Almost 30 years ago, the New York Times nodded to a curious trend that many older English folks were growing concerned about. One of the most quintessentially British pastimes was losing its luster, largely because it was falling out of favor with younger people who hadn't the time — or really the interest — to prolong the tradition. "We're a graying bunch, we tea drinkers, I'm afraid,'' Derek Cooper, a well-known British food writer in his 60s, told the newspaper.
Cooper was a tea lover, but his kids preferred coffee. And that dynamic was growing all too common. Between the mid-1970s and the 1980s, tea consumption fell by 20 percent in the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, the country's taste for coffee was blossoming, so much so, in fact, that in 1986 coffee sales in the U.K. outpaced tea sales for the first time in history.
The generational sipping gap was both real and really pronounced. But fast-forward to today and you see that the trend was also only just beginning.
The collection of line charts below, which were made by KILN, a British data visualization and digital journalism institute, and use data from the U.K. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, allow you to peek at how the British diet has changed over the decades. And few things have changed as much as the British appetite for tea.
Tea consumption per person has fallen consistently since the early 1970s, plummeting from almost 68 grams per week in 1974 to only 25 grams per week in 2014, as shown in the chart at the bottom right. The plunge of more than 63 percent is one of the biggest among all beverages in the country. Only malt drinks and coffee essences (whatever those are) have had greater drops.
Coffee's trajectory, however, has been just the opposite. Its consumption has tripled since the early 1970s. (Have a look at the line chart in the upper right corner.)
The years have transformed what originally seemed like a decade-long quirk into a tectonic cultural shift that now spans nearly half a century. And there is no end to the collective tea abandonment in sight.
Just last year, volume sales of standard black tea bags fell by 2 percent in the United Kingdom, according to data from market research firm Euromonitor. Sales of coffee pods — the fastest-growing sector of the coffee market — rose by 33 percent. In each of the coming five years, Euromonitor expects overall coffee sales to grow and overall tea sales to fall.
"Our forecast is based on a range of sources, including interviews with trade groups and other industry players, and none of them expect the standard black tea that is most commonly consumed to recover," said Fabian Staudenmeyer, who is an industry analyst with Euromonitor. "If you look five years out, it really doesn't look good."
There are many reasons for the decline of one of the most celebrated tea drinking cultures in the world, but both one of the simplest and most significant might be this: tea, or really the kind of tea that has traditionally been drunk in the United Kingdom, is seen as being, well, kind of lame.
"It has a serious image problem here," said London-based Emma Clifford, who is the senior food and drink analyst at Mintel, an industry research group. "People, especially young people, are not excited about it at all. It's just too mundane."
Part of that, Clifford said, is intrinsic to black tea. A report released earlier this year by Mintel found that consumers associate standard tea with "tradition" more than anything else. And there is little younger generations care for less than parading around as their elders do. In many ways, the Times piece from nearly 30 years ago captures this:
Tea's fading popularity is attributed to faster-paced living, a generation gap and a stodgy image. Many people these days do not want to take the time to brew tea, and even fewer will interrupt their busy days for the leisurely, civilized ritual of afternoon tea, a 19th-century invention of Anna, seventh Duchess of Bedford, who decided that tea and cakes were the best antidote to a late afternoon ''sinking feeling.''
... To many young Britons, tea drinking apparently has a dated image, vaguely reminiscent of the ''old England'' stereotype that young people find irritating. ''Tea has an old-fashioned, dowdy image,'' conceded Illtyd Lewis, executive director of the United Kingdom Tea Council, a trade group that seeks to spur tea sales. ''It is unfortunately viewed as a down-market drink.''
Many of these observations, which help explain why the generational gap is so pronounced, are just as keen now as they were then.
But part of black tea's wounded reputation today is also relative. The British, unlike their European counterparts in countries like France and Italy, don't have a history of coffee snobbism. Quite the contrary, in fact. The United Kingdom is among the surprisingly large number of countries around the world where people (actually) drink instant coffee more often than any other kind of coffee, a sign, above all, of coffee amateurism. And that has left a lot of room not only for innovation in the coffee space, but also excitement for that innovation.
The United Kingdom "is a special case where they have long preferred instant coffee, the cheap powder coffee that really has an unsophisticated taste," said Staudenmeyer. "But that has changed dramatically."
New technologies, like coffee pods, have proved extremely popular in the United Kingdom, likely because they are such a marked step up from the instant coffee the country has long endured. As have new caffeine-centric experiences, like coffee shops, which are quickly becoming a staple of modern British society. Today there are more than 20,000 shops in the country, a number which jumped 12 percent just last year.
Even within the tea world, a number of other less popular teas—many of them green and herbal—have been branded as exotic, tied to health benefits, and, as result, associated with coolness in a way their run-of-the-mill counterpart is not.
"When you compare standard black tea to all these other drinks, like fruit infusions and green tea and coffee of course, where you have all these innovations, standard black tea is not keeping up with the level of innovations," said Staudenmeyer. "These drinks are interesting and new and exciting and fresh. Standard black tea is not."
The problem, Staudenmeyer points out, is that standard black tea still accounts for the vast majority of tea consumption in the United Kingdom, making the bore that is standard black tea all the more important for the overall tea market. As standard black tea goes, so does tea broadly, and volumes sales of standard black tea have fallen by 8 percent since 2010 alone, bringing the broader tea market down with it.
Questions of coolness aside, there is a certain level of practicality that has propelled both the withering appeal of traditional tea and soaring popularity of coffee culture in the United Kingdom.
"You can't really talk about these trends without talking about caffeine," said Clifford, the analyst with Mintel. "The fact that coffee has so much more caffeine, that it has so much more of on an energy-boosting functionality, has made it much more important to young people."
Clifford points to the success of energy drinks in the country, sales of which grew by more than 60 percent between 2008 and 2014, according to a 2015 report by the British Soft Drinks Association, as evidence.
She also says that there's another, often overlooked factor. The growing villainization of sugar in the Western world, which has been most pronounced over the past 20 or so years, has led to a considerable scaling back in the consumption of many treats traditionally eaten alongside tea.
To many others, sweets might be an ideal accompaniment to coffee, but not to the British, says Clifford. "There is much stronger link between biscuits and cake consumption and tea consumption," she said. "They're seen as the perfect pairing, but now that the country is cutting back on these items, the occasion to drink tea is becoming less frequent."
Before the British were abandoning their favorite pastime, they were going to battle for its preservation. In the 1970s, right around the time that consumption of standard black tea was hovering around record levels, a workplace dispute became a question of great national interest. Tea breaks had been a part of the British workday since at least the late 1700s, when workers brewed sugar-infused pots to keep their energy up. But suddenly they were under attack. Or rather, the leisure with which they were enjoyed was.
An effort, led by then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, aimed to shorten the daily breaks, which they argued were weighing British productivity down. It was, in some senses, a revolt against the old British system by the new order. But tea breaks were held in high regard, especially among those who enjoyed them: workers. Tea time was considered a perk, just as paid holidays, medical care, and reasonable wages were. And so the effort to scale it back met fierce opposition, particularly from trade unions, which led to a series of "tea break strikes."
The battle to preserve tea breaks was, of course, lost — they are no longer the staple they once were. And that defeat seems to have reverberated for decades, making its way from the workplace to just about every other place in British society.
Some might mourn the slow but steady fall of standard black tea. But in retrospect, the national obsession might have benefited from a bit of scaling back, at least according to outsiders. As NPR noted earlier this year, around the same time that British workers were vehemently defending their right to take long tea breaks, American expats living and working in the country were "baffled by the rigor with which teatime was observed." It just seemed pretty inefficient, as an incredible anecdote shared in the piece shows:
In the summer of 1976, Lucas was shooting the first Star Wars in England's EMI-Elstree Studios, chosen for its enormous empty studio space. He had a hellish time, writes J.W. Rinzler in The Making Of Star Wars. The English crew had little respect either for Lucas or his peculiar film involving light sabers that kept breaking. And while Lucas admired the crew's technical skills, he was bewildered by their work habits. Work began at 8:30 a.m., stopped for an hourlong lunch and two tea breaks at 11 a.m. and 4 p.m., and ended at 5:30 p.m. sharp, after which the crew promptly went to the pub. When it was break time, filming would stop dead, even if things happened to be mid-scene.
Today, there's a bit of irony in the sort of culture clash Lucas experienced while filming in England 30 years ago. The decades have turned a growing number of British against their national pastime, and onto coffee, which has long been a staple of the U.S. workday. Meanwhile, just across the Atlantic, Americans are fawning over tea. Sales of tea quintupled between 1999 and 2013, according to data from Euromonitor. And they continue to grow. Just last year, the market for black tea grew by 5 percent in the United States.
Everything is relative. Even the coolness of standard black tea.