia, United States, Canada and the natives in India & Ceylon.

The tea syndicate, formed almost exclusively to take on new markets consisted of various tea planters from South Asia. The tea planters characterized American customers as “educated and rational people whose tastes could influenced by persuasion and facts”, and it was decided that the best medium to introduce tea would be through public exhibitions.

To educate these new markets about their teas, the tea planters went to great lengths- often organizing large exhibitions, setting up new business offices in these regions, and getting retired tea planters to campaign aggressively for their teas. J.L. Shand, a retired coffee planter roped in by the Ceylon tea planters to showcase their teas urged them “not to lose the chance of an exhibition anywhere”.

But somewhere down the line, the tea planters, by their own experience, knew that showcasing tea as a medicinal or healthful product would only take them so far. And that to capture public imagination, the teas would have to be marketed as a drink enjoyed by upper classes of the society, which they eventually did.

The tea syndicate’s efforts could largely be regarded as a failure. Nevertheless, these campaigns allow us to understand the how tea was first sold to the masses, and the ideologies that were involved in the formation of a new transnational business community for commodities such as tea and coffee.

Post World War II, North America, driven by aggressive advertising of other beverages, combined with improved roasting technology, and mass merchandising, coffee came to eventually monopolize the market for beverages.

Tea, a beverage for the civilized.

In their native markets, the tea planters syndicate repeatedly espoused tea as the cause of health and temperance and that tea would end fever, dysentery, and other diseases.

In spite of all these efforts the native markets didn’t quite pick up on the British enthusiasm for the product, especially since large swathes of population was extremely poor and viewed tea mostly as a foreign product.

However, funnily, post independence, India, once written off by the planters, steadily increased its consumption until the 1970’s when its gross consumption outpaced that of Britain – a result of institutionalization of tea breaks and growing popularity of a spicy-sweet chai; yet again unrelated to health.

Over the last 30 years, there has been a stunning amount of research done to evaluate the health promoting properties of teas. These studies have, in many cases proved conclusively that tea does indeed promote weight loss, prevent chronic illnesses and improve mood.

Deep beneath this vapid labyrinth of misinformation is a simple truth – the growing needs of a consumer population whose pursuits are driven by popular media, internet and a constant need for approval. The same reasons that spread the idea of tea as a sign of opulence and superior choice; like how real art and kitsch coexist with an unspoken approval of each others existence. Because neither can live when the other dies.

 

Sources:

  • The Industrial Diet: The Degradation of Food and the Struggle for Healthy Eating by Anthony Winson
    Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History by Sidney Mintz
    Tea Leaf Reading by Jacky Sach
    A Social History of the Nation’s Favourite Drink – tea.co.uk
    The Market Empire in the Age of Victoria: Selling South Asian Teas in India and North America – Erika Rappaport
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