About English Breakfast Tea


Britain had had immense socio-political and cultural impact on other nations throughout the history. Nevertheless, there are very few true British foods, and in fact, “British cuisine has always been multicultural” [1]. In spite of its deficiency of domestic edibles, tea seems to be one of the thriving souvenir commodities, yet no tea is grown in the UK. Tea plants are native to Asia and the practice of drinking tea dates back to 2737 BC in China[2] There are a few foods that are as universal as tea; however, the British absorbed tea into their lives, evolved their culture around it and put a tag on it. Albeit all the tea drunk in the UK has been transported from regions far away, the development of technology guides the nation of highest per capita tea consumption towards sustainable tea drinking. Along with the appearance of teabag and development of packaging, tea as a material came to embrace more elaborate socio-cultural meanings built on top of the conventional tea culture and offer new experiences.

Despite the figures indicating how attached the British people are to tea drinking[3], how tea came to be a quintessential English drink as well as a component of English breakfast is not clear. Physically speaking, tea is not a British product. Camellia sinensis, the source of traditional leaf tea grows in tropical or sub-tropical regions like southern China, Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, Japan, India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Sikkim, Bangladesh, Iran, Turkey, Georgia, Rwanda, Cameroon, Kenya, Mauritius, Zimbabwe, Argentina, Brazil and Australia.[4] Considering how far these regions are from the UK and how long it must have taken to transport in the mid 17th century, it is not surprising how black tea, the more oxidized version of green, oolong and white varieties, became the regular tea of Britain in the first place. All 20 tea brands in the UK[5] import tea leaves from the regions mentioned above. PG Tips, leading the market with about 24% share, blends tealeaves from Kenya and India for their Regular Pyramid tea[6], which are each some 7,000 km away from the UK. An online Carbon dioxide emission calculator assists to measure that a PG Tips teabag a Londoner uses would have caused up to some 800 kg of carbon dioxide emission.[7] The unsuitable climate of Britain for tea plantation can be blamed on for the environmental impact tea transportation has had; however, it was recently found out that the plant can tolerate marine climates as well, leading to setting up of the tea plantation in Pembrokeshire in Wales[8], providing the possibility of local production. Australia’s Madura tea is a fortunate example of local tea farming.[9] While cultivating tea for the local, they assert to be eco-sensitive and provide a natural carbon sink. The climate is no longer the ultimate obstacle, for the ever-developing technology can enable indoor farming. Disney’s Epcot experimental farm[10] and London’s FARM:shop[11] are only a few examples of future agriculture.

Even though tea is yet to be a local produce, English Breakfast tea has been around for more than 100 years. The accounts of the origins of English Breakfast tea vary from America to Scotland.[12] What is definite is that it was in 1843 when the blend called ‘English Breakfast Tea’ entered the market.[13] One of the most popular blend, it is a rich black tea usually accompanied by milk and sugar to subside bitterness, a combination that is specifically known to be longstanding British. While what is known as ‘high tea’ was served along side the farm worker’s hearty meal to compensate for a hard day’s labouring, the culture took on the elements of ‘low tea’, also known as afternoon tea, in which the set idea of English tea time consist of formal dresses, baked goods and hot tea served in delicate china was originated.[14] Hence the British tea culture of social gathering emerged in the 18th century. British tea ritual generated a particular culture, tea dance and tea garden, in addition to producing artifacts like tea sets, picnic hampers, tea caddy, tea cards and tea cosies, many of which can be found at high-end tea brand shops such as Fortnum & Mason.[15] These items represent the luxurious aspect of tea, reminding the contemporary men of the times tea was fundamental to social activities before the invention of teabag.

It is now impossible to picture tea culture without teabag. “Teabags were among the first material objects of convenience to be introduced” (Ger and Kravets 2009). However accidental the invention of teabag was[16], it was timely. It benefited the busy society in many aspects with its convenient design: it was easy to be removed at the point when the tea reached its best taste, easy to clean up, speeded up the process and allowed individual decision-making. The Americans openly accepted teabags as it was first marketed in the 1920s, while the British took longer to alter their prevalent tea-making method. Tetley introduced teabags to the UK in 1949[17], but it was only when the “manners of household gadgets were being promoted as eliminating tedious household chores”[18] in the 1950s the teabags gained popularity. Teabags took up 96 per cent of the British tea market in 2007.[19] Levy (2005) makes a tolerable assumption that the word ‘tea’ would remind one from an industrialized nation of a teabag. In fact, some of the interviewees[20] remarked that using teabag was the only method they had used to drink tea. Teabag is widely used by the timeless contemporary men throughout the world, “with convenience as its selling point (Altman 1999)”. In spite of the growing interest in whole leaf tea in contrast to crushed leaves in ordinary teabags by the taste-sensitive consumers, spending time on the traditional tea brewing preparation is found infeasible. Hence the demand for new “teabag that can deliver a brewed whole leaf tea in not much more time it takes to crack open a can of soda pop (Levy 2005)” is increasing. In addition to having the advantages of fast infusion with no interface with the quality of tea, the current trend is for a teabag as material is to meet the requirements of being environmentally friendly and to display aesthetics. Teabag is now transforming into an object more than that of convenience.

Introduction of teabag diversified the traditional tea making and drinking. “Rather than the one colour, one taste, one size brewed tea, tea drinking suddenly became riddled with choice, and consequently individual decisions could be made (Ger and Kravets 2009)”. With a range of types given, the individualized product allows individual decision-making, which was not the case in the pre-teabag era when tea drinking was a social activity. Correspondingly, such manner produced different sense of time. Through “sets of materials, idea(l)s and ways of doing (Ger and Kravets 2009)”, the conventional tea time of social gathering under someone’s hospitality transformed into “linger-time or dwell-time in cafés”[21] according to personal time. Arising of cafés such as Starbucks, Costa Coffee and Caffe Nero, enabled by teabags and disposable cups morphed the rapid rhythm of the contemporary society. It created the café experience: while encouraging the busy commuters to grab drink-to-go, it allowed customers to “spend ever longer [time] over their [drinks] (Laurier 2008)”. While the coffeehouse has expanded its domain to diverse cultures, implementing the café experience, the imagery of Britain maintained influence over the tea trade and tea drinking experience.19 Many popular tea types in the world have British-referenced names regardless of their origin (e.g., English Breakfast, Scottish Breakfast and Early Grey). Ahmad, the major tea brand found in souvenir shops across London, makes “prominent use of both ‘England’ and ‘London’ on its packaging (Altman 2008)” to convey Britishness. The globalized teabag is now shaping the new tea drinking experience.

It might be universal, but tea has become the material embodying layers of connotations as a British edible. In whichever culture that has evolved around tea, whether Chinese, Turkish or British, tea drinking has been the fundamental element to social life. Tea is a matter closely related to time. The invention of convenient teabag went along with the fast pace of the modern society, supporting temporality of the material. Nevertheless, tea together with café experience has now created a haven of slow flow, morphing the contemporary rhythm. Likewise, the imagery of tea has transformed from delicate china in social activities to individual mugs with teabags, yet the current trend of adding weight to the lifestyle, the Britishness, is picking up on the immense socio-political and cultural impact the British (low) tea once had. The future development of tea as a material in relation to British consumption seems positive as new technology allows not only sustainable way of transportation and plantation, but also to packaging. “The UK is the ground zero of the tea world (Altman 2008)”; however, tea seems to be returning to its universal state of being. While experiences of tea are shaped in the concert of the above-mentioned relational matters, the mind to undertake such experiences should be shaped by understanding the sensations tea offers.

[2] Shown in the tea history timeline at http://www.2basnob.com/tea-history-timeline.html
[3] The website of the UK Tea Council (http://www.tea.co.uk) indicates the number of cups of tea consumed in UK daily.
[4] The climates suitable for Camellia sinensis are analyzed in the research of Duke (1983) http://www.palaisdesthes.com/en/tea/tea-producing-countries.htm
[5] The list of tea companies can be found at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_tea_companies
[6] The origin of PG Tips regular tea is indicated at: http://www.pgtips.co.uk/timeline/
[7] The CO2 emission calculator is found at: http://www.nef.org.uk/greencompany/co2calculator.htm
[8] An article of Wales News in 2009 reporting the setting up of tea plantation in Pembrokeshire is found at: http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/2009/10/03/duo-plant-tea-in-wales-91466-24840816/
[9] Details of Madura tea can be found at: http://www.maduratea.com.au/
[10] View the video of Disney’s Epcot future farm at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KRyP3kb9qvM&feature=related
[11] Details of FARM:shop can be found at: http://farmlondon.weebly.com/
[13] History of English Breakfast Tea can be found at: http://www.helium.com/items/1310454-the-history-of-english-breakfast-tea
[14] History of high tea and low tea can be found at: http://www.amazing-green-tea.com/english-tea-time.html
[15] Many fine tea related items can be found at: http://www.fortnumandmason.com/cookshop,1210.aspx
[16] The history of teabag is to be found at: http://www.tea.co.uk/the-history-of-the-tea-bag
[17] In the article “The U.K and teabags” Davies (1998) reports Tetley’s attempt to introduce teabag in the UK in 1949.
[18] It is quoted from the website of the UK tea council <http://www.tea.co.uk/the-history-of-the-tea-bag>
[19] Such figure is mentioned at the website of the UK tea council <http://www.tea.co.uk/the-history-of-the-tea-bag>
[20] Interviewees. (2010). Tea drinkers. [Interview]. Campus of Goldsmiths, University of London with H Kim, J Y Lee and Q. Zhang. 14 March 2011.
[21] Quoted by Laurier (2008) from Allegra-Strategies (2004)’s Project Café 5.


Altman, R., 1999. Teabags now in the limelight. Tea & Coffee Trade Journal, [online] Available at: [Accessed 12 March 2011]

Altmand, R., 2008. The future of British tea packaging: tea consumption is a staple of British culture. Even with the introduction of "exotic" teas to the consumer, Randy Altman proves that UK remains the leading authority when it comes to tea marketing, packing and selling. Tea & Coffee Trade Journal, [online] Available at: [Accessed 20 March 2011]

Davies, A., 1998. The U.K. and teabags - the genesis. Tea & Coffee Trade Journal [online] Available at: [Accessed 12 March 2011]

Ger, G. and Kravets, O., 2009. Special and Ordinary Times: Tea in Motion. In: Shove, E., Tretmann, F. and Wilk, R., ed. Time, Consumption and Everyday Life. Oxford: Berg. Ch. 12.

Laurier, E., 2008. How breakfast happens in the café. Time Society, 17 (1), 119-134.

Levy, A.C., 2005. The New Shape of Teabags. Tea & Coffee Trade Journal [online] Available at: [Accessed 13 March 2011]

Turner, R., 2009. Duo plant tea in Wales. Wales News, [online] 3 October. Available at [Accessed 23 March 2011]