Why the British Drink Black Tea

Writer:  Kareem Wright


Have you ever wondered why the British, one of the highest tea consuming nations in the world seem to exclusively drink black tea? The answer to this question may lie steeped in the murky wares of questionable tea merchants during the 18th to the 19th centuries. But there is also evidence to suggest a conspiracy of epic proportions may lie behind this seemingly innocent habit…


Green tea, black tea, it’s all tea. That is to say, it all comes from the same plant. Camellia Sinensis; the main variable is the level of oxidation the plants are subjected to. In the beginning all tea was exclusively Chinese. And although China produced, and continues to produce many black teas, green teas have always been more prevalent. So it’s probably safe to assume that in the beginning most of the tea being poured into Europe was green. So exactly how did all that change? 


The root of problem seems to be buried in the 1700’s when in an effort to payroll their position as history’s favourite baddy, the British Empire began heavily taxing imported goods such as tea. This was problematic because by the 1700’s the popularity of tea in Britain was already unquenchable. People were thirsty for tea, and where there’s a demand, there’s a devious fiend waiting to exploit it. As a direct result of unaffordable tea, two massive criminal enterprises were brewed up on Britain’s shores. The first was Tea smuggling (which you can read about here…) and the second was ‘Tea Adulteration’. And no, that’s not some ’50 Shades of Grey’ inspired naughtiness, it’s actually the process of mixing something questionable with tea, then selling it on as though it were the genuine article. 


Tea adulteration was a wildly varied process, which ranged from the simple: re-drying and re-selling used tea leaves, to the downright dastardly: using poisonous dyes such as copper, lead and sulphate to dye other leaves and thorns and sell them on as tea. As the decades wore on, the methods of adulteration grew more intricate, but also increasingly lethal, and by the mid 1800’s, Britain seemed on the verge of a health pandemic. 


But just who were the tea adulterers, and what on earth has any of this got to do with British preference for black over green tea? To cut a long story short, in the 1830’s the British East India Company’s monopoly on tea exporting was brought to a sharp end, and the ensuing scramble to get a lid over the tea market was manic. This, combined with the fact that the Dutch and the recently liberated Americans were all vying for tea meant that Chinese were trying to produce tea in impossibly large quantities. And some wily Chinese tea producers took to adulterating tea for the foreign market. Or so 19th century British tea importers would have you believe. You see, in the 1820’s the EIC had also started to grow tea in India. But tea from China was still far more popular. This was no doubt a problem for the budding “British” tea industry, and some would argue that the British needed to discredit their competition. Indeed, reports were even published that went as far as to say ALL tea imported from China was adultered. 


In reality, Chinese tea adulterating was only conducted innocently in an effort to make green tea leaves appear greener for the European importers. The Chinese were never intentionally harming the British, something noted by the man who discovered Chinese tea adulterating; Robert Fortune. The British government were very keen to use this information to create the impression all Chinese tea was poisonous, and that conversely, all British tea was “pure”. 


Then there is the simple irony that the glorious British Empire, proudly ruling the waves, was actually ruling waves infused with the very Chinese product: tea. Tea, was Chinese, not British, and everyone in Britain drank it. Something drastic needed to be done. And the answer seems to have been found in the form of marketing “British” Assam tea as “pure”. But how to distinguish “pure British tea” from her Chinese parent? Simple. Produce almost exclusively black tea in India, which eventually becomes synonymous with the now ‘British’ beverage. My theory is that with the natural bitterness of black tea, came the increased propensity to add milk and sugar, and all of this combined to produce the true “British cuppa’”.


Lightened fragrant and with a distinctive bergamot flavor, this single estate Earl Grey is one of the most fashionable drinks in UK, assuring a deluxe tea experience.