By Researcher
NBC News
updated 7/26/2005 9:09:59 AM ET 2005-07-26T13:09:59

Have the English, long known for their love of tea, fallen in love with coffee?

That’s what it looks like walking down any High Street in England these days. Gone are the tearooms, replaced by dozens of coffee shops, including the usual suspects, Starbucks and the British chains Costa and Caffè Nero.

Coffee and tea both reached these shores over some three centuries ago. Coffee became the drink of choice on the European continent, the cafés of Paris and Vienna were born, and with them, café culture as we know it.

But in England, tea became the national beverage. More than a drink, it was a meal. The upper and middle classes enjoyed afternoon tea with cucumber sandwiches, hot crumpets and scones. For the working classes, the hearty high tea with its cakes, breads and meats replaced dinner.

Even today tea is very much part of English tradition. People still argue over whether one should pour milk in the cup before or after pouring the tea. And when invited to a British home, you will most likely be offered a ‘cuppa’ tea rather than coffee or a soft drink.

Despite the recent coffee boom, teas might not be ready to give up the fight for the heart of the British public.

Why the coffee boom?
At last count, Starbucks had more than 110 branches in London alone, Caffè Nero had 80 and Costa had countless stands in bookshops, train stations and airports.

Even the numerous sandwich shops in the capital offer a wider variety of coffees than teas. And the words latte, cappuccino and macchiato have become part of everyday lingo, much more so than Darjeeling and Lapsang Souchong.

A quick search on the Internet for the words “tearoom London” turned up 10 results compared with 400 for “coffee shop London.”

The problem with tea is that it takes time and patience to get it just right. In a busy place like London, time can be tough to find.

Forget the teabag in a mug of hot water. Ideally, tea should be prepared the old-fashioned way, the experts say. The water should be freshly boiled, the tea leaves should be allowed to infuse the right number of minutes and the milk should be neither cold, nor hot, but just warm for an ideal brew. All of this should be served in your finest china, with tea strainer and bowl, and an extra pot of hot water in case your tea is too strong.

An event, not just a drink
Nowadays, the only places you will find tea prepared this way is in tearooms and grand hotels. And if you’re going to Fortnum & Mason or the Conservatory at the Lanesborough Hotel, it isn’t just to have a cuppa, but to enjoy a full afternoon tea.

“It’s very popular,” said Anne Serbin, restaurant hostess at the Conservatory. “We are almost every day fully booked.”

The Palm Court at the Ritz takes bookings for tea six to eight weeks in advance. “I think you could say it’s popular,” said Gerrie Pitt, the hotel’s director of public relations.

But it is also expensive. The Palm Court charges more than $61 per person for afternoon tea, which consists of pastries, cakes, scones and small sandwiches. A cup of tea at the famous Fortnum & Mason may be more affordable, but combine one of its rare teas with some scones and it will still cost you about $20. 

As a result, the clientele consists mostly of tourists hoping to get the authentic English experience between visiting Big Ben, Buckingham Palace and shopping on Oxford Street.

Bored with regular tea?
Tea also faces tough competition at the supermarket, where it is given just about as much shelf-space as coffee.

“People are a little bored with tea in this country,” said Caroline Humphryes, a sort of English Martha Stewart, who along with giving baking lessons, organizes tea-tasting sessions and lectures on the history and traditions of tea.

Humphryes believes that is because people only drink the Earl Grey or English Breakfast tea available at their local supermarket. So they miss out on exotic teas like Ceylon Flowery Orange Pekoe, Russian Caravan and Assam Superb, which are only found in specialized shops like Fortnum & Mason or Whittard of Chelsea.

And with coffee shops popping up all over the place, it is not surprising the English are drinking more coffee. But is coffee really replacing tea?

“As you look along the High Street, I suppose coffee is more visible,” said Humphryes. But that does not mean people do not drink tea; they simply do not drink it in a public setting, she says.

Indeed, judging by the often-empty shelves at the supermarket, people still drink plenty of tea at home. According to a U.K. Tea Council report, 70 percent of Britons regularly drink tea, and the majority drink about three cups a day.

And England still rates only 15th out of all European countries in coffee consumption per capita, according to The Roast and Post Coffee Company in Bristol.

While tearooms may be hard to find in London, they are still much more common in the countryside. The recent spread of coffee shops may not be a mark of dwindling tea consumption, but just an urban trend. The fact that coffee can be bought to take away has helped.

“They don’t do carry-out teas, that’s the problem,” says Humphryes, “it’s not a fast-food drink.”

Exotic teas waiting in the wings
Some teas are actually making a comeback.

Green tea and Indian chai especially have become fashionable, making tea exotic and exciting again. Green tea now comes in half a dozen flavors, such as apple, mango and vanilla. And chai lattes have become almost as popular in coffee shops as mochas and frappuccinos.

The health benefits of tea are also being publicized, including that it has no calories and that some kinds apparently reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease.

“There is sort of a renaissance of tea,” said Humphryes. “But it’s not going to be on the High Street for another year or so.”

Perhaps Rose Pouchong could be well on its way to become the new espresso.

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